There’s no way to sugar coat this: The Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 schedule is brutal. It would make Attila the Hun look away with trembling lower lip.
America’s Former Team open the season at home against the San Francisco 49ers. Show of hands, who thinks Jerry’s Boys will win that one?
Yeah, it’s at home and it’s the season opener, but Jerry World hasn’t exactly been a fortress for the home team. Going into last season the Cowboys had compiled a record of 17-15 at what is now AT&T Stadium. Last season they went 5-3 at home but lost key games against the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Great Cheesehead Debacle of 2013 was the most painful — the Cowboys capitulated after leading by 23 at halftime to a team that didn’t even have its MVP quarterback. It was a disgraceful result of failing to follow the law that you run the ball when you have the lead, especially when your running back is averaging well over 5 yards per carry.
Don’t get me wrong, AT&T Stadium is great for importing European soccer matches. But the sheer spectacle of Jerry World seems to motivate the NFL’s visiting teams while the home crowd is too busy watching the pole dancers and the gigantic TV to cheer in sync with what’s happening on the field. The Niners will come in ready to roll over their old nemesis, and will probably come out with a season opening win.
Let’s suppose that the Cowboys then reel off a string of wins and get to November 23 with a record of 9-1. They won’t — they face the Seahawks on Oct 12 at Seattle, for one tough match, and have the Saints at home for another. Realistically, the Cowboys will be 5-5 or at best 6-4 after the first 10 games. The Cowboys have been weak in games against non-NFC East opponents over the past couple of years. They face some very difficult non-NFC East opponents in the first part of this season, plus a tricky match against the Texans, who were terrible last season but are always up for the in-state rivalry game.
But again, let’s just say that the Cowboys are 9-1 through Nov 9.
November 23 begins a nasty run. They travel to New York to face the Giants, who might actually be good again this year, then home to the Eagles, at Chicago, at the Eagles, home to the Colts and finish the season at Washington.
Those six games will define the season. The Cowboys over the past few seasons have gone into the late run with a chance to win the NFC East and get to the playoffs. But they have dropped just enough games in the late run to see them miss the post-season. In 2012, they went 3-3 after Thanksgiving and lost to the Redskins in a game that decided their post-season fate. In 2013, they went 3-3 after Thanksgiving, and lost 3 of their last 4 games, including a Jerry World loss to the Eagles that, again, decided their playoff fate.
Now look at this year’s late season run again.
The Bears will be in their usual dogfight for the NFC North. The Colts have Andrew Luck to pick apart the always generous Dallas D, which if anything got weaker in the offseason. And four NFC East games that will decide who takes the division, including near back-to-back games against the Eagles. The Cowboys were very strong against the East last season, going 5-1, but thanks to their non-divisional games they still went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. They’re not likely to run up a division record like that again this season. None of the East teams look particularly strong, but the Cowboys haven’t used the offseason to get stronger either. They lost two key veterans on the defense, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, while also releasing WR Miles Austin. Austin has been injury-prone, but was still a threat when healthy. Hatcher went to Washington and is already talking smack.
The Cowboys could well go 1-5 during that late stretch, leaving them 9-7 even if they have gone into that stretch in command. The best realistic scenario is for them to get to that point at 5-5 and then break even, to end up with yet another mediocre 8-8 season and miss the playoffs by losing at the Redskins on Dec 28. Watch for Hatcher to close out the season by sacking Tony Romo and causing a fumble, when the Cowboys should have been running the ball anyway.
What the Cowboys will need in that run-in is someone on the sidelines and someone the field who can put some steel into the team and carry them across to the playoffs. But that’s the kind of personnel that the recent vintage Cowboys have lacked the most.