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Cowboys 2012 Schedule Breakdown: AFC North

A.J. Green is one of the many talented players the Cowboys will face when they play the AFC North division in 2012.
A.J. Green is one of the many talented players the Cowboys will face when they play the AFC North division in 2012.

When the NFL released the 2012 schedule this past Tuesday, Cowboys fans immediately looked over the schedule to get a closer look at the enemies we will face. Every year when I look over the schedule I tend to think every game is hard. Some teams that were playoff contenders the year before will falter, and some teams will come out of nowhere to surprise you. It may be a better idea to look at every single game as a must win instead of already crossing off wins.

Related: Dallas Cowboys 2012 Schedule Released

I think we can all come to an agreement that the Cowboys are a major cash-cow for the NFL. The league knows that America's Team will be a big draw financially due to the amount of fans the Cowboys have worldwide. This tends to put us in a difficult predicament. We draw a lot of marquee games on prime-time television. Hate it or love it, the Cowboys will always be one of the NFL centerpieces during the season.

The schedule this year looks pretty difficult on paper. This is the 11th most difficult schedule in the NFL, with opposing teams having a .504 winning percentage. The beginning of the year won't be a walk in the park. Opening against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, on the road will be another test for a Cowboys team that must start winning big games.

If this is the year this team takes the next step, it will have to be on the road. Four of the first six games will be on the road, but five of the last seven games will be played in the confines of Cowboys Stadium. The problem is the opponents we face in December.

  • Week 13 at home against the Eagles
  • Week 14 on the road against the Bengals
  • Week 15 at home against the Steelers
  • Week 16 at home against the Saints
  • Week 17 on the road against the Redskins

Unfortunately, we are far too familiar with the December troubles this team has had. Winning these difficult games will go a long way in determining if the Cowboys are pretenders or contenders. During the 2009 season, the team stepped up and delivered. That is the type of performance we need to see from Tony Romo and company again.

Breaking down each divisional opponents will give us a better idea of who we are facing. In the first part of this series, I decided to discuss the AFC North, a division we haven't faced since the dreaded 2008 season. The AFC North is loaded with talent, and one of our oldest rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Take the jump for more of the North...

Week 6: @ Baltimore Ravens

The Cowboys have a serious score to settle with the Ravens. If you remember, this was the team that came into our house and silenced almost 63,000 Cowboys fans at the last game of Texas Stadium. I really don't want to talk too much about the 33-24 loss because it was just another typical Cowboys collapse. It was a game they had won, but the defense folded in the 4th quarter when fullback Le'Ron McClain ran for the longest touchdown run (82 yards) the Cowboys ever gave up in that stadium.

Going on the road to Baltimore won't be an easy game. They have a talented team that plays good defense and runs the football well. Joe Flacco is the type of quarterback that the Cowboys should be able to get after, he doesn't scare me at all. Ray Rice is the one who does intimidate me, we must shut him down. Brandon Carr is the cornerback I would put on deep threat Torrey Smith.

The Ravens defense is tough, but it is beatable. If Tyron Smith and Doug Free can maintain the outside pass rush, then the interior of the line has to neutralize Haloti Ngta. If Phil Costa is still the starting center, Tony Romo might be in for a long game. Ed Reed is old, but he is still one of the most dangerous players in the NFL. Hopefully #9 manages to stay out of his way this time.

Prediction: Extremely close game that could go either way. Whoever makes the late mistakes will lose the football game.

Week 11: Cleveland Browns

This is the type of game we label, the "trap game". An inferior opponent comes into your home turf and you underestimate them. That would be a mistake for the Cowboys to make, but under head coach Jason Garrett, I highly doubt that happens.

The Browns are still undergoing their rebuilding stage. They have holes all over their team, but are beginning to get back on track. With another solid draft, they could field a quality team that keeps games close. Offensively, this isn't a team that really should test the Cowboys. They lack a quarterback who can consistently stretch the field, and their running game isn't what it used to be.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is very familiar with the Browns. There are a few members on Ryan's staff who came over from Cleveland, so this should be a game with high emotional stakes at play. Defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson should be able to give the Cowboys a better idea of what type of coverage's they will see, and that will benefit Tony Romo. Safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Joe Haden and defensive lineman Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard will be tests for the Cowboys offense.

Projection: Cowboys SHOULD win this game, but it may turn out to be a closer game than some expect.

Week 14: @ Cincinnati Bengals

This is another game that has some personal ties to the Cowboys. Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is one of the class acts of the NFL, and I have a lot of personnal respect for this man. He has been through a lot in the past few years with the passing of his wife. Zimmer is respected by his players because he is not just a great football coach, but he is also a great man.

The Bengals have some former Cowboys. Terence Newman is now a member of the black and orange. Frankly, I think the Cowboys are going to attack him if he makes it to the game. With his injury history, Newman might be retired by week 14. Adam Jones is also a member of the Bengals, and I look forward to abusing him as well. One player who never made the Cowboys, but in my opinion should have, was 4th and Long contestant Andre Hawkins. The waterbug wide receiver should be a player to watch for.

The Bengals are a playoff team that has really begun to start taking the next step as a contender. They finally have a legitimate quarterback, paired with a superstar wide receiver in A.J. Green. They have a very underrated defense, don't sleep on the Bengals, folks. They are a young and talented team who will only get better with two first-round picks this year.

Projection: The Cowboys win a close game on the road. Look forward to seeing Brandon Carr versus A.J. Green, that should be a great battle.

Week 15: Pittsburgh Steelers

Back in 2008, the Cowboys went into Pittsburgh and nearly came away with an impressive win. Rookie running back Tashard Choice played one of the best games of his career, but Tony Romo didn't exactly have a career day. This is another grudge match that I want to see the Cowboys come away with the victory. I don't know if it will happen, but it will be a great football game.

One thing that I don't want to see is thousands of black and yellow Steelers fans waving their dirty towel in our stadium. Like Cowboys fans, Steelers fans tend to travel in hordes. If you live near Cowboys Stadium, you should be at that game. Do not let the Pittsburgh faithful buy up tickets and take away the home-field advantage.

Ben Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, but I hate to admit it. Like our very own quarterback, he finds ways to make big plays. The Steelers have a great wide receiving corps, so that should be a big test for our secondary. They have always managed to run the football well also. Rob Ryan will have to pick his poison that day, and decide on what avenue to shutdown.

Their defense has stars, but is beginning to age. Our offensive tackles versus their pass rushers should be one of the big battles of the game. Tyron Smith and Doug Free against James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will be a key factor in the game. Safety Troy Polamalu is beginning to age, but he is still one of the best safeties in the NFL. I would advise our boy Tony to stay away from him at all costs.

Projection: Once again, this will be an extremely close ballgame. It should be a physical war between two teams with a lot of history. We hate them, they hate us. If the Cowboys manage to pull out a win this late in the season against a good Steelers team, they could ride the momentum into the playoffs.

Coming Soon...Part II: The NFC South

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