Draft day is finally here! Now we get answers to all of the questions we’ve been contemplating for weeks now about who the Cowboys take at #14 or if they trade up or down. But, before that, remember last week, I took an in-depth look at the first half of this coming NFL season across the four NFC East teams. If you will recall at the midway point, I had the Redskins at 3-5, the Cowboys at 4-4, the Giants at 5-3, and the Eagles in first place at 6-2. So, let’s see where I think each team will finish!
First of all, it is important to note that in addition to the division games all the teams in the NFC East have to play the NFC South and the AFC North teams this year. However, when and where they get those games is critical. The Cowboys and Giants play the same home games against Tampa Bay, the Saints, the Steelers, and the Browns. Their road games include Carolina, Atlanta, the Bengals, and the Ravens. The Eagles and the Redkins play the opposite schedule – home against the Panthers, the Falcons, the Bengals, and the Ravens with road games against the Buccaneers, the Saints, the Steelers, and the Browns. In my opinion, that favors the Eagles as they get tough opponents like Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Baltimore in Veterans Stadium and only face an always tough Pittsburgh team on the road – they also get the Saints on the road and the Superdome is always a tough environment but most would expect this to be a down year for them with all the suspensions and distractions). Although “home field advantage” is not what it used to be, the way this schedule breaks out seems to give the Eagles a bit of an advantage.
|NFC SOUTH||Tampa Bay||Tampa Bay||at Tampa Bay||at Tampa Bay|
|Saints||Saints||at Saints||at Saints|
|at Panthers||at Panthers||Panthers||Panthers|
|at Falcons||at Falcons||Falcons||Falcons|
|AFC NORTH||at Ravens||at Ravens||Ravens||Ravens|
|at Bengals||at Bengals||Bengals||Bengals|
|Browns||Browns||at Browns||at Browns|
|Steelers||Steelers||at Steelers||at Steelers|
Now, let’s consider the non-common opponents. Each team has to play the teams in the other two NFC divisions that finished in the same order they did. Clearly and appropriately, the Giants got the tougher, first place draw traveling to the West Coast to play the 49ers and facing the Packers at home. They could easily lose both of those games (and hopefully will). The Eagles, arguably the best team in the NFC East at the end of last season despite their second-place finish get what appears to be a much easier slate with a home game against the Lions – a team most people feel will have to prove last year wasn’t a fluke – and a road game against the usually mediocre Cardinals. For sure, no one is afraid of playing at University of Phoenix Stadium often over half full of opposing team’s jerseys. The Cowboys get the third place schedule which should work to their advantage. But, they have to play at Seattle – a team expected to be much better in the 3rd year under Pete Carroll with the addition of free agent QB Matt Flynn and the 12th man advantage Qwest Field always seems to provide – and then get a tough Monday night home matchup against a Bears team expected to be much improved and compete for Super Bowl XLVII despite their QB struggles and 8-8, third place finish last year. The Redskins, of course, have the 4th place schedule which gets them a home game against the rebuilding Vikings and a road game against the up-and-coming St. Louis Rams. This part of the scheduling also seems to have worked out to the Eagle’s advantage.
Now, let’s take a look at how the 2nd half of the season breaks out. The chart below shows the 2nd half matchups and notes how many home and away games, how many division games, and how many conference games (important because conference records are one of the tie breakers if teams finish with the same overall records and identical division records).
|10||at Eagles||at Bengals||Cowboys||BYE|
|13||Eagles||at Redskins||at Cowboys||Giants|
|14||at Bengals||Saints||at Tampa Bay||Ravens|
|15||Steelers||at Falcons||Bengals||at Browns|
|16||Saints||at Ravens||Redskins||at Eagles|
|17||at Redskins||Eagles||at Giants||Cowboys|
Let’s get this out of the way first. Despite the bad taste it leaves in my mouth, short of Michael Vick being put on IR at some point, I don’t see any way that the advantageous schedule doesn’t deliver the NFC East title to the Eagles. They will have to earn it and play like they did at the end of last season but I don’t expect them to struggle quite as much on defense as they did early last year. I see the Eagles going 5-3 in the second half and finishing at 11-5.
If the Cowboys can survive a very tough first half schedule, wins in the last 8 games looks a lot more achievable (at least today on paper). They have 5 home games all coming in the last 7 weeks of the season including an unheard of 3 straight home games with a “mini bye” after the Thanksgiving Day tilt against the ‘Skins. Of course, Cowboys Stadium has not proven to be much of a home field advantage so far, but the Cowboys are going to have to do a much better job of defending their home turf this year. The second half of the season is where it will have to happen. The middle of the schedule – back-to=back games at the Falcons week 8 and then at Philadelphia week 9 will be a very tough test. If the Cowboys can find a way to at least split those two games and win all three of the next games at home, it will put them in a very good position heading into December. I see them heading into Washington for the season finale needing a win to finish 10-6 and secure a wild card spot.
The Giants may be the defending Super Bowl champions, but they have an almost impossible task ahead of them if they have any designs on repeating. Standing at 5-3 at the midway point, I don’t see any way that the win more than 4 games looking at their brutal back half schedule. I have them finishing with a home win against the Eagles (likely already clinched and in”rest” mode) to finish the season on a positive note, but their 9-7 record leaves them on the outside looking in this year. If Eli Manning or one or two key defensive players miss any significant time, then they likely drop to 8-8 or worse. But, I’m putting it in writing that I have them missing the playoffs based on what I know today.
The Redskins as I’ve stated before will be much more competitive with the addition of RGIII (similar to the Panthers last year with Cam Newton – entertaining games, lots of highlight reel stuff, but not enough “W’s”). I see them being eliminated from playoff contention early on and limping in at 5-11 or 6-10 at best – worse if RGIII gets hurt and misses any time (somewhat likely noting his style of play and the injury rate of NFL quarterbacks overall). But, make no mistake, RGIII is a special player. If the defense is again solid and the offense gels, this team could compete. One thing is for sure – their games against our Cowboys are always tough no matter the records and that week 17 win we’ll need to earn a playoff spot will not come easy. What Redskin fan wouldn’t salivate over the chance to be the reason the Cowboys are watching from home again come January?
So, there you have it. I’m sure there are differing opinions but that’s where I see it as it stands today – certainly lots of time left for additional developments that will impact these projections. I hope I’m overly pessimistic and a more focused Romo, a full year of DeMarco Murray, and a revamped defensive secondary will deliver another NFC East title and perhaps more. We’re definitely due!! Go Cowboys!