Dallas Cowboys: A hot start key to 2020 playoff chances

Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

A favorable schedule early on could prove beneficial for the Dallas Cowboys

A disappointing 8-8 finish to the 2019-20 season coupled with the NFL’s pre-determined scheduling formula will almost certainly benefit the Dallas Cowboys this season. With a Strength of Schedule of just .459, the Cowboys have the least difficult schedule in the NFC, putting them in a good position for a breakout year.

But if Dallas is to make a run at the playoffs this season, it’s going to require a fast start. That may prove difficult for a team with a new head coach in Mike McCarthy, a shortened training camp, and no preseason games to iron out any kinks.

Looking at Dallas’s schedule though, the front half of the season is where they can really separate themselves from the rest of the division. In the first eight games of the season, the Cowboys will face, in order, the Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. Those teams check in with a combined record of 54-73-1.

This is a very favorable schedule early on. All of these games seem winnable on paper.

Dallas Cowboys have a much more difficult road in the second half

Now let’s compare it to the second half of the season in which the Cowboys face teams with a combined record of 63-65. It’s still a relatively favorable schedule but comparatively much more difficult than the first eight games.

The latter half of the schedule kicks off with matchups against the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 9) and Minnesota Vikings (Week 11), two consistently formidable opponents year in and year out.

The Steelers arguably had the worst luck with injuries last season, losing Ben Roethlisberger and then backup quarterback Mason Rudolph. That almost certainly contributed to their 8-8 record but even with a third-string quarterback, the Steelers had a shot at making the playoffs. Expect a challenge if they return to full strength.

The Vikings, of course, made it all the way to the Division round in the playoffs last season. Minnesota lost some key talent this offseason, including wide receiver Stefon Diggs and three-time pro-bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Although they lost defensive end Everson Griffen, who went on to sign with Dallas, they replaced him this weekend when they traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.

The Cowboys will also face the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13, after the should-win game against the Washington Football Team. We’re obviously all aware of what Lamar Jackson brings to the table and the challenges he’ll pose to the Cowboys’ defense. Baltimore was last year’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs but suffered a crushing defeat to the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional round.

After a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, who seem reinvigorated after drafting Joe Burrow, the Cowboys close out the season against last year’s Super Bowl runner-up, the San Francisco 49ers, followed by divisional games against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.

It’s hard to complain too much about the easiest schedule in the NFC but there’s a clear distinction between the teams the Cowboys will face in the first half of the season compared to the second half. Of the first eight teams they’ll play in 2020, three of them had winning records last season. And really, only the Seahawks are the most convincing threat with the best finish at 11-5.

In the second half, the number of teams the Cowboys face who had winning records last season jumps to four and includes three playoff teams. As I mentioned, the Steelers at 8-8 were victims of bad luck.

The second half of 2020 will be no cakewalk for the Dallas Cowboys so if they want to secure their place atop the NFC East, they’ll want to take advantage of an easy schedule early on. Too often we’ve seen the Cowboys roll into December with the division on the line, only to come away with a heartbreak loss in Week 16 or 17 to a divisional foe.

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Wouldn’t it be nice for once to enter those final weeks with some padding? The schedule certainly seems to allow for that but only if the Cowboys can take care of business early on. It starts on September 13 against the Los Angeles Rams.