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The Cowboys’ success in 2021 will come down to this stretch of games on their schedule

It’s not about how you start, but how you finish.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys’ opponents in 2021 have been known since the 2020 season ended, but the order in which the schedule unfolds is arguably more important than the teams themselves. While the schedule was released a while ago, the shape of each team is starting to come into focus now as training camp approaches, which in turn is giving some more clarity on the schedule and its relative toughness.

For the Cowboys, who are looking to rebound from an injury-riddled 6-10 campaign and make the playoffs for the first time since 2018, things have not been set up nicely for them. The season starts out on the road against the reigning Super Bowl champs, who managed to re-sign all 22 of their starters from last year’s title run. They also take a trip to Foxborough to play the Patriots and have a relatively early bye week in Week 7, meaning they’ll have to run through 11 straight games to finish out the season.

On its own, that would be daunting enough of a schedule, but the Cowboys’ final eight games in particular are a gauntlet of a schedule that will make or break their season. For starters, four of those eight games are divisional matchups, and they all come in December and January. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: it gives Dallas the opportunity to make up a lot of ground in the NFC East in a hurry if need be, but it also presents the chance to fumble away a division lead right at the end too, Leon Lett style.

And while the NFC East was a laughingstock in 2020, and rightfully so, it shouldn’t be that way this year. The Washington Football Team won the division last year on stout defense and an offense that struggled to move the ball due to inconsistent performances under center. They brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick in free agency, though, and shored up the offensive line in what should be a much-improved offense. Meanwhile, the Giants nearly won the division on the strength of their own stingy defense. The jury is still out on whether or not Daniel Jones is any good, but New York hedged their bets by bringing in Kenny Golladay, John Ross, and Kyle Rudolph to play alongside Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram, and Saquon Barkley.

There’s also the Eagles.

The Cowboys’ hopes are riding on the notion that returning Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, and La’el Collins from injury will pair with a defense that Dan Quinn elevates from terrible to average, and that the synthesis of those two yields a team good enough to win their division. It’s a strong theory, but the relative improvements of the rest of the division will certainly offer a good test. Having so many divisional games bunched up towards the end of the season only exacerbates the difficulty of winning the NFC East this year.

To make matters worse, though, the Cowboys’ final four non-divisional games are no cakewalk either. First it’s on the road against the Chiefs, a team that’s reached the AFC Championship Game each of the last three years and the Super Bowl each of the last two years, winning one. They’re also 18-6 at home over the last three years, a period of time that is marked by a guy named Patrick Mahomes, who’s pretty tough for even the best defenses to stop. It goes without saying that Dallas, even in the most optimistic sense, won’t have one of the best defenses this year.

After the Chiefs, Dallas draws a home game against the Raiders just four days later. They don’t compare to the Chiefs, but Jon Gruden’s Raiders are not to be overlooked. Last year they were 7-5 after the first week of December and in good position to nab a playoff spot. But three consecutive breakdowns on defense led to a three-game losing streak that cost them a shot at making the postseason in their first season in Las Vegas. They spent their offseason much the same way Dallas did: they hired former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to fix the defense and spent five of their seven draft picks on defense. The Raiders are going to be a tough team to beat in 2021, and the Cowboys draw them just four days after what promises to be a tough game in Kansas City.

A week later, the Cowboys travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints in the Superdome, a notoriously tough place to play. Much of the discourse around the Saints this year is whether Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill can fill the shoes of the retired Drew Brees, but the Saints are still coached by Sean Payton and still have Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and a defense that’s finished top ten in the NFL in defensive DVOA each of the last four years. Plus, whoever becomes the new starting quarterback (with the smart money being on Winston) will have 11 games under their belt by the time they face Dallas, offering ample time to have built chemistry within the offense. Additionally, this will be the Cowboys’ third game in 12 days and will be in a very hostile environment. It will not be easy.

The Saints game is followed by three straight divisional foes before hosting the Cardinals in their final home game of the year. The Cardinals, of course, were the first team the Cowboys faced without Dak Prescott last year, and they got steamrolled 38-10. Much like the Raiders, Arizona was on its way towards a playoff spot, sitting at 6-3 midway through November after a thrilling walkoff win over the Bills. However, an injury to Kyler Murray’s throwing shoulder caused them to go 2-5 over the remainder of the year and finish 8-8. Over the offseason, they added J.J. Watt, Malcolm Butler, and A.J. Green to bolster a roster that likely would have been in the postseason last year had their star quarterback remained healthy. They’ll present another challenge for the Cowboys.

And after their bout with the Cardinals, the Cowboys travel to Philadelphia for a season-finale that could very well be the deciding factor in who wins the division, as has often been the case for the Cowboys’ regular-season finales. This year, however, it will also represent the culmination of an absolute gauntlet of games to end the year on. However the Cowboys’ record looks at the conclusion of the year, it will be a direct reflection of how they handled these challenging final eight games.