Despite the obstacles they faced at the start of the season, the Dallas Cowboys have established themselves as the NFC’s best team heading into Week 9. They’ll visit the Cleveland Browns in what appears to be the biggest mismatch on the schedule.
While Dallas couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2016 NFL season, things couldn’t be any worse for Cleveland. The Browns have lost their first eight games, and they appear to be a realistic candidate to have the second-ever 0-16 season.
Cleveland is coming off a 31-28 loss to the New York Jets, who entered the contest with a 2-5 record. No matter the opponent, the Browns haven’t come particularly close to winning. Four of their losses have come by one score, but Cleveland has been blown out when facing legitimate playoff contenders. When taking on the first-place Cowboys on Sunday, it could be another long afternoon for the league’s worst team.
The Browns have taken on three teams with winning records. The New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins have all beat Cleveland by double-digits. The Cincinnati Bengals are probably the fourth-best team that the Browns faced, and Cleveland lost that contest by 14 points.
With the conference’s most balanced team, the Cowboys enter Sunday’s game at 6-1. The Cowboys are ahead of the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks for the No. 1 seed in the conference and they have a two-game lead in the NFC East.
The Cowboys have feasted on the easiest part of their schedule. They are 3-0 against teams with losing records, winning each contest by at least a touchdown. The Cowboys are 7.5-point road favorites at Las Vegas and online sportsbooks, and the over/under is 48.5 points.
Many of Cleveland’s struggles can be attributed to the quarterback. Six different players have thrown passes for the Browns because they suffered so many injuries at the position. Josh McCown, however, is healthy and ready to start on Sunday, and he’s probably the best signal caller on the team’s roster. The Browns have lost by a combined eight points in McCown’s two starts.
McCown is an improvement upon the likes of Kevin Hogan and Charlie Whitehurst, and perhaps even Cody Kessler. Dating back to last season, the Browns have scored at least 20 points in his last four starts. But he’ll have a difficult time keeping pace with Dak Prescott and Dallas’ offense.
The Cowboys haven’t allowed more than 23 points in any game this season, and the Browns will likely need to score at least three touchdowns in order to have a chance at pulling off the upset. Cleveland has given up more yards than any other team, and they’ve surrendered at least 25 points in each contest. Seven of Cleveland’s eight opponents have scored at least 28 points, and five of the last six teams to face the Browns have reached the 30-point mark.
He’s not halfway through his rookie season, but Prescott has already proven to be a top-10 NFL quarterback. The 23-year-old has been so good that Tony Romo might find himself out of a starting job when he becomes healthy enough to play in a few weeks.
Prescott was in the midst of having his worst game last week, but he engineered a fourth-quarter comeback against the Philadelphia Eagles, leading the Cowboys to a victory in overtime. His 99.6 passer rating ranks sixth in the NFL, and he has the league’s leading rusher in the backfield.
Ezekiel Elliott failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time since Week 2, but the running back still managed to total 148 yards from scrimmage. Cleveland has given up an average of 193 rushing yards over the last three weeks, and Elliott could be in for one of his biggest days of the year.
The Browns will likely stumble upon a victory or two before the season is over, but probably to happen on Sunday against a top Super Bowl contender.
Prediction: Dallas over Cleveland, 31-20