The Dallas Cowboys have won three straight games, and with a 3–1 record, the team is one victory from its best start since the 2016 NFL season. Remember that year? In dealing with the Cowboys’ suddenly soaring expectations, that’s a useful barometer.

Yes, friends, you’re reading one of those articles that very nearly declares the return of America’s Team. After just four games, we’re hopping on the bandwagon, because this generation of football fans—the ones who know the Cowboys mostly for mediocrity and false hope—has some catching up to do.

Back to 2016. The Cowboys were 13–3 that year and reeled off eleven straight wins thanks to a pair of dazzling rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Nothing has been the same for the team since. Prescott and Elliott restored hope. They were the key to the Cowboys’ success that year, and they’re the key to whatever results this season will deliver.

Thus the optimism. Neither star has ever looked better on the field than they have early this season. Prescott, rebounding from a gruesome ankle injury suffered five games into last year’s campaign, is completing 75 percent of his pass attempts, with ten touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Those are MVP-level numbers.

In Sunday’s 36–28 win over the Carolina Panthers, Prescott threw three scoring passes during a furious nine-minute stretch of the third quarter that swung the game in Dallas’s favor. Throughout the game, though, Prescott only let fly 22 passes—his fewest in a complete game since 2017 and an indicator of the balance and variety in the Cowboys offense. “He just always seems to get better every time he comes out there,” owner Jerry Jones said.

One factor that has boosted Prescott’s performance has been a healthy offensive line, compared to last season’s pass protection, which was gutted by injuries. Against the Panthers, who entered Sunday’s game with the NFL’s top-ranked defense and one of the league’s most aggressive pass rushes, Prescott wasn’t sacked once. That gave the Cowboys quarterback time to read and pick apart the Carolina defense. His 35-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the third quarter came against a full blitz and gave Dallas the lead for good. All told, the Cowboys scored five touchdowns against a Carolina defense that had allowed four total touchdowns over its first three games.

The Cowboys had more rushing yards than passing yards in Sunday’s game—something you rarely see in today’s NFL. That success came in part because Carolina played a soft-zone defense that dared Dallas to run the ball. Well, the Cowboys obliged, and Elliott had one of the best games of his six-season career: 143 yards on just twenty carries. It was Elliott’s first twenty-carry game—and his first 100-yard game—of the season. His 47-yard run in the third quarter was his longest since 2016, and after a 2020 campaign in which the heavy workload of his first four seasons appeared to begin taking a physical toll on him, Elliott looks rejuvenated.

Between Elliott, Prescott, a sturdy offensive line, and an array of talented receivers, there’s no one way to defend Dallas. “Obviously, we think we can beat you with the run,” Prescott said. “We can beat you with the pass, whatever you’re going to give us. The openings, we’re going to take them.” And on the other side of the ball, the Cowboys got big games from rookie pass rusher Micah Parsons and second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. 

What’s not to like? For one thing, the rest of Dallas’s schedule. The team still has to play the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints on the road. The Cowboys also have looming home games against the Arizona Cardinals (the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team) and the Las Vegas Raiders (until Monday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, the league’s only other undefeated team). While the Cowboys appear head and shoulders above the rest of the NFC East division, the conference is crowded at the top. The Cardinals, L.A. Rams, Green Bay Packers, and defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all good enough to make Super Bowl runs.

To even name the Cowboys alongside these squads after Dallas went 6–10 last year means Prescott and company have taken an enormous step in the right direction. For this, hats off to Jones and his front office for hiring new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and for shoring up a defense that allowed a franchise-record 473 points over the course of last season.

Parsons, the twelfth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has been everything the Cowboys could have hoped for. He has two and a half sacks from the last three games, in which he’s operated as a pass-rushing specialist. In the win over Carolina, the Cowboys sacked the Panthers quarterback five times.

Cornerback Diggs leads the NFL with five interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown against Philadelphia. He joined linebacker Chuck Howley as the only Dallas player with five interceptions through four games—a feat Howley pulled off in 1968.

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Diggs has been coming up with these game-breaking defensive plays while being assigned to cover opposing teams’ best receivers week after week. “That’s a guy I’ve been going against since the spring,” Prescott said. “I know the standard he holds himself to and he’s going to continue to get better.” Like Parsons, Diggs plays with an energy that elevates the rest of the defense around him. As a team, Dallas has forced ten turnovers over its first four games, second only to Buffalo’s eleven.

This season will ultimately be decided by a bit of luck—that is, if the Cowboys can keep their core players, especially Prescott, healthy, and if they can continue managing Elliott’s workload. The NFL is a feast-or-famine business in which an injury to the wrong player can torpedo the season in an instant, but for now the Cowboys are riding a nice wave.

But don’t put the champagne on ice just yet. The 2016 team serves as a reminder of how difficult it can be to achieve the ultimate success in a league whose top eight or nine teams can all beat one another on any given day. Back then, the Cowboys were so close to the NFC Championship Game that they could see it and feel it and taste it. Unfortunately, those dreams ended in a divisional playoff game, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers had one of his finest hours, leading Green Bay down the field in the final 35 seconds and watching teammate Mason Crosby kick a game-winning, 51-yard field goal as time expired. Packers 34, Cowboys 31.

Mike McCarthy was the Packers coach that day. Now, he’s in his second season with the Cowboys, and despite much success in Green Bay, McCarthy is beginning to feel like the weak link in the Cowboys’ chain. His issues with poor clock management and head-scratching game-day decisions have become Topic A on Dallas sports radio. Even Jones went public with some second-guessing about when McCarthy chose to pull the starters on Sunday: “Probably a little early to take some of your key guys out there near the end.”

Ouch. Or as Dallas Morning News columnist Kevin Sherrington put it:  “No other coach in recent memory has piled up as many questionable decisions as McCarthy.” On a more positive note, Sherrington also pointed out the significance of the Cowboys’ Sunday win coming in a shortened practice week, after beating Philadelphia on the previous Monday night. That’s something the team hadn’t done since 2008, and it could reflect a businesslike approach and a level of grit and toughness throughout the roster that hasn’t always been there.

Cowboys fans ought to feel excited. Their team is playing the way championship-level teams are expected to play. Does that make Dallas a bona fide Super Bowl contender? It’s still too early to say. Will the Cowboys’ success hold? Maybe, but the franchise has enjoyed several other nice stretches during the last 26 years—what they haven’t done in that time is hold things together long enough to bring Dallas its sixth Super Bowl title.

The Cowboys have only won four playoff games in that span, and in the divisional round, when they’ve played for the right to reach the conference final, they’re 0–6. This year, with Prescott in his sixth season, the Cowboys have a chance to get over the hump and perhaps do something special.

This early in the season, it’d be understandable for any Cowboys fan to remain pessimistic. The team’s supporters have been disappointed so many times that nobody would blame them for simply refusing to believe that Dallas’s success will last. That’s fine. Watching the season unfold is the fun part, and 2021 is already the most interesting Cowboys season in recent memory.