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Helman: Identifying A Week 10 Doppelgänger 


FRISCO, Texas – Is there a word that succinctly describes the Spiderman meme?

You know the one. The screenshot from the original Spiderman cartoon has become ubiquitous for describing two groups with a startling amount of similarities – and it's all I can think about this week as the Atlanta Falcons prepare to visit.

As usual, I should clarify. I'm not sure there are a ton of similarities between these two 2021 teams -- the Dallas Cowboys, coming off their first loss in six weeks with a 6-2 record, and the Atlanta Falcons, who have dug themselves out of a 1-3 hole to improve to 4-4 and claim a wildcard spot.

This is more of a general observation about recent history, as the Cowboys and Falcons seem to have occupied a similar place in the NFL hierarchy over the last five years.

You can use 2016 as a heartbreaking jumping off point. The Cowboys and Falcons ruled the NFC that year, as Dallas grabbed the No. 1 overall seed at 13-3, while Atlanta claimed the No. 2 spot at 11-5.

How's that for a fun debate of circumstances. Cowboys fans have been waiting for their team to reach the Super Bowl again since 1995, and 2016 was another heartbreaker, as a home defeat to Green Bay kept them from facing the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. But, disappointing as that might be, would you trade places with Atlanta fans – who watched their team reached the goal of Super Bowl LI, only to see a 28-3 third quarter lead slip away in possibly the most heartbreaking defeat in football history?

I hope Dan Quinn isn't reading this column, speaking of parallels between the two clubs. Quinn brought the Falcons agonizingly close to realizing their dreams during a six-year stint, but he was let go after things turned south in 2020. Jason Garrett never reached the heights of the Super Bowl, but that sounds familiar to his stint in Dallas, which was marked by some heartbreaking near-misses before he was ultimately unable to maintain his prior successes.

Those parallels have helped place the Cowboys and Falcons in similar company in other aspects of this league. Look past over recent draft history and you'll see the two franchises occupying similar draft spots.

Both teams held their highest picks in half a decade this past spring, which they used to select arguably the two most freakish talents on each side of the ball – the unicorn, Kyle Pitts, on offense and the lion, Micah Parsons, on defense.

The Falcons are also partly responsible for CeeDee Lamb winding up in Dallas. The Falcons held the pick right before the Cowboys back in 2020, and they used it to draft cornerback A.J. Terrell – a guy the Cowboys may very well had drafted themselves, had the pick not pushed Lamb right into their laps all the way back at pick No. 17.

Ironically, the Falcons' reluctance to draft Lamb back then likely stemmed from their 2018 selection of Calvin Ridley – a player the Cowboys had also considered with their 19th overall pick before eventually picking Leighton Vander Esch.

None of this even brings to mind the Great Defensive End Debacle of 2017.

It's hilarious in retrospect to think how much the edge rusher conversation dominated that draft cycle. Myles Garrett was certainly worth of being a No. 1 overall pick, and he just might earn himself NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. But the rest of that first round is marked by disappointments. That obviously includes the Cowboys' eventual pick of Taco Charlton. But even more amusing might be the anguish caused when Atlanta traded up five spots in front of them, knowing they coveted an end, to draft Takkarist McKinley.

Neither Charlton nor McKinley is still with the team that drafted him – and both teams will cringe when reminded that T.J. Watt, drafted after both of them had selected a different edge rusher, is currently sitting on 61 career sacks.

Two weeks ago, it looked like Dallas and Atlanta's paths in the NFL pecking order might finally be diverging, but perhaps that was premature. The Falcons are all of a sudden right in the thick of the playoff picture, while the Cowboys currently look mortal for the first time this season. Maybe they'll both qualify for the postseason, ensuring that this bizarre similarity continues into another draft cycle.

If anything, their recent history suggests Sunday's game should be a banger. Everyone remembers last year's insane 19-point comeback, complete with the Watermelon Kick to set up a game-winning field goal from Greg Zuerlein. The Cowboys' 2018 win in Atlanta also came down to a walk-off field goal, that one coming from Brett Maher – who actually tried out to replace Zuerlein for this week, as if there weren't enough strange vibes surrounding this matchup.

Will any of this shape the outcome on Sunday afternoon? Not likely. I just think it's interesting that both of these franchises seem to be riding similar ebbs and flows while searching for their big breakthrough on the league level. With any luck, the Cowboys can take this week to reassure us that they're closer to finding it than last week suggested.

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