Cleveland Browns (2-1) at Dallas Cowboys (1-2)
Coming into the year, I liked the Cowboys’ chances of being a contender, after tough luck in close games in 2019 (0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer after going 8-2 in those type of games with roughly the same team in 2018) led to the Cowboys missing the playoffs at 8-8, despite finishing 6th in the league in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%.
The Cowboys are just 1-2, but they’ve played better than that suggests, with their two losses coming on the road in close games against tough opponents in the Seahawks and Rams. Their one win was an improbable comeback over the Falcons, in which they needed to recover an onside kick to win, but there were some fluky things that led to the Cowboys needing to come back in the first place, like the Cowboys losing a trio of fumbles early. The Cowboys won the first down rate battle in that game by 10.80% and overall rank 7th in the league on the season at +4.38%, very much in line with how they played last season. That’s a good sign for their chances going forward.
What’s even more impressive is that the Cowboys have done this while not being close to full strength, missing their dominant offensive tackle duo of Tyron Smith and La’El Collins, pass catching tight end Blake Jarwin, every down linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and his potential replacement Sean Lee, and starting cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown. They’re not the only team in the league to have significant injuries right now, but they’ve played well in spite of them, primarily due to quarterback Dak Prescott seemingly being on his way to his best season yet. If they can get healthy soon, they could easily be a dangerous team.
The Cowboys do get one key player back from injury this week in left tackle Tyron Smith, who is set to return from a 2-game absence. Unfortunately, the Cowboys have a tough matchup for Smith’s first game back, as even with Smith in the lineup, I have the Browns slightly higher in my roster rankings. The Browns’ season has started with a blowout loss to a dominant Ravens team and easy wins against the Bengals and Redskins (The Bengals needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down just to cut the lead to 5 points at the last second). They haven’t been overly impressive, but they’re getting healthier and have been particularly impressive on the offensive line, where all five starters have played at a high level, a great sign, given that their offensive line was the primary reason for their disappointing 2019 season.
The Browns enter this game 10th in my roster rankings, a couple spots ahead of the Cowboys, who don’t have full homefield advantage either, so this 4.5-point line is too high. I wouldn’t go crazy betting on the Browns because I still like the Cowboys’ chances long-term if they can get healthier, but this should be a close game, with the most likely results being either team winning by exactly a field goal, two outcomes that would both result in a Browns cover.
Dallas Cowboys 30 Cleveland Browns 27
Pick against the spread: Cleveland +4.5