No one knows what will happen with any team in 2022. The Rams could lose a couple of key contributors and be at the bottom of the league. The Jacksonville Jaguars could surprise everyone and win more than five games. Everything is possible at this point in the year.
This serves as a disclaimer. We cannot definitely determine the difficulty of the Cowboys' upcoming opponents. However, this isn't a shot in the dark. Between 2021 performance, offseason improvement or regression, and draft capital, we can make an educated guess about the type of teams that Dallas will play next season.
And in doing so, five distinct tiers arise.
Categorizing the Cowboys 2022 opponents by difficulty
To preface, each of the Dallas Cowboys 2022 opponents will be placed into five tiers:
- Highly likely to win: Teams that the Cowboys should have no business losing to, and if they did, fans would begin to panic.
- Likely to win: Games that Dallas should be favored in, but if their opponent won it wouldn’t be surprising.
- Coin flip: These games will be close to an even spread and it could go either way.
- Unlikely to win: Teams that should be favored against the Cowboys but it wouldn’t be a shock if Dallas pulled it out.
- Highly unlikely to win: Teams that most fans are marking on the schedule as a loss and it would be an upset if Dallas wins.
5.) Highly likely to win: Texans, Jaguars, Bears
The Cowboys have at least three teams on their schedule that should be competing for the number one overall pick in 2022. And these three teams all fall into the “very-likely win” category. If Dallas lost to any of these teams, fans would be slamming the panic button.
The 6-11 Bears have done nothing to help Justin Fields. The sophomore quarterback has essentially been set up to fail due to the inaction of the Bears' front office. With Darnell Mooney as their best receiving threat and a defense that just lost Khalil Mack, there is little evidence this team will be better in 2022.
The Texans led by Davis Mills are a curious case. With Mills flashing at times last season, the front office decided to trust the former Stanford quarterback with another year leading the offense. And Houston’s offseason wasn't horrific. However, there was little improvement in free agency for a team that had a lot of holes in 2021.
The Jaguars spent every cent they had in free agency. The issue is that their spending revolved around over-paying role players that likely won’t change this team in one year. Regardless, Jacksonville seems to be rebounding out of the Urban Meyer era somewhat well. But for a team that just held the no. 1 overall pick, there is a lot of work to do before they are competing with the Cowboys.
4.) Likely to win: Lions, Vikings, Giants (x2), Commanders (x2)
This tier deserves a little explanation. The Giants and Commanders easily could have fallen into the “highly likely” tier. However, the Cowboys have to play both of these teams twice. And thus, while it is highly likely they beat each of them at least once, beating them twice seems more “likely” than highly likely. Because there is a chance that either the Giants or Commanders take at least one game, they fall into tier four.
The Vikings are somewhat self-explanatory. After re-signing Kirk Cousins, Minnesota will probably flash at times and seem like a true contender. But at other times they will fall flat on their face. While the Vikings are the best team in this group, Dallas should still be favored against them. If the Cowboys lose it wouldn't be surprising but it would be unlikely.
The Lions are the surprise of this category, as some might believe they fall into tier five. However, Dan Campbell and the Lions' front office seem to be turning the ship around. Over their last six games last year they were a 3-3 team. But the main reason the Lions fall into this tier is that they play every team close under Campbell. Last season, despite them being a 3-13-1 team, six of those losses were by one score. It took a record-setting 66-yard field goal by Justin Tucker for the Ravens to beat them. The Cowboys will likely handle the Lions, but don't be surprised if it is close and ends up going the other way.
3.) Coin flip: Eagles (x2), Titans, Bengals, Colts
These are the matchups that fans should circle on the schedule as the “find out what team Dallas is made of” games. If Dallas can beat two or three of these teams, maybe the 2022 Cowboys have a shot. If they lose them all, then you are looking at trouble.
The Eagles fall into this tier for the same reason the Giants and Commanders were in the previous one. One game against the Eagles would be deemed a “likely to win” game, but winning two is a coin flip. As of now, the 2022 Cowboys are still the best team in the NFC East. But the “coin flip” of two games against Philadelphia might decide the division next season.
The Titans and Colts are very similar teams. Both have a serviceable, but not intimidating, quarterback. These two rely on their rushing game anchored by the two best running backs in football. And their defenses are good enough to keep the game in reach. They are solid all-around with the exception of their quarterbacks, and even Ryan Tannehill is underrated at times. For that reason, these games will be competitive.
The Bengals might be the surprise on this list for some. But Cincinnati currently sits at a 9.5-win team according to DraftKings Sportsbook. This is partially due to their difficult schedule in 2022. However, they were only a 10-win team in 2021 that caught fire at the right time. This is by no means an easy game for Dallas but it will be more of a coin toss than a guaranteed Bengals victory.
2.) Unlikely to win: Rams and Buccaneers
You read that right, the 2021 Super Bowl champions are not the hardest team the Cowboys will face next season. It was a difficult offseason for the Rams.
Los Angeles currently sits as a 10.5-win team according to Vegas, same as the Cowboys. Granted, they were able to add Allen Robinson and Bobby Wagner. But this is not enough to offset the losses of Von Miller, Austin Corbett, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Andrew Whitworth, and Robert Woods. Both the Rams and Cowboys were twelve-win teams last year, and they had equally disappointing offseasons.
Now, the obvious rebuttal is that the Rams get to play at home. However, in 2021 the Rams had three losses at home and two on the road. This is not Lambeau field, the Rams can be beaten in Los Angeles.
Dallas should not win this game. The Rams fall into the second tier because they will be favored to win against the Cowboys. However, if Dak Prescott and the offense show up in week five, there is a real possibility they win the game.
Another week one matchup against the Buccaneers falls into this tier as well. Two months ago, when Tom Brady was retired, the Buccaneers would have been a tier four or five team. But with Brady, who has never lost against the Cowboys, they are a borderline tier one to tier two team.
Now, in 2021 the Buccaneers opened the season as a 9.5-point favorite against the Cowboys. A year later, Dallas is a 2.5-point underdog against Tampa Bay. This is the definition of tier two. Sure, the Cowboys are likely going to lose by roughly a field goal. But it shouldn't shock fans if the Cowboys came out at home and upset the Buccaneers.
Maybe you put this matchup into tier one, that is reasonable as well. But the Cowboys only lost by two points against a 2021 Buccaneers team that should take a step back in 2022. This is likely going to be a competitive game that Dallas should lose, but a win wouldn't be entirely surprising.
1.) Highly unlikely to win: Packers
At this point, Cowboys fans have been hurt too many times against the Packers. Sure, Dallas will be coming off their bye week and the Packers will be coming off a three-game road stretch. Sure, Mike McCarthy will probably want revenge in the stadium he coached at for 13 seasons.
But does any of that make you feel better? Because Rodgers has the Cowboys' number, and when you play at Lambeau after October, the odds are stacked against you. The Packers have the fourth-best odds to win the Super Bowl and the third-best projected win total in the NFL.
Is there a chance the Cowboys head into Lambeau and upset the Packers? Absolutely. But are most fans already counting this game as a loss? Almost certainly. For that reason, this is the only real game that should be considered highly unlikely that the Cowboys win.
But that is the beauty of football. The Cowboys could beat the Packers in Lambeau and then four weeks later drop a game to the Houston Texans. The entire season is still on the horizon with infinite possibilities.
With the schedule released, it officially means that it is not too early to think about the upcoming season. Fans can get excited, analysts can start picking apart the schedule, bold predictions can be made, and every team is in playoff contention. It is a beautiful but tempting time of the year. Just four more months.