It's that time of year, as Tom Ryle says, when fans starved for news prior to Oxnard do their best to peer into the crystal ball and come up with a forecast for their Cowboys. Given the current Texas heat in Chicago, I've been doing my best to stay indoors and out of trouble. A regular season forecast is a great way to do it. As with Kegbearer's prediction the linchpin of the Boys season comes down to the stretch run after Thanksgiving, when the Boys will be playing at home (barring a 2010-style meltdown, which I don't think Garrett or the veterans on this team will allow) with a chance to control their own destiny. Isn't it always about December every year (save for 2010)?
Nonetheless unlike Kegbearer I don't see a flukey loss to the Carolina Panthers in the forecast, and being more familiar with the Bears, I'm a bit more confident about our chances of beating Jay Cutler in Dallas.
The reasons for my optimism have much to do with the Boys staying healthier through Mike Woicik's training and conditioning, improved coaching/play calling [thanks to former Raiders AFC Champion coach Bill Callahan], and the fact that our two biggest division rivals also have to play brutal non-conference schedules.
See more after the jump...
Historically (ok, at least since the Bill Parcells era began) Dallas starts hot out of the gate and cools off as the weather turns after Thanksgiving. Looking at our schedule this year it's easy to see a similar trend, but with significantly tougher opponents and more road games prior to the Boys' getting on a roll as usual in October-November. Like KB and DeMarcus Ware I agree the magic number to win the NFC East is 11 wins this year, though I'm not sold on Philadephia being as dominant as many national sportswriters seem to think they will be after losing cornerstone tackle Jason Peters for the year and facing a tougher schedule. I predict the Eagles go 9-7 and the Giants to lose the NFC East supremacy battle to us by going 10-6. Remember they have to play Pittsburgh, Baltimore, (going to struggle to protect Eli in those two AFC North games), Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta and San Francisco (in a revenge game). [I had posted that they play New England in error, but that's a preseason battle of scrubs rather than a Super Bowl rematch -- thanks to HankHill for pointing out the mistake]. I expect the Giants to lose five out of those eight games with one loss to us while sweeping the Eagles and Redskins. Also for those who buy the national hype about the Eagles, take a good look at their NFC and AFC non-division games.
Something tells me Vick will get hurt again, and the Eagles will be starting former Buffalo Bills QB Trent Edwards at some point, though if Vick can barely walk he'll probably start against Dallas since we're always Philly's 'Super Bowl'. Compare for instance how quickly things got out of hand when Philly knocked Romo out of the game last year with the lackluster performance of the Eagles against the Bears, which I had the displeasure of watching last year (if offended me to see the Eagles so un-motivated for that game while being so psyched to play Dallas, and also how much more physical the Bears were smacking Philly's smallish receivers and Vick around than we were).
Clearly the NFC East gets up for us but can have embarassing let downs against other teams (think Eli's putrid performances in San Francisco last season, which the Giants pass rush and special teams managed to bail him out of). The Eagles may have fixed their soft spot at linebacker by bringing in Demeco Ryans, but I'm not convinced the Giants have by signing former USC Trojan Keith Rivers, who's been a mediocre pro.
What spooks me about this Giants team though and why I expect them to be right at our heels at 10-6 is the addition of rookie David Wilson to pair with the oft-playing-hurt Ahmad Bradshaw. I expect Tom Coughlin to get back to the power running game that helped the Giants win the NFC title and a Super Bowl in the 2000s. After all when the Eagles did have success last season it was when they used LeSean McCoy more rather than pull a typical Andy Reid game plan of McNabb/Vick dropping back forty times. Coughlin will protect Eli Manning by running the ball and leaning on his defense more as the Giants schedule this season features far more potent pass rushes (AFC North, San Francisco, an improved Packers D, Atlanta) than last year's schedule for the G-Men.
So yep, it all comes down to December and our division...without further ado...(wins in bold, losses in bold italics).
Week One 09-05 @NYG I expect this to be a dogfight to the end with plenty of hitting on both sides. If Rob's mob (Pool, Lee, Sensabaugh and even Johnson) doesn't get motivated to lay the wood in this game they won't do it all year, especially after last season's collapse at the Meadowlands. If Hakeem Nicks is not back from his foot injury I expect Brandon Carr to blanket Victor Cruz while Mo Claiborne takes on former LSU Tigers teammate Rueben Randle. This leaves Eli stunned to find his guys aren't wide open on four step drops, he holds the ball more and takes sacks by DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher.
Getting DeMarco Murray going (and healthy) enough to slow down the Giants pass rush will be critical for this one, but I expect the Boys to take it as the Giants secondary gets lit up by a healthy Dez, just like the Jets couldn't stop Bryant before he bruised his thigh in the last NY/NJ season opener. Marty B finishes the game with one catch versus Bruce Carter in coverage but no TDs and drops a pass.
31-27 WIN 1-0
Week Two 09-16 @Seattle This game ends up looking a lot closer than it does on paper thanks to a stout Seattle D and the fact that something weird always happens when we play at Seattle, despite the Boys owning Pete Carroll's bunch at home last year. I still think Matt Flynn while being overhyped is probably better than Tavaris Jackson. Seattle has big receivers on the outside including '10 playoffs Cowboy-killer Sidney Rice to make this one interesting. But while the Seahawks have excellent safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, their corners don't scare anyone, and OLB Bruce Irvin is still just a rookie. Boys win! [Corrected: TE John Carlson is no longer a Seahawk but a Minnesota Viking]
27-23 WIN 2-0
Week Three 09-23 vs. Tampa Bay Cowboys Stadium will be rocking for this one and Josh Freeman will try to redeem himself compared to last season's putrid performance vs. Rob's mob in Tampa. The Bucs will show improvement along the o-line thanks to their free agent signings, while big target Vincent Jackson will be battling with Carr all afternoon. But in the end despite adding rookie runningback Doug Martin I don't see Tampa being able to pull off the upset. A holding call on D-Ware in the end zone results in a safety on TB.
29-20 WIN 3-0
Week Four 10-01 vs. Chicago This is where I'm tempted to project the Boys first season loss, but this is a koolaid drinking projection that assumes Mike Woicik has done his work with our interior o-line and there are no major game-missing injuries to this point at the skill positions, including to DeMarcus Ware.
While Kegbearer sees us losing this one thanks to the Bears aggressive and fast defense plus Matt Forte, as a longtime Bears watcher I have two words for him: Jamarcus Webb. Rob Ryan would love to have DeMarcus Ware matched up against the Bears' much maligned left tackle. While Chicago has good blocking TEs to chip on Ware, Anthony Spencer or even Adrian Hamilton the pressure is going to get to Cutler at some point.
This is the game where Romo starts taking more hits and making us cringe before he gets up, thanks to Bears rookie OLB Shea McClellin and Julius Peppers stunting up the middle. Still since this game is at home and it's October I expect the Boys to hold on for the win. Besides athletic linebackers like Brian Urlacher who match up well versus Jason Witten and John Phillips, I see covering Matt Forte out of the backfield as the biggest problems on offense and defense, respectively. Brandon Marshall gets his one TD catch versus Brandon Carr. If there was ever a game for Dez to step up and dominate versus press coverage from smaller corners, this is it.
27-24 WIN 4-0
Week Five BYE -- Boys rest plenty of nagging injuries thanks to getting beat up in the Bears game.
Week Six 10-14 @Baltimore This is where I part ways with Kegbearer thanks to the fact that we're coming off a bye and could be sluggish, and that the Ravens/AFC North always play us tough. Since we'll be in their house taking lots of hits/struggling with Haloti Ngota 's push up the gut I fear this is the game a key starter (Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, or God forbid DeMarcus Ware with his stinger problem) goes down. The only thing that keeps this one close is the fact that Ravens are a run first team and the statuesque Joe Flacco takes plenty of hits if not sacks from our defense.
20-16 LOSS 4-1
Week Seven 10-21 @Carolina Given our recent history versus the Panthers and shutting down Steve Smith I don't see us losing this one, even with Cam Newton forcing Rob Ryan to get creative and play three safeties (Barry Church/Matt Johnson) to contain his scrambling. Again barring a hurricane turning the field to slop and limiting our vertical passes I don't see the Boys dropping this one even if Kyle Orton is starting after an injury to Romo, as the Panthers pass rush and secondary remain suspect.
37-30 WIN 5-1
Week Eight 10-28 vs. NYG This is the game I see us dropping to the Giants as it's almost Halloween, and the G-men put together a hell of a game plan with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyiora all putting their hands down to rush together on some plays. Plus for some weird reason we've played poorly against the Giants (except maybe for last year's lost in the lights loss) since the stadium opener in 2009. I expect Eli to continue to take sacks and feel the heat as Rob brings safety/Orlando Scandrick blitzes, but the Giants pass rush (especially if Orton is starting) is too much in this one despite Eli turning it over more than the Boys QB (again if Orton is playing).
27-20 LOSS 5-2
Week Nine 11-04 @Atlanta I should be scared in this one because the Falcons added pass rusher Ray Edwards in the off-season, the same Edwards who terrorized the Cowboys backfield in an early 2010 playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. But neither Edwards nor John Abraham are getting any younger. For some reason due to recent history this balanced, playoff-likely Falcons team doesn't scare me, despite their balance and excellent receivers and secondary. If Romo starts I see him pulling another houdini escape to complete a TD pass in the redzone at the Georgia Dome. This is where Rob Ryan earns his money and the pressure starts to look very good with Matt Ryan taking a couple of 'coverage sacks'.Boys win.
33-27 WIN 6-2
So the Boys look like Super Bowl contenders having made it thru a brutal stretch of eight games a sparkling 6-2? Think I've drunk too much koolaid this offseason? Just wait, the NFC Beast/AFC North games are coming...
Week Ten 11-11 @Philadelphia This is where the late season pain starts, especially given our interior o-line's struggle against the fierce Eagles pass rush that has added Vinny Curry this offseason and may have former first rounder Brandon Graham healthy and playing better.
Granted, I don't see Philly's offense rolling so easily versus Rob's mob like they did last year, but there's something about the match ups that gives our D fits along with Vick's elusiveness (if he is starting, which barring a broken leg or season-ending injury he most suredly will). This is also the type of game where Miles if not Dez may struggle to get off press coverage and neither Romo nor Orton will have much time to take shots down field. Nonetheless, this team shows a lot more fight and gashes the wide-9 with runs far more often than in last year's first game/debacle against Philadelphia.
27-20 LOSS 6-3
Week Eleven 11-18 @Cleveland This game will be much closer than it looks now despite the Browns' ineptitude over the past two seasons. Brandon Weeden is pro-ready and suprisingly mobile for a 29 year old QB. Greg Little might start playing like a first round pick wide receiver. Furthermore, the Cleveland D that Rob Ryan used to coach with CB Joe Haden remains underrated. I see Boys winning a field goal fest by leaning on their running backs to grind out the clock in not good autumn rainy weather.
26-20 WIN 7-3
Week Twelve 11-22 vs. Washington The Cowboys get their first home game in four weeks and come out looking a bit sluggish as the Redskins D is fresh and lights out in the first half as with game one in the series last year. Rob's D also looks unexpectedly confused as RG-3 scrambles and makes plays to get threes but not TDs for the Skins. After the second half adjustment the Boys get a little bit better push in the running game and win a low-TD Thanksgiving battle in the trenches.
23-20 WIN 8-3
Week Thirteen 12-02 vs. Philadelphia It's December, it's Philadelphia, and this should be the game where if this team is bound to miss the playoffs for the third straight season the Boys start to crumble. But this is where JG5000's mantras, the RKGs, and all that starts to pay off. Plus if Vick is going down it's probably going to be during the toughest part of Philly's scheudle somewhere around this time, meaning Ware's chasing Trent Edwards not Michael Vick. The Boys find a way with two TEs to hold off the wide-9 pass rush at Cowboys Stadium and gash it with Felix Jones/DeMarco Murray (or even Lance Dunbar) runs for a season-defining win. Plus I just don't see Garrett's team getting swept by either the Eagles or Giants this season.
26-24 WIN 9-3
Week Fourteen 12-09 @Cincinnati It's December, the weather in Cincinnati stinks, and Andy Dalton doesn't make very many mistakes. Still I see the Boys avoiding a let down after an emotional squeaker over the Eagles. This is where Woicik's strength and conditioning and at least one of the Yuglies [perhaps Arkin] start to prove their mettle by keeping pass rushers off Romo long enough for him to reach the Witten/Phillips duo as Cincy takes away the outside receivers in the second half [but doesn't show enough pass rush to stop Romo and company]. Boys win!
26-17 WIN 10-3
Week Fifteen 12-16 vs. Pittsburgh It's December, it's Pittsburgh, and they always seem to have our number. These last two brutal games before we head to Washington to close the regular season are where I had to put the koolaid down and start considering the likelihood that injuries in the secondary, offensive line or to a skill position player would start to really bite. I have confidence in Orton's ability to win close games. But again, these are the Steelers and they always seem have our number, especially in December (flashbacks to that December 2008 collapse after Tashard Choice gashed the Steel Curtain early in the game). Again this loss hurts, but as predicted above the Giants (10-6) and Eagles (9-7) also lose to Baltimore and Pittsburgh in this forecast.
27-23 LOSS 10-4
Week Sixteen 12-23 vs. New Orleans I expect the NFC East (for us) and/or the final wild card spot in the NFC are on the line for these teams. NOLA will be fighting for that final wildcard spot as I expect the 11-5 Falcons to have their number this year due to their defensive/coaching suspensions. This is again one of those games where due to the late season and injuries in the secondary I could see Dallas falling before Drew Brees and his wide receivers' (including Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham)'s onslaught, despite our improved secondary. Dating back to the debacle loss in 2006 under Bill Parcells, no unit seems to know how to attack our defense better than [the suspended] Sean Payton's bunch.
33-27 LOSS 10-5
Week Seventeen 12-30 @Washington This is one of those games where motivation counts for everything. The Redskins won't be going to the playoffs this year but this game could be their Super Bowl, while Dallas has the choice of either grinding out a tough win in bad weather on the road to claim the division crown and a home playoff game, or settling for the final wild card slot and a road trip to Chicago in January. Again I expect the Redskins D to keep things low scoring in the first half. But the pass rush really starts to shine in dirty winter weather as RG3 (or Rex Grossman) gets hit early and often in a...
26-20 WIN 11-5
NFC Division winners
East Dallas 11-5
North Green Bay 13-3 Home field advantage throughout playoffs
South Atlanta 11-5
West San Francisco 12-4 First round bye
Wild cards New York 10-6, Chicago 10-6
(Bears have a relatively weak schedule this season besides division games)
Last year's NFC playoff teams that don't make it: New Orleans 8-8, Detroit 7-9
AFC Division winners
East New England 12-4 home field advantage
North Baltimore 11-5
South Houston 11-5
West Denver 12-4 (lose tiebreaker head to head in regular season against New England) First round bye
Pittsburgh 10-6, Buffalo 9-7
Last year's AFC playoff teams that don't make it: Cincinnati