Projecting the strength of a team’s upcoming schedule sometimes seems like a fool’s errand. Last June I’m sure many teams weren’t looking forward to their date with the Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 12-4 season and NFC East Championship. However, once the guy under center went from Tony Romo to the Weeden-Cassel-Moore Poo-Poo Platter, those concerns were alleviated.
At this time of year we can only look at what we have on paper. Injuries will happen that change the dynamics of these games. Teams that seems stable now could melt down, as we saw recently with Chip Kelly’s Eagles.
For now, here are the five toughest games I see on the Cowboys’ 2016 schedule:
Week 2 – @ Washington
Dallas opens the year with back-to-back division games. After hosting the Giants in Week One they will have to go to FedExField to meet the reigning NFC East Champions.
We know the history between these two teams. We know that records and rankings tend to dissolve when they play, leaving the games unpredictable and often exciting. Now, with Washington building on last year’s division crown and Kirk Cousins’ continued development, they may be stronger than any point in the last decade.
Dallas will likely be missing some of their key weapons in attacking Cousins. Though his substance-violation suspension will be appealed, DeMarcus Lawrence is currently out for the first four weeks. Randy Gregory will definitely be out.
For years the unpredictability of this rivalry has often worked in Washington’s favor. They’ve been the underdog more times than not. Though many won’t see the 2016 Cowboys as underdogs with Romo back at the helm, they at least coming into this matchup without the same favor as in the past. Maybe that will work to their advantage.
This will be the third-straight year that the Cowboys have had to go to Lambeau. In 2014 it was the site of the infamous NFC Divisional Playoff game and the Dez Bryant “no catch” play. Last year it saw a Matt Cassel-led team get thrashed for a 28-7 blowout.
Hopefully this will be the true rematch from that 2014 playoff loss. Dallas will hope for good health from Romo and Dez Bryant. The Packers had their own injury issues last year, missing top receiver Jordy Nelson for the entire season. They still made the playoffs but were not nearly as potent without Aaron Rodgers’ top target.
Many are projecting for the Cowboys and Packers, if at full strength, to win their divisions. If so then this early-season game could be key in determining home field advantage if a playoff matchup comes. For once, it would be nice to make the Packers come to our house.
Last year the Steelers were right where they tend to be, battling it out with the best of the AFC and a possible Super Bowl bid. They ended up losing to the eventual champion Broncos in the second round. Still they looked like a team who could have contended for the crown.
As excited as you are, and rightfully so, about the Romo-Dez-Ezekiel Elliott trio the Steelers may have one better. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell are a potent offensive mix. Bell will be returning from a season-ending knee injury but is still just 24-years-old and should bounce back.
Making this game even tougher is that it will be the second of back-to-back road games. The Cowboys will play Week 9 in Cleveland. Though the Browns don’t project to be a difficult opponent, consecutive weeks of travel never help the visiting team.
We’ve discussed Washington once already but, as the reigning NFC East champs, a second mention isn’t unwarranted. The bright lights and short week for this game only complicate matters.
Historically, the short Thanksgiving week is an advantage for the Cowboys as the home team. However, they have gone 2-4 in the last six. Washington won one of those meetings in 2012.
If Dallas and Washington are competing for the division this year, which would be a fair projection, then this should be a pivotal game. Dallas could be looking to avoid the season sweep if they fall in the Week 3 road game. A short week of rest could be problematic for the older stars of the Cowboys, and particularly Romo over Cousins.
Week 17 has not been kind to the Cowboys. Since Tony Romo became the starting quarterback, Dallas is 3-7 in their regular season finales. On the bright side, two of those three wins have come over the Eagles.
Granted, there are often extenuating circumstances in these final games. Sometimes you’ve got your backups out there with nothing to play for, either for good or bad reasons.
The Eagles could easily be on the bad side of that this year. They are in the midst of a quarterback controversy and major turnover following the end of the Chip Kelly era. They project as the worst NFC East team right now.
Still, that doesn’t stop them from trying to play the spoiler. Dallas has lost many division games to seemingly inferior teams who go to an extra gear to try and upset the hated Cowboys. No matter what the Eagles are this year, going to Philly is never a great way to end the season.