The Dallas Cowboys are NFC East champions and with it comes a guaranteed playoff game at the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium where the team is 7-1 at home this season. What a nice way to start off the new year. The Cowboys will join the club of division winners that all get to host a playoff game. While membership has it’s privileges, it also comes with a price - a first-place schedule. That sounds like a scary thing as if a long list of tough opponents will be lining up to play the Cowboys, but all it really amounts to is two games. The Cowboys will be playing the same 14 games their NFC East foes will play with the only difference being the two conference games that are determined based on standings.
Because the Cowboys finished first in their division, Dallas will play the division winners of the NFC South and NFC West and the remaining teams from the East will play the corresponding ranked team in those same divisions. Here are those opponents for the NFC East teams. The last column is the total wins this season for their upcoming South and West opponents.
As you can see, based on this years results, those two games are going to be much tougher for Dallas than the rest of their division rivals.
But things change from year to year. The teams that are good now may not be good next season. The Philadelphia Eagles had the first-place schedule this year, but lucked out and didn’t have to play the Chicago Bears. The Bears went from worst to first in the North, which didn’t work out so favorable for the New York Giants. Here are how things worked out based on last year’s results:
The Saints and Rams certainly look like great teams now, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be great next season. Many people thought the Minnesota Vikings would be one of the top teams in the NFC this season, but they’ve slid a bit.
Speaking of things changing, when the schedule came out for this season, the talent of the two divisions the NFC East teams were set to play turned out to be different than the previous year. The NFC South consisted of three playoff teams from a year ago - New Orleans (11-5), Carolina (11-5), and Atlanta (10-6). It was expected this would be a tough division, but only the Saints are going to the playoffs this season as both Carolina and Atlanta are 6-9 this year. Dallas went 3-1 against that division.
Conversely, the AFC South looked like it would be a cake walk as it consisted of two 4-12 teams (Houston and Indianapolis). Only the division winning (and AFC Conference contending) Jacksonville Jaguars appeared to be a team that could give them trouble. Strangely, the Jags were the only team in that division the Cowboys beat this year as everything flip-flopped. The two 4-12 teams from last season are both in line to make the playoffs with Houston and Indy holding the third- and sixth-seed respectively. Even Tennessee is still in the hunt as they sit with a 9-7 record.
The East teams will play the NFC North and the AFC East divisions next season. The North could be a little tough with Chicago improving and Minnesota still good enough to land a final playoff spot this year. You never know what Green Bay is going to do as they fired their head coach this season, but they still have Aaron Rodgers. They always seem to play the Cowboys tough.
As far as the AFC teams the Cowboys will face, only New England has a winning record this season. Unless quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Josh Allen make a big jump next season, those matchups shouldn’t be that worrisome. But again, a lot can change by then.
If you went by record alone, the Cowboys had seven games this year against teams with a record worse than they had last season. That might sway one to think the team would finish under .500 this season, but Dallas has won five games against teams with a better record than they had last year (New Orleans, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Philadelphia twice). The Saints are the only one of those teams who currently have a better record than the Cowboys which just goes to show the parity of the NFL.
Looking ahead to next season, the Cowboys will only have four games (New Orleans, Los Angeles, New England, and Chicago) against teams with a better reccord than they have. That’s not too bad for a first-place schedule. Of course, one of the most influential factors in determining how hard their schedule is comes down to just how good that the Cowboys are themselves, which is perfect because that’s all head coach Jason Garrett has them worried about... themselves.
So, circle those dates when the Cowboys face off against those tougher teams. With any luck, a couple of them could end up being rematches from this year’s playoff battles. While they may have a harder schedule than their divisional peers next season, the road doesn’t look that tough. And it will be even easier if the Cowboys are revamped to be even better in 2019.