No training wheels were needed for Ezekiel Elliott. The rookie running back for the Dallas Cowboys is riding into the NFL with the subtlety of the Hells Angels.
Rookies imitating veterans is a common theme this season, and three of the league’s top newcomers will be featured Sunday, when Philadelphia visits Dallas in a prime-time showdown that should be truly entertaining.
The Eagles (4-2) were the surprise team of September, boosted by the rapid maturation of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.
The Cowboys, 5-1 straight up and 5-0-1 against the spread, are working on becoming the surprise team of the season. Dallas’ offensive success is due to its dominant line, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott’s sudden rise and Elliott, who’s making a tough league look almost as easy as Eric Dickerson did more than three decades ago.
Elliott was the NFL’s leading rusher through seven weeks with 703 yards. He dropped to No. 2 on Thursday, when Tennessee’s DeMarco Murray passed him. A former Ohio State star, Elliott might make a run at Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards, set in 1983 with the Los Angeles Rams.
Prescott, meanwhile, is making the so-called experts (including this one) regret writing off the Cowboys when Tony Romo was crippled by a back injury in late August. Week after week, Prescott and Elliott have passed tests. Philadelphia poses a tougher one with a defense that ranks No. 3 in scoring at 14.7 points per game.
I have been burned a few times by doubting Dallas, but I’ll play with fire again and go with the Eagles as 4½-point underdogs. The situation and some strong trends are working in Philadelphia’s favor.
In this NFC East rivalry, the road team has won the past six meetings, and the ’dog covered six of the past seven. Dallas is 4-11-1 ATS in its past 16 home games and 3-8 straight up at home since the start of the 2015 season.
As for the situation, the Cowboys are coming off a bye week, which is not always a positive for a red-hot team, as the Minnesota Vikings discovered in their disastrous trip to Philadelphia a week ago.
Dallas is the real deal. Elliott could wreak havoc and run for 100-plus yards in a fifth straight game. But the Eagles are legit, and they are physical enough on the front lines to pull off the upset, or at least cover what appears to be an inflated line.
Four more plays for Week 8 (home team in CAPS):
■ Patriots (-6) over BILLS: Rex Ryan foolishly provoked the Patriots. Buffalo’s coach bragged too much after a 16-0 win at New England on Oct. 2. The Patriots have posted three double-digit wins since the return of Tom Brady, who has eight touchdown passes with no interceptions. Brady and Bill Belichick will make Ryan and the Bills pay. Running back LeSean McCoy (hamstring) is doubtful to play, making Buffalo’s task even tougher.
■ BROWNS (+3) over Jets: It’s not going to happen often, but Cleveland could have the edge at quarterback. Josh McCown will start for the Browns, who are 0-7 and doubtful to win until December if it does not happen now. The Jets are 2-6-2 ATS in their past 10 on the road.
■ Chargers (+4½) over BRONCOS: Philip Rivers frequently professes his love for San Diego, yet he plays better away from home. Rivers is 21-9-1 ATS in his past 31 games as a road ’dog, including a win at Atlanta last week. The Chargers are 9-1-2 ATS in their past 12 trips to Denver. This is a revenge spot for the Broncos, but I’ll ride Rivers, who finds ways to keep an injury-riddled team in each game.
■ PANTHERS (-3) over Cardinals: The bye arrived at a good time for Carolina, which needed to work on a broken defense and get quarterback Cam Newton healthy. It’s now or never for the Panthers. Arizona was blown out in Charlotte in the NFC title game, as Carson Palmer turned the ball over six times. Newton will outplay Palmer again.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow @mattyoumans247 on Twitter.