For the Dallas Cowboys to reach the 2015 NFC playoffs, let alone reach their ninth trip to the Super Bowl next February, surviving the month of September will be critical.
Forget that historically bad month of December – for now, anyway.
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Last season, the Cowboys finished 12-4 in winning the NFC East division by two games over their arch-rival Philadelphia Eagles. While that might look rather convincing when simply looking at the standings, memory itself should offer a reminder otherwise.
Following that Thanksgiving Day route of the Cowboys at the venue formerly known as Cowboys Stadium, things weren’t looking so hot for America’s Team. Heading into the regular season’s final month, Dallas had just been beaten 33-10 by a team thought to be inferior, but also an Eagles team that was then 9-3.
The Cowboys were but 8-4 with one more game remaining against Philly.
Dallas obviously went one way down the stretch while the Iggles went the other, but that’s how close things were near the very end.
Back to September.
Dallas hosted just it’s second ever home opener in Arlington, Texas last season against the San Francisco 49ers. This loss not only hurt in terms of head-to-head record against a conference rival that had been at the top of the conference for a few seasons, but it also showed very little of what would come for the Cowboys.
Nonetheless, that 0-1 start could have been compounded as just two weeks later Dallas would find itself trailing 21-0 against a St. Louis Rams team that would go on to finish just 6-10 on the year.
No, the Cowboys didn’t really find themselves until the fourth game of the year against the New Orleans Saints, a team that rolled over the Dallas defense just a year before in the Crescent City. The 38-17 victory over the Saints almost reversed the 49-17 blowout over Dallas in 2013.
Looking at the coming September, things get real interesting right out of the gate. There’s no early patsies like Tampa Bay in 2009 or Cleveland in 2008 to warm up with. There’s no back-to-back against Tennessee (2-14) and St. Louis like last year.
In fact, the first four opponents on the schedule all reside in the NFC, the Cowboys not even seeing an AFC opponent until the fifth game of the year against – wait for this – the defending world chumps, the New England Patriots.
Like last season, the fourth game of the year pits Dallas against the Saints, this time back at the “bayou” in Louisiana.
Before we look at those first four games in September and early October and decide that the New York Giants and Eagles are nothing to worry about, which they might not be in the end, consider history:
Since opening its doors in ’09, the Cowboys have beaten the Giants just twice at the new venue in the Metroplex – this is season number seven for still-new palace. Both of these victories have come the last two seasons.
Who won the very first game at the new building?
Yes, the Giants.
New York can’t be taken lightly, as no team coached by Tom Coughlin ever should be. When some start asking if the seat is getting a bit warm for Coughlin, his Giants seem to roll right to the Super Bowl and win the dang thing against all odds.
The second game at Philadelphia really speaks for itself. While Dallas is almost certainly the better football team, it’s still an early season matchup against a bitter rival on the road and this, by itself, is reason for concern. Just think back to the last time you ate a bunch of turkey and dressing – and that was a home game.
You can really only look at the Atlanta Falcons, the third opponent on the coming schedule and a team that finished 6-10 a year ago, as the only potential “gimme” in the season’s first month of play. I expect the Falcons to finish better than that this coming season.
It’s true that the second half of the season might offer a bit more in terms of winnable games down the stretch.
Then again, one never knows who’s who in the NFL in the month of July, right?
However, we do know that fast starts and strong closes are arguably the two biggest keys to postseason success in the NFL.
First of all comes the all-important fast start, something that didn’t really happen a year ago but one that still resulted in an acceptable, if not impressive, 3-1 kickoff into October and beyond.
Can the Cowboys match, or surpass, that mark from ’14? Can they do that without two key players in defensive end Greg Hardy and middle linebacker Rolando McClain, both serving four-game suspensions to begin the season?
Hold your breath – but with training camp just a week away, you won’t have to wait long now to find out exactly what the Cowboys will bring to the table this season, one of the most anticipated campaigns in recent history.