If the Cowboys are to have a winning record and make the playoffs, it will depend on:
1. Having a positive turnover differential. Ryan's D will give up yards, but if it can generate turnovers, those yards will not translate into as many points as it might. Also, Romo has to protect the ball.
2. Being able to run the ball consistently. Garrett will seek explosion in the offense, and with Feilx Jones, Miles Austin, and Dez Bryant, we should have more than our share of big plays. Our D is the weak link. Like turnovers, one way to protect it is to be able to run the ball and control the clock.
3. Avoiding the big play against us. This is where our safety play killed us last year. We gave up far too many big plays and long TDs. We should be able to cut those down this year, which will force teams into longer drives that we might be able to kill with a turnover or sack.
4. Staying healthy at key spots. We need Austin and Dez to stay healthy, as the dropoff behind them is pretty steep. Romo needs to remain upright. The O-line has some depth at guard with Holland and Arkin, but almost no depth at tackle. Elam and Sensabaugh are critical to the D. And we're very thin at ILB. Even after Bruce Carter is healthy, he'll be a rookie trying to learn without any training camp or preseason games. Witten, Ware, and Ratliff are also essential.
5. Kicking field goals well. We lost one game last year because of a missed extra point. So many other games were swung by missed field goals, including the first Washington game, which shouldn't have come down to the Alex Barron hold. We need an accurate kicker. It's not hard to imagine that 2-4 games could hinge on this.
6. Minimizing dumb mistakes. Penalties can also be devastating. Tashard Choice's two biggest pre-season runs were negated by holding calls. These are drive killers and often cost points. Recent Cowboys teams have been horrible in this department. Let's see if Garrett can get this fixed. So far, it's looking pretty good. I would also add missed assignments like Gronkowski missing the blitz pickup that cost Romo his season in this category.
7. Being able to stop the run. At times during the pre-season, it appeared that teams could run on us at will. Denver pushed our starting D right down the field, then inexplicably called a pass when they could have punched it in (and would have won the game if they had). Minnesota also ran on us consistently. Nothing demoralizes a D more than not being able to stop another team's running game. The other team controls the clock, and needn't take any risks, minimizing turnover chances. This is a big question for the Cowboys this year.
8. Staying unpredictable on offense and defense. Ryan will certainly be unpredictable. Garrett also needs to. I like the new attention to screen passes. With the younger, mobile offensive line, and Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray, this could offer major big-play potential.
9. Winning the special teams battle. With David Buehler's leg on kickoffs and Matt Briar punting, we should excel in gaining field position on special teams. And if Dez is given some chances to run back punts, we have the chance to pop some for scores. This could win us a couple of games.
10. Protecting home turf. Last year, the Cowboys were 2-6 at home. That's horrible. We only beat the Lions and Washington. This needs to be flipped. There is no reason why with all of the offensive playmakers we have why we shouldn't play our best in the controlled environment of Cowboys' Stadium.
Will we do all these things? No. But I think there is a chance we could accomplish most of them, and be a solid playoff contender, with an outside shot at the division title. This team will struggle at times. The key will be how it fights in the face of those struggles. Jason Garrett seems to have stripped the players of a sense of entitlement with all the big salary cuts, and that should translate into more motivated play. I love the new offensive line. I love having Felix Jones ready to breakout, and Dez Bryant ready to torch teams. I love guys like Phil Tanner, and wish we had the equivalent kind of guy on defense.
What I worry most about is our defense getting pushed around and not being able to get off the field after third down, and our field goal kicker(s) losing games by missing makeable kicks. I'm also concerned that our young linemen may not hold up over a long season without the strength training they need.
My prediction is 10-6. We might do better, given the easier schedule, but the realist in me thinks we will lose some winnable close games.