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The Week in Overreactions: The Cowboys are frauds

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com

The Cowboys might be 2-2 and coming off a loss, but they still play in the NFC East. (USATSI)

New storylines emerge every week. Some are reasonable, most are not. "The Week in Overreactions" focuses on the latter. Those items that offer a cursory "How do you do?" as they blow past reality straight for THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER! We're here to keep everything in perspective. Questions, comments, casserole ideas? Hit us up on Twitter at @ryanwilson_07.

'Yep, we knew it, the Cowboys are frauds'

Cowboys fans no doubt knew what was coming long before the final whistle. That familiar feeling of dread, the inevitability of another loss that could've been avoided. This time it was the upstart Chargers, supposedly one of the NFL's worst teams coming out of the preseason. They scored 20 unanswered points Sunday, including 10 in the the final quarter, and cruised to a 30-21 victory.

And while this game wasn't nearly as demoralizing as the 2011 debacle versus the Patriots (a quick refresher for those of you who had successfully erased it from memory), the loss counts all the same in the standings. Which, heading into Week 5, have the Cowboys at 2-2, a game up on the Eagles and Redskins in the NFC East, and two games clear of the Giants.

That's the glass-half-full perspective. The critics would point out that the Cowboys were coming off one of their most impressive wins in recent years, a 31-7 thumping of the Rams, and to follow it up with a half-assed effort against the Chargers is, well, troubling.

The completely predictable, utterly reasonable knee-jerk reaction goes something like this: "Ah, yes, there are the Jerry Jones Cowboys we remember, the same outfit that hasn't had a winning record since 2009." And that skepticism extends beyond a beaten-down fan base and right into the locker room.

"I don't know if this team is any different," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "There is a lot to be seen about this football team over the next few weeks. I don't feel good about anything today. Anything. The only thing I feel good about is that we came out healthy."

There are a handful of plays in every game that separate winners from losers. The Cowboys had their chances, chief among them: Dez Bryant's second-quarter 34-yard touchdown grab followed a minute later by a Sean Lee pick-six that gave Dallas a 21-10 lead.

But then Philip Rivers happened.

Seriously, if not for what Peyton Manning has perpetrated against the rest of the league through the first month of the season, Rivers would have already been awarded the 2013 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. On Sunday, he completed a mind-boggling 83 percent of his throws for 401 yards and two scores.

And while some of that falls on the Cowboys' defense (and Maurice Claiborne, in particular), the reality is that no one has been able to slow up Rivers this season. Heading into the game, he ranked second in passing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders' metrics (give you one guess who was No. 1).

Put another way: Yes, the Cowboys lost a game they shouldn't have. And yes, we've seen this before. But the good news is that this has nothing to do with quarterback Tony Romo (which, if nothing else, saves us the unhinged, unfounded rants about him being a choker), and this team, despite Scandrick's reservations, can be pretty good.

More than that, they're lucky.

They play in the NFL's sorriest division, and the other three teams have huge issues -- the Redskins and Eagles have two of the worst defenses you'll ever see, and the Giants could struggle to win two games this season (Antrel Rolle's silliness notwithstanding).

More good news: The Cowboys' have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the NFC East in the coming weeks. After hosting Denver Sunday, they face Washington and Philly. Come out of that three-game stretch with a 4-3 overall record and 3-0 in the division, and no one's talking about the loss in San Diego.

Are the Cowboys a legit Super Bowl contender? Absolutely not.

Are they a playoff team? Hell yeah, thanks to their three-ring circus of a division.

The real question is if the 2013 version of this team will be any different than the underachieving outfits we've seen in recent seasons. The early returns suggest so, but there's a reason Scandrick is dubious. He's seen this movie too many times.

'The Browns are for real!'

A downtrodden fan base has every reason to be excited. After years of front-office mismanagement and on-field ineptitude, the Browns, suddenly, are relevant. And not in the annual "didn't see that coming" upset that wasn't so much a harbinger of things to come as more false hope for the Charlie Brown of NFL franchises.

This Browns team entered the season with a new front office and coaching staff, and the explicit understanding that no roster spot was safe, even for 2012 third-overall picks. Cleveland shipped running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis two weeks ago and are 2-0 since. Oh, and they haven't done it with their 2012 first-round quarterback, Brandon Weeden -- who may have already lost his starting job for good -- but journeyman Brian Hoyer.

With victories over the Vikings and the suddenly ordinary Bengals, the Browns are 2-2, tied for first in the division (the tie-breaker would go to the Ravens), and a full two games up on the hapless Steelers. It's an amazing turn of events, particularly since plenty of supporters figured it was business as usual when Richardson was traded.

And that usual business meant the organization was giving up on the season -- this time explicitly, and in mid-September -- in the hopes rebuilding for the future. (Browns fans know the drill because it happens almost annually, with every regime change.)

But there has been no waving of the white flag. Just savvy personnel moves that make you think team president Joe Banner, general manager Mike Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski, all in their first year, actually know what they're doing.

It's a great story, but here's the thing: Institutional knowledge has a lot to do with NFL success. The Browns have had exactly two winning seasons since returning to Cleveland in 1999. The first came in 2002 with Butch Davis. He followed up a 9-win campaign with a 5-11 season and left midway through 2004. In 2007, Romeo Crennel led the Browns to 10 wins. He won four games the next season and was looking for work that January.

The point: NFL success can be fleeting, especially when no one knows how to handle it. Could this team be different? Not likely, at least not this season. For starters, the Browns still have to play the Lions, Packers and Chiefs in the next month. Then it's a three-game intra-division stretch -- Baltimore, Cincy and Pittsburgh -- before December meet-and-greets with the Patriots and Bears.

Upside: There's a lot to like about this group, and it starts with a young, athletic, play-making defense. The offensive line has also come together in recent games. But ultimately, the Browns will only go as far as their franchise quarterback takes them. And he's not currently on the roster. That doesn't mean Cleveland can't win seven or eight games and head into the offseason with something neither the organization nor it's fans have had in some time: Hope.

Upside, part II: The most Browns thing ever would have them making it to the AFC Championship Game against the Colts, only to lose 50-0, and then end up with two late first-rounders in next April's draft. So this team going .500 or worse doesn't portend future failures, it gives the front office more draft-day options. It's just up to them not to screw it up.

'The 49ers are back on track'

A week ago we warned that while Colin Kaepernick had struggled in back-to-back losses, he wasn't the only issue facing the 49ers. Pass catchers who couldn't get open, coach Jim Harbaugh's peculiar insistence on not using Frank Gore in the Week 3 loss to the Colts, and a defense that looked average all landed San Francisco in a 1-2 hole ahead of their matchup with the Rams.

Ah, yes, the Rams. Everyone's preseason dark horse to finally make some noise. Except that this is the same punchless Sam Bradford-led outfit that has been an annual disappointment. They were thoroughly outplayed by the 49ers and the 35-11 result prompted two responses:

One, St. Louis not only isn't a playoff team, they'll struggle to win eight games.

And two, San Francisco is back, y'all.

Let's pump the brakes on the 49ers' playoffs bandwagon before we all go right over the cliff (where the Rams have already set up camp). First things first: The 49ers are going to have to build on this win. The Rams are a bad team, incapable of running or stopping the run, and it was exactly what San Francisco needed to get back track.

During the 49ers' two-game losing streak, Kaepernick completed 47.2 percent of his passes. He had six turnovers over that span. Even more troubling: After finding Anquan Boldin 13 times for 208 yards in the Week 1 victory against the Packers, he completed just 13 passes to his wide receivers in the next two games.

Some of that was because defenses game-planned to stop Boldin. Some of that was because Michael Crabtree is out until at least November with an Achilles injury, and some of that is what happens when you don't have any other viable options (Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Jonathan Baldwin aren't getting it done -- at least not at the moment).

Against the Rams, those issues were mitigated by a resurgent rushing attack, a passing game that played to Kap's strength, as well as a 49ers' defense that suffocated a inert Rams offense.

But it'll take more than beating up on a bad St. Louis team to convince us that the 49ers are back. As it stands, the division still goes through Seattle. And it's not even up for debate.

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