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Three non-divisional games on the Cowboys schedule that could have a big impact on their playoff hopes

Taking a look ahead at some potentially crucial games on the Cowboys 2021 schedule.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re going strictly based on strength of schedule, the Dallas Cowboys have the second-easiest regular season schedule in football this season. The Cowboys' opponents had a combined .452 winning percentage last season, so it looks like they have some favorable matchups. But as we all know, things change quickly in football, and last year doesn’t mean a thing once the new season kicks off.

As the season draws closer, we take a look at the Cowboys' schedule and single out three non-divisional games that could have a big impact on their playoff hopes.

Los Angeles Chargers Mandatory Minicamp Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

1) Week 2, Sun 9/19 @ Los Angeles Chargers 4:25 ET

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they are one of the four teams this year that will start the season with back-to-back road games. To make things more challenging, Dallas has to kick off their 2021 slate by facing the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are returning all 22 starters from their Super Bowl team and open the season with the second highest odds to win it all again at +650, via CBS Sports.

Now there’s no telling who wins the opener. For all we know the Cowboys could come out on fire and pull off a big-time statement win, but currently Tampa Bay is favored by 6.5 points via FanDuel. If Vegas has the game pegged correctly and Dallas is unable to deliver a loss to the defending champs on opening night, week two at Los Angeles becomes a huge game.

From 2002-2019, teams starting the season 0-1 make the playoffs just 30% of the time. When they fall to 0-2, it drops all the way down to just 14%.

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The Cowboys will need to perform well in Los Angeles regardless, but especially if they are looking to avoid falling to 0-2. It won’t be an easy game, however, as second-year quarterback Justin Herbert and a healthy defense will make the Chargers an admirable opponent.

NFL: JUN 16 Vikings Minicamp Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2) Week 8, Sun 10/31 at Minnesota Vikings 8:20 ET

The Cowboys get to celebrate Halloween this year by traveling to Minnesota to take on the Vikings. Minnesota is coming off a down year in 2020 where they posted their first losing record since 2014. The Vikings really fell off down the stretch, losing three of their final four games after sitting at 6-6 in Week 13.

The Vikings' defense really struggled last season, allowing the fourth-most points in football and 24 or more points in 12 of their 16 games. Even with subpar defense, the Vikings still have plenty of talent on offense to make this a challenging game for the Cowboys. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is coming off the best statistical season of his career. Running back Dalvin Cook has cemented himself as a top-five back in football, and second-year wideout Justin Jefferson is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent memory.

After facing the Vikings off a bye, the Cowboys will face the Broncos and Falcons before an extremely tough three-game in 12 day stretch against the Chiefs, Raiders, and Saints. Getting off to a good start and beating Minnesota to grab some momentum before winnable games against Denver and Atlanta could be crucial to give Dallas some breathing room before a tough November and December.

Divisional Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

3) Week 13, Thu 12/02 at New Orleans Saints 8:20 ET

Back in 2018, the Cowboys and Saints matched up in Week 13. New Orleans came into the game at 10-1 looking like the most dominant team in football. That night, the Cowboys put together a great performance delivering the Saints their second loss, cementing themselves as a true playoff contender.

Three years later, the two meet again on the same week, and the same day, both likely having something to prove. Even without Drew Brees, the Saints have enough overall talent to compete for a playoff spot. Brees clearly was not the guy he used to be last season, but New Orleans still won 12 games and won their division. Their defense was very good, finishing as the fourth-best unit in football according to PFF. Even with Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill at quarterback, the Saints talent on offense and defense makes them a contender.

Finishing up their most physically demanding stretch of the season against a good Saints team will be a big test for the Cowboys. If Dallas is able to go into the Superdome and come out with a victory like they did back in 2009, it could go a long way in solidifying themselves as one of the better teams in the NFC.

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