Quarterbacks Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Matt Ryan of the Falcons go head… (Getty Images and EPA )
The Dallas Cowboys play at Atlanta on Sunday in a game featuring a question-mark quarterback. Yes, he's shown flashes of excellence, but is he truly the player who can lift his franchise to greatness? Does success early in the season mean anything if he hasn't gotten the job done in the biggest games?
The game's other quarterback is Tony Romo.
OK, so it's stretching the truth to imply that Atlanta's Matt Ryan is under scrutiny. He and the undefeated Falcons are off to a terrific start — unlike the 3-4 Cowboys — and Ryan has the NFL's third-best passer rating at 103.0.
But the fact remains that Ryan has yet to win in the postseason, losing first-round games to Arizona in the 2008 season, Green Bay in 2010, and the New York Giants last season. There's no great shame in that, of course, and the Falcons had never had consecutive winning seasons before drafting Ryan in 2008. Since, they've had four winning seasons in a row.
Ryan knows as well as anyone that the best quarterbacks are judged by how they play in the postseason, and in most cases by Super Bowl rings, so he surely isn't pausing to admire his stat line of 17 touchdowns and six interceptions.
What he doesn't want to be is Romo, version 2.0, a player who is both tremendously talented and predictably erratic. The Cowboys are standing firm behind Romo, seemingly unanimously convinced he's the quarterback who can get them where they want to go.
A reporter asked Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett whether he ever entertained the idea of playing backup Kyle Orton against the Giants last Sunday. It would have been a reasonable option early in the second quarter, after Romo had his third of four interceptions.
Garrett laughed off the question. At the moment, neither the coach nor Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has given any indication that Romo's job is in peril. It wouldn't be a shock, though, if that's the water-cooler talk if the Cowboys lose what has almost become a must-win game.
Ryan's job is rock-solid secure, and his play has justified that. Still, he has something to prove after the regular season. And in that way, he and Romo are too close for comfort.
Not so bad
In Friday's Times, I pointed out some key players on winning teams have yet to hit their stride. The opposite is true too. Some of the league's worst teams have players off to great starts.
Of the five teams with two or fewer wins — New Orleans, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Carolina and Kansas City — each boasts players deserving of a pay bump (or at least a fist bump.)
Saints punter Thomas Morestead leads the NFC with an average of 51.3 yards, and is tied for fourth in the league with seven punts downed inside the 10.
Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe has been a brick wall. Minnesota's Jared Allen didn't get a sack, hurry or quarterback hit against him, and neither did any Chicago player he faced. With Monroe in his face, Green Bay's Clay Matthews got just one hit.
"To have perfect games in pass protection is unusual," said Neil Hornsby, founder of the website Pro Football Focus, which compiles and analyzes every conceivable NFL statistic. "To have them against the best is very rare."
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson has 51/2 sacks, including two in last Sunday's near-upset of the Bears.
Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston has emerged as one of the game's best young pass rushers. He has six sacks, three passes knocked down, an interception and a safety.
NFL Network's Brad Nessler gave a great statistic during the Kansas City-San Diego game:
It's been 25 years since the Chiefs have won a game with a quarterback they drafted.
That quarterback was Todd Blackledge, a first-round pick in 1983.
Some food for thought from R.J. Bell of Pregame.com:
•Pittsburgh has had a fourth-quarter lead in every game this season.
•The last nine times they have faced the New York Jets, the Miami Dolphins have lost the game that followed.
•South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said on the "Dan Patrick Show" this week that Alabama, the top team in college football, could beat some of the weaker teams in the NFL.
According to Bell, if Alabama played Jacksonville — deemed the league's weakest team by a consensus of Las Vegas oddsmakers — on a neutral field, the Jaguars would be favored by 24.