There has been considerable conjecture regarding the Cowboys upcoming schedule. The Cowboys will be on the road four of the next five weeks facing challenging teams such as Baltimore, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Dallas' lone home game is no walk in the park, as the Giants have yet to lose in the new Cowboys Stadium.
In reality, following the game in Baltimore, the Cowboys have the 12th easiest schedule over the last 11 games of the season. The team with the easiest schedule after playing their fifth game: the Oakland Raiders. Expect a move by the Broncos over the next 12 weeks, as Denver has the second easiest schedule over that time period.
Why does Dallas have a manageable schedule after the first five games?
Following their trip to Baltimore on Sunday, the Cowboys will have already played the 5th toughest schedule over the first five games of the 2012 NFL season. Denver, which has played the third toughest schedule to date, is the only other team with a schedule as tough as the Cowboys' with more than one win. The other teams that have run the gauntlet include:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars 1-4
2. Tennessee Titans 1-4
3. Denver Broncos 2-3
4. Detroit Lions 1-3
5. Dallas Cowboys 2-2
Due to the relative success of the Giants (3-2), Seahawks (3-2), Bears (4-1), and Ravens (4-1), the Cowboys' 2012 regular season schedule has become front loaded with potential playoff teams. In comparison, the Giants have faced the Cowboys (2-2), Buccaneers (1-3), Panthers (1-4), Eagles (3-2), and Browns (0-5). Of that group, only the Cowboys or Eagles have a realistic chance to compete for a spot in the playoffs.
Over the last eleven games, the Giants now have to play the ninth toughest schedule in the NFL. Only the teams from the overachieving NFC West and the NFC North (the division they face), have a more difficult schedule from now until January.
From the NFC East, only the Eagles face an easier schedule (the 10th easiest) over their last 11 games. Redskins fans will not be happy to discover that Washington will have the 11th toughest schedule over the last 12 weeks of the season.
The AFC West teams all have the easiest remaining schedule. This year, the AFC West plays the NFC South (Atlanta aside, the other three teams in the NFC South have three total wins - one each). San Diego has the easiest overall strength of schedule through the first five weeks of the season, which should give them an advantage in battling for a playoff berth.
The Falcons (5-0) have a clear path to home-field advantage to the playoffs in the NFC. Not only does Atlanta have the second easiest strength of schedule through five weeks, but the Falcons have a dearth of quality competition in their division. Atlanta also has the easiest schedule of any other NFC team over the last 12 weeks.
Conversely, the 49ers (4-1) have the second most difficult schedule (Detroit has the toughest) over the final 11 games. The Cardinals (4-1), Seahawks (3-2), Vikings (4-1), Rams (3-2), Packers (2-3), and Bears (4-1) round out the eight teams with the toughest schedule over the last 12 weeks.
From an academic standpoint, it will be interesting if playing an easy schedule will help or harm the Falcons in the playoffs. Matt Ryan is 0-3 in the playoffs after four years as the starting quarterback in Atlanta.
The Falcons have only missed the playoffs after the 2009 regular season since Matt Ryan's arrival. Atlanta has lost to the eventual NFC champion all three times in the playoffs (Arizona in 2008), with the NFC representative in the Super Bowl winning it all twice (Green Bay in 2010 and New York in 2011).
If the Falcons are able to win their first playoff games under Ryan after an ultra-soft regular season schedule, perhaps being a battle-tested team heading into the post season is overrated. In this modern NFL, where depth is always an issue due to the salary cap, piling up wins against inferior opponents to "earn" home field advantage, gain an extra week of rest, and benefit from possible additional rest at the end of the season may be the preferred method to win a Super Bowl.
Conversely, San Francisco has a very difficult path to the playoffs. Arizona, Seattle, and St. Louis all currently have winning records and have been impressive early this season. The 49ers also have to play the Bears, the Giants, and the Patriots in addition to the difficult divisional rivalries noted.
Last season, San Francisco reached the NFC Championship game. A similar or better result this season may lend credence to theory that great teams are forged like steel, through constant pounding.
Of course, the past few seasons have demonstrated that a team can come from the pack and experience exceptional success in the post season and win it all. Perhaps a team like Dallas can be that team this season?
Given the surprising starts of Arizona, Seattle, and Minnesota, Dallas may need to win the division in order to make the playoffs: much like last year. Only the Eagles have a slightly easier path in the division than the Cowboys. If Dallas wins a few more, however, that statistic reverses, and the Cowboys have the easiest path to the division crown.
Despite the daunting task facing the Cowboys over the next five weeks, the big picture is that Dallas' schedule is almost as easy as that of any other NFC East rival. The focus, therefore, should be shifted from the schedule and directed towards the performance of the players.