The 2023 NFL schedule conforms to one of the undeniable facts of the league. It revolves around the Dallas Cowboys.
As Dan Rogers pointed out earlier, the Cowboys have seven nationally-televised games this season, including SNF, MNF, and TNF, plus the annual Thanksgiving Day game and a Saturday contest. That is the most in the league. More telling is that they are only scheduled for two 1 PM ET kickoffs. That means that fifteen of their seventeen games will reach a large part of the nation.
People who are rankled by this fact can argue all they want that Dallas really isn’t America’s Team. With this year’s schedule, the NFL clearly states that they believe the Cowboys are the team the most fans want to watch.
This seems odd for a franchise that is nearly thirty years removed from their last appearance in the Super Bowl. But through all that time, Dallas has remained the glamour franchise of the NFL, the team that is both the most loved and most hated. That transforms to ratings, which is the most important thing for the league, and over the years, the NFL and the media have done all they can to reinforce this. No team has as many storylines that have little to nothing to do with the actual games. This year, we are going to see a heavy dose of stories leading up to certain games that will be about personalities and drama.
Here are the biggest:
Week 2 New York Jets - Mike McCarthy vs Aaron Rodgers
This was a very smart call to get to this one early. It is the late afternoon game, and will be a big draw because of the history between Dallas’ head coach and the new quarterback of the Jets. The perception is that Rodgers had a lot to do with McCarthy’s firing by the Green Bay Packers. Additionally, Rodgers has been a nemesis for the Cowboys for years. While it really isn’t, this is going to be played up as a duel between the two.
The reason doing this so early was the way to go is that we really don’t know what the Jets will be this year. Rodgers is still one of the best in the league, and his new club has a very good defense. What remains to be seen is how their offense will come together with the sometimes prickly Rodgers. And the Dallas pass rush looks like it will be the strongest unit on either side of the ball for them. If they can get to Rodgers a lot, this could be a blowout. But if he gets some decent protection and has developed a rapport with his receivers, the Jets could flip the script if the Cowboys’ offensive line is still trying to sort things out and Dak Prescott’s own receivers don’t give him enough help. We also don’t know how things will go with McCarthy calling plays. That is where the real story is for this game.
Week 4 New England Patriots - McCarthy vs Bill Belichick
This is a battle between two Super Bowl winning coaches, but Belichick is the all time leader with six championships, plus three additional appearances, while McCarthy has just one. It’s another late afternoon game. That plus the early season positioning is a bit of a reflection of how the Patriots have had their issues. This one should see the Cowboys favored, possibly by a lot, but this head coach matchup is going to be milked for all it is worth. And if the Dallas offense is still trying to figure things out under McCarthy, it may actually be a valid way to look at things.
Week 5 at San Francisco 49ers - Getting over the hump
This is a Sunday night matchup that will draw tons of eyeballs. This storyline is obvious, because this is a rematch with the team that bounced the Cowboys from the playoffs the last two years. Brace yourself for articles about whether the 49ers just own Dallas. It is a road game, and it is a really tough looking one. Hopefully there will be a lot of Cowboys fans in the stadium.
A secondary story is going to be Dak vs Brock Purdy, Mr. Not So Irrelevant After All. Both were not expected to have the incredible success they did in their rookie seasons. It is a compelling human interest story and it will absolutely be played up.
Week 6 at Los Angeles Chargers - McCarthy vs Kellen Moore
McCarthy scapegoated Moore for the late-season struggles the Cowboys had last season, and they will be running the offenses for their teams, so this actually is a legit way to look at the game. But the perceived animosity and revenge factor for Moore will get hammered relentlessly. That will overshadow a real chess match between the two teams, as Moore has another very good QB in Justin Herbert. The Chargers hired their new OC to get them out of their own doldrums. Herbert is perceived as being somewhat wasted in his early years, so this will be a chance for Moore to eliminate the stain of how he was dumped by McCarthy. It is also a Monday night game, so it will have a large national audience, although that will be driven much more by Dallas as the L.A. market continues to be lackadaisical in their support for their NFL franchises.
Week 15 at Buffalo Bills - Hoped for Super Bowl preview
Before discussing this game, it is worth noting that all the others mentioned here are before the Cowboys’ bye in week 8. From that point on, the games should be much more focused on the standings and less on side stories. But the trip to Buffalo is a bit of a bet by the league that both teams are going to live up to preseason expectations and be in strong position to get to the playoffs. If they are, you can bet the chances of them meeting again in February are going to be mentioned everywhere. It has all the potential to be a marquee matchup as the playoff races get down to the wire, and could be a prime candidate to be flexed out of the late afternoon slot to SNF, with the new rules allowing that despite Dallas already having six prime time games on their schedule. If the weather is cold in Buffalo, you will also hear about how the Cowboys don’t handle that well.
Things can change, and probably will, but these are the ones on the Dallas schedule that are rife with opportunity to make them about more than just the matchups on the field. The way they were scheduled show that the NFL is very aware of how that drives ratings, and they did a very good job of maximizing the ability to drive interest and get those all important ratings up.