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Don't count out Eagles, Cowboys or Bengals for the 2020 NFL season

Listen, I don’t try to live my life as a contrarian. That’s not true — I kind of do. I’ve spent a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I’ve heard a lot of the sports world’s most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it’s best to take a look at the other side.

In this space, I articulate positions that are the opposite of what most people think — unpopular opinions, if you will — and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Below, I provide hope to fans of three slow-starting franchises in 2020.

The Philadelphia Eagles are back, baby!

All right, all right. I’ll try not to get ahead of myself here. This is the same Eagles team that allowed the Washington FT to score 27 unanswered points after taking a 17-point lead in Week 1. It’s the same squad that exchanged multiple punts with the Bengals during a 10-minute overtime that ended in a tie in Week 3. And, yes, it’s the same team whose receiving corps consists of players with what sound like the computer-generated names you get in the 20th year of your dynasty on Madden. (Don’t try to front like you’ve watched Travis Fulgham for years, going back to when he was at Marshall. Because I can prove that you’re lying — he played at Old Dominion.)

But you shouldn’t dismiss Sunday night’s win over a depleted 49ers team just because the Eagles’ roster is like that copy of Monopoly you have in the closet that is missing all of the original pieces, and that you play using Oreos instead of a thimble or race car to move around the board.

Philly is not without its faults. But if the playoffs started today (and they don’t), the Eagles would not only be in the playoffs, but they would host one of the first-round games. Not too shabby for a team that was outscored 49-13 in the second half during the first three weeks of the season.

I don’t want this to sound like some reactionary piece — I have long had high hopes for the Eagles, the top-seeded team in my world (in)famous preseason predictions, with Carson Wentz as my candidate for MVP.

It took guts to remind you all of that, considering how Wentz’s season has gone so far. He has a passer rating of 66.9. He’s making dumb mistakes. He threw an interception in his fourth consecutive game, his longest streak since he was picked in six straight games during his rookie season. Wentz had seven picks in each of the past three seasons; he has seven right now in 2020.

The Eagles are clearly not ready to take on the Kansas City Chiefs for the title right now. But as I sat there watching them scrap against the defending NFC champs on Sunday, I saw little glimpses of brighter days ahead, little flickers of hope. For all his faults, Wentz still makes some stunningly beautiful plays. The dime he dropped to Fulgham carried a catch probability of around 25 percent. He scored on an 11-yard touchdown run, giving him a rushing TD in three straight games, the longest current streak in the NFL and the longest for an Eagles quarterback since Mike Vick in 2010. 

The defense also showed up against San Francisco, logging five sacks, two picks and a fumble recovery, making Philadelphia one of three teams to register five-plus sacks and three-plus takeaways in a game this season. And they made Kyle Shanahan, one of the bright young coaches in the league, rage-quit quarterback Nick Mullens like Shanahan was some Gen Z kid throwing his PS5 controller after a glitchy Madden session.

I am not anointing the Eagles just yet — there is still a lot to clean up. But trust me, a Bears fan: You don’t want to let the Eagles into the tournament. Because when they get in, weird things can happen.

Here are a couple of other teams I won’t quit on just yet:

The Dallas Cowboys are a lot like the menu at The Cheesecake Factory: a bunch of things that are great on their own individually, but just a huge mess when you try to put it all together. I worried that one of the problems the Cowboys would have this season was struggling to establish an identity, but they have one. It’s just built around falling behind early, then trying like hell to get out of a hole. In fact, Dallas easily be 0-4 right now if not for the Atlanta Falcons’ complete lack of second-half acumen in Week 2. (Atlanta is destined to blow leads just as I’m destined to spill anytime I’m wearing a white shirt while eating salsa — it’s just inevitable.)

But the Cowboys are so good offensively that it’s really hard to ignore them. Dak Prescott is the first player in NFL history with 450-plus passing yards in three consecutive games, having logged 502 in Sunday’s loss to the Browns. Dak also set an NFL record for most passing yards in a three-game span in history (1,424), nearly 100-yards more than the previous record-holder, Tom Brady (1,327 in 2011). He also holds the record for most passing yards in a four-game span (1,690) and the first four games of a season.

Dak is not the problem.

What is? Well, Dallas has allowed 126 points over the last three games, the most in a three-game span in club history. The Cowboys have also turned the ball over. Like, a lot. They lost two fumbles and had an interception on Sunday, helping Cleveland reach 49 points, the most surrendered by a Cowboys team since Week 10 of 2013.

Here’s my thing, though: The Cowboys don’t have to turn into a great defensive team, because their offense can score at will. If the offense can limit turnovers (which should be easy) and the defense can maybe not allow 300 rushing yards per game, this could be a good squad. Formidable, even. I tell you, I would much rather be the team that is scoring too much and not getting enough stops than the team that loses because it can’t even reach the 20-point threshold. Because while the Cowboys could, like I said, easily be 0-4, they are also just a stop or two away from being 3-1 this season — maybe even undefeated.

I suppose it also warrants mentioning that one win is all it takes to lead the NFC East right now (with the Eagles being percentage points ahead of the Cowboys and Washington). I’m not sure that mark is going to hold, but it should show you the degree of difficulty Dallas is facing in the division.

All right, Rank. They beat Jacksonville — let’s calm down. Anyone who feels that way is absolutely right to. The Jaguars aren’t quite the Brandon Cutler of the NFL. But then, they aren’t Jon Moxley, either, am I right? (Sorry, I’m predisposed to make AEW analogies every time I talk about my friends down in Duval County.)  

The Bengals might be one of the most fun teams in the league right now. And while they aren’t going to compete with the Steelers and Ravens, they will be competitive.

Joe Burrow is the first rookie with 300-plus passing yards in three straight games since 1950, and he’s the first Bengals quarterback to accomplish that feat since Andy Dalton did it in 2015. But the thing that really stood out about Cincinnati’s win on Sunday was the use of Joe Mixon as a receiver out of the backfield. I know this because every fantasy enthusiast on my Twitter timeline couldn’t shut up about it. Mixon ended up with the first three-touchdown game of his career, and the first three-touchdown game for a Bengals running back since Jeremy Hill five years ago.

I don’t see the Bengals making the playoffs this year. The AFC is too good. The Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Bills and Patriots are better. They’d have to beat out the Raiders and Titans to also figure in the mix. But do I see them as that team that gets on a roll this season, maybe even pulling off an upset or two down the stretch — and thus becoming one of those teams that everybody picks to makes the playoffs next year

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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