Of all the hot starts to this NFL season, the hottest—and most unexpected—is that of the Dallas Cowboys. At 4-1, they’re tied with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers for the best record in the league. They’ve beaten the Titans and Saints convincingly; they’ve proven an ability to come back under pressure against the Rams; they’ve gutted out a tough win against the Texans. The offensive line and running back Demarco Murray have been as dominant as a football team is likely to be in 2014, which makes the 98.5 passer rating and near-2:1 touchdown/interception ratio Tony Romo is displaying almost superfluous to the team’s success. The great weakness of the team going into the season was the defense, which on paper projected to be the league’s worst: Instead, they’re a middle of the pack unit that unearthed a gem in former Raiders draft bust Rolando McClain, who does a strong job of defending the pass (which tends to be enough to succeed in today’s NFL). The best possible scenario for the Cowboys going into the season was that the defense would be average and the offense would be exceptional—and that is exactly what’s happened on the way to the team’s four-game winning streak.

So why are they a 9-point underdog going into their matchup with a Seahawks team that’s looked strong, but vulnerable, in the four games they’ve played so far this year? 

The Seahawks are good, for sure, but they’re not unstoppable—even at home, where they boast the sort of homefield advantage that Tony Romo could only dream of—and while it certainly wouldn’t shock anybody if Seattle won the game, the fact that Dallas will march into CenturyLink Field a 9-point underdog ought to be a bit surprising. Why can’t the Cowboys get any respect? 

It’s true that the team is a bit of a circus right now, but that’s par for the course in the 2014 NFL season: There are sexual assault allegations against both safety C.J. Spillman and owner Jerry Jones; Jones publicly dissed former first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne, prompting the cornerback to briefly leave the team, before returning and promptly suffering a torn ACL; the fact that there seemed to be more Texans fans than Cowboys fans in the stadium in Dallas last weekend made national headlines; and all of this comes after an offseason in which the team’s backup quarterback manuevered his way out of town (with his $5 million signing bonus intact) because he couldn’t stand Tony Romo. The days when people wondered if Michael Sam would be a distraction seem hilariously far away. 

But the off-field concerns probably have little to do with the fact that no one seems to believe in the Cowboys. This year, just about everybody seems to have those. Yet five weeks in to the season, the Cowboys are already halfway to the number of wins they’ve had in each of the last three years. 

Of course, the first few weeks of the NFL season, no one really knows which teams are actually good. Teams that were strong the year before are presumed to be good until proven otherwise. Trendy preseason picks get cast as winners, and it takes a while to shed those labels. And the same is true of teams that are tarred as losers, which the Cowboys most assuredly were before the season started. 

Beating Seattle Sunday would certainly announce to the league that the Cowboys are for real, but if they even manage to keep the game close—that is to say, if they can cover the 9-point spread—they’ll make a statement that says that they deserve to be taken seriously. 

(image via flickr)