Looking ahead to this coming regular season, it is pretty easy to say that with a very difficult schedule, every game is critical. A victory in all 16 games would be nirvana, but probably not realistic in today’s parity-driven NFL. Understanding as well that the Cowboys are unlikely to sweep all six home and away games against their NFC East opponents, you can start to see where some of the wins and losses might happen. For me as I look at the schedule, there are 5 games the Cowboys simply must find a way to win. Lose these games and along with the “normal” losses we would expect to see and the Cowboys will be on the outside looking in come playoff time once again.
1. At New York Giants, Wednesday September 5th, 7:30pm CST. Not only is this the regular season opener for the Cowboys, but it is also the first game of teh season for the entire NFL, a division game, and nationally televised in primetime. You hate build up the first game of the season like it is do or die, but for this team with its at times fragile psyche, this one really is. There will be 15 more games in the season win or lose, but win and it sets the tone for the rest of the year and the team’s belief in themselves will soar. And, they would also exact some overdue revenge on their hated division rival while setting the Giants up for a feeding frenzy by the hypercritical New York media. The Cowboys certainly played well enough to win for most of the game in both the season opener last year against the Jets and in the first game against the Giants but couldn’t seal the deal in either contest defensively. Lose the opener and this year’s Cowboys will be right back at square one labeled a “talented team that just can’t put it all together when it counts”. They would spot the Giants a game in the division (as well as the Eagles who open against the Browns). Romo, no matter how well he plays in the game will continue to be the guy who “can’t win the big games”. I don’t think I will be the only one building this contest up as absolutely huge as September approaches.
2. Chicago, Monday October 1st, 7:30pm CST. If the ‘Boys are able to leave New York week 1 with a victory, don’t stumble in Seattle the following week, and handle and improved but still gelling Buccaneers at home in week 3, it isn’t crazy to think the Cowboys could be undefeated coming into this game or no worse than 2-1. In the Cowboys only Monday Night Football appearance this season, the Bears will come to Cowboys Stadium likely no worse than 2-1 as well. They open with the Colts and then face the rebuilding Rams week 3. They will be tested with a visit to Lambeau and the Packers in a nationally televised Thursday Night Football game in week 2. A road win against the Packers is a tough assignment in the Aaron Rodgers’ era so far, but most pundits expect these teams to be in a dog fight for the NFC North title this year, so a Bears win is not a pipe dream. Imagine the hype if both teams are undefeated for this game - thank heavens it is at home. That at least gives them a chance to start creating a home field advantage that has been conspicuously missing since “Jerry World” opened. The Cowboys head into their bye week after this game so it would be fantastic to to see the team with an unblemished record at this stage with quality wins over the Giants and the Bears.
3. At Philadelphia, Sunday November 11th, 3:15pm CST. It has been a while since the Cowboys have been able to be competitive against Andy Reid’s Eagle teams. If this season is going to be special and this team is going to realize its full potential, the road goes through Philadelphia. This will be the first meeting of the season between these division rivals and will be at Lincoln Financial Field. Rob Ryan’s defense must come up with answers to Vick, McCoy, and DJax while the offense has to keep Tony Romo upright against an aggressive group of pass rushers. A win in this game by the Cowboys makes a statement – this isn’t the same team that the Eagles have been able to beat up and downright embarrass the past few seasons. If on the other hand the Cowboys once again lay an egg, any positive momentum they might have built will be lost. In fact the past few seasons have been up and down roller coaster rides as the team gets a quality win or two and get their fans to start thinking this could be their year before hitting December and fading. That can’t happen this year and a win on the road against Philadelphia will be big.
4. New Orleans, Sunday December 23rd, Noon CST. With 5 games this season in the dreaded month of December including a brutal run of good, playoff caliber teams, the Cowboys can somewhat afford to stumble against the Bengals or the Steelers in early December (but not both). Overall win-loss records are most important, but when you understand some losses during the season are inevitable, a non-conference loss is technically better than a loss within the NFC when it gets to the tie breaker. That fact likely makes this late December clash against the Saints a critical game. There is no doubt the Saints are stacked with talent, but they have experienced an off season unlike any other in the history of the NFL filled with upheaval and distraction that will continue all season. Either their talent will overcome and they will be fighting for their playoff lives or they will have already self destructed and will be relegated to the spoiler role. Either way, the Cowboys must win this home game.
5. At Washington, Sunday December 30th, Noon CST. On paper, this probably would not be a game that jumps out at you. The Cowboys should have already beaten the Redskins on Thanksgiving and a win here would again complete the sweep. But, as the schedule plays out, I fully expect the Cowboys to be in a position of needing this win to qualify for the post season. Nothing would make RGIII and his Redskin teammates happier than to spoil the Cowboys new year. The Redskins will likely be eliminated from playoff contention by this time but assuming Griffin stays healthy to this point, he will no doubt be a more experienced, smarter NFL QB. FedEx Field can also be a tough environment to play in but the Cowboys have proven they can go there and take care of business and they’ll need to do it again.
So, there you have it: 5 games I think come at a critical point in the Cowboys’ season. These are games that the Cowboys will need to find a way to win to make the playoffs. I have them going at best 10-6 this season which might be enough to win a tough division or should get them into the wild card mix. Almost every division in the NFC is going to be competitive between two or three teams with no clear cut, dominant teams like we’ve seen in the past. Anything is possible – that’s why they actually play the games – but I don’t see a 12-4 or 13-3 record by any NFC team this season as parity takes its toll. So, the Cowboys need to get to 9 or 10 wins including these 5 games I’ve highlighted. It is “do-able”, but they have to get out of the gate fast with a win week one.