The Cowboys-Eagles battle for the first includes a pair of surprise units. Which one is real?

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When the Cowboys take the field at AT&T Stadium on Monday, they will be the last NFL team to play a home game in 2021. In a more literal sense, New Orleans played their only home game in Jacksonville, but you know it’s an unusual season when Jerry Jones once cheered Arkansas to victory at Arlington before the Cowboys arrived.

At the end of the evening, either the Cowboys or the Philadelphia Eagles will be crowned champions of the NFC East… for the month of September. That’s not all, but it at least signals that a division team has over 0.500 and is starting out on the right foot.

While some would focus on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ dynamic offense against what has proven to be a suffocating defense for Philadelphia (both units are ranked 4th in their respective total yardage categories), I would move on to the opposite clash. The Cowboys are number one in takeout two weeks into the season. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has a Top 10 passer rating while directing an error-free offense for the Eagles.

Which of these surprise units is real? What is the mirage?

In fact, the Dallas defense was not that great in creating turnovers last year, finishing seventh overall. It was just hard to notice because the team was always down-3 during a long lost season. But that was the only time in the past six years that the Cowboys finished in the top 15. In the Rod Marinelli years, it was a risk-free approach that led to little to take away. Two weeks after 2021, the club have six, which might be the only reason besides linebacker Micah Parsons’ slightly unbelievable play (or is he a defensive end?)

Despite the occasional big play, the Cowboys rank 27 hours in total defense (419.5 yards per game). That’s about 135 more yards per game than the Eagles allowed in the first two weeks. That appears to be a significant difference although perhaps not as big as the scoring category where Philadelphia is second with 11.5 points given to the Cowboys’ 15th overall (24 points per game).

On the other hand, it’s two weeks away and Dallas faced off against the best quarterback ever and the game’s best sophomore quarterback. The Eagles lined up against Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garappolo. Yes, timing matters.

New coordinator Dan Quinn will have to keep finding miracles in the dirt. Linebacker Keanu Neal has joined the missing in action, and it’s easier to count who’s still in the top seven than who isn’t. It might be fair that the Eagles’ powerful left tackle Jordan Mailata is out for this game as the Cowboys miss DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Bradley Anae at the defensive end.

As for Hurts, it’s too early to say what he might become, but he’s already transformed his game since his rookie season. Thrown into the fire with a poor team and an injured offensive line last December, Hurts ran for his life with 52 percent of his passes. As well as showing flashes of his skills in Alabama-Oklahoma, he was the standard over-his-head rookie on a bad team.

Now he has a better line even without Mailata. He has a Heisman winner on wide receiver. He has two great targets on the tight end. And he has a Top 10 passer rating, in part the result of not throwing any interceptions. The Eagles neither returned the ball nor took the ball in the first two weeks. Hurts upped his completion percentage to 67 – a drastic jump similar to what another running quarterback Lamar Jackson made in his second season while winning the MVP award.

Philadelphia ranks 15th in all-out offense, but the 21st standings in points scored also tell the story. Hurts is not yet fit to turn big games into points. The standout example of this is that the Eagles played the longest game in the league in the first two weeks – a 92-yard pass from Hurts to Quez Watkins against San Francisco.

He set up a field goal.

Either way, this is new territory for the Quinn Defense. They have faced Tom Brady and Justin Herbert for the past two weeks. Forget the top 10 passer scores, Hurts finished 11th in the NFL rushing through the first two games. His 144 yards and 8.5 average is a weapon Dallas didn’t have to consider in Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.

That, with Neal missing the game, can force Parsons back to his linebacker spot and give him less time to rush the passer from what is normally Lawrence’s left end position, where the rookie has been incredibly effective the last week.

Either way, Parsons is no longer a surprise. But Dallas ‘defense overall and Hurts’ regular play certainly are. We’ll see which one still shocks people late Monday night.

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