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Evaluating the Cowboys strength of schedule in 2023

How hard is the Cowboys’ schedule this year?

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The schedule has been released, and we now know exactly when, and in what order, the Cowboys will face their opponents this season. The next question is how hard their schedule actually is. Strength of schedule is always a tricky thing to quantify, considering how hard it is to predict which teams will actually be good or bad, and there are different ways of looking at it.

The most common approach is just using team records from the previous season. According to this method, the Cowboys have the fourth hardest schedule this year, tied with the Giants, while the Eagles have the hardest schedule in the league:

With the addition of the 17th game, a first-place team will now play FIVE first place teams, which means you’re rarely going to see a division winner with an easy schedule. Every team in the NFC East has a tough schedule this year, but the Eagles’ is the most difficult because they have to play five first place teams, unlike the Cowboys, Giants and Commanders, who will only play four games against first-place teams.

Of the eight teams playing a “first-place” schedule in 2023, the Jaguars have it the easiest, which is notable, because first-place teams have done well in that situation since the NFL switched to a 17-game schedule in 2021. The Cowboys had the “easiest” first-place schedule in 2022 and they were able to turn that into an 12-5 record. The Bills had the “easiest” first-place schedule in 2021 and they were able to turn that into an 11-6 record.

There are some obvious flaws to this approach, though, as win-loss records have proven to be unreliable in predicting future success. Similarly, records are not all that indicative of actual team strength, and that’s without taking into account a team’s changes during the offseason.

In order to better gauge a team’s intrinsic strength, let’s use DVOA, a metric that reflects overall team efficiency. This approach still has the same flaw of not accounting for offseason changes, but it does offer a more comprehensive view of how good each team actually is.

In fact, I used this approach last season to look at the Cowboys’ strength of schedule, as well as the rest of the league. While it was by no means perfect, the strength of schedule by DVOA saw teams with easy schedules (Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Jaguars) outperform their projected win totals while teams with especially difficult schedules (Raiders, Rams) floundered despite having high preseason expectations. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Cowboys’ game-by-game strength of schedule:

2023 Cowboys strength of schedule by DVOA, grades courtesy of Football Outsiders

The color coding is very simple: green indicates really good teams, red is very bad teams, and yellow is stuck in the middle. As you can see, the Cowboys have four games against teams that were really good a year ago, with two of those matchups being the Eagles. Dallas also only plays three games against bad teams, all of whom are projected to have losing seasons once again.

The rest of the schedule is filled with average teams, which leaves a lot of room for uncertainty when considering offseason changes. For example, how much better might the Jets be with Aaron Rodgers under center? Will the Chargers take a step forward under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore? Can Seattle recreate the magic of Geno Smith’s Comeback Player of the Year campaign?

All in all, the Cowboys play more truly great teams than they do truly awful teams this year, and three of those are on the road. There won’t be too many gimme games this year, which makes it difficult for the Cowboys. But how do they stack up against the rest of the league? Let’s check it out:

2023 Strength of Schedule by DVOA, grades courtesy of Football Outsiders

The final column has the average DVOA of each team’s schedule, offering the most simplified version of strength of schedule. By this approach, the teams with the hardest schedule (in descending order) are the Giants, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots, and Commanders. All five of those teams graded out as average teams by DVOA last year.

The Cowboys have the ninth hardest schedule by DVOA, and they are one of three green teams to place inside the top 10 here; the other two, Philadelphia and Buffalo, have harder schedules. The Cardinals and Rams are the only two red teams in the top 10, which doesn’t bode well for their hopes of a rebound; they also both play the Cowboys.

On the flip side, the teams with the easiest schedules are the Falcons, Saints, Packers, Texans, and Titans. All of those teams posted losing records and missed out on the playoffs last year, and all but Houston graded out as average. There are no green teams inside the top 10 easiest schedules; the closest is Baltimore, with the 13th easiest schedule.

A year ago, the Cowboys had the second easiest schedule in the NFL, behind only the Eagles. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, to see those two duking it out for the top spot in both the division and the conference for much of the season, with Philly ultimately securing the top seed.

The road will be harder for both teams now, though the Eagles have a harder go of it. Interestingly enough, the other two teams in this division have even harder schedules, which might suggest that the NFC East will be a division that cannibalizes itself this season. It certainly makes it that much harder to believe the Eagles will become the first team in nearly two decades to win the NFC East back-to-back.

As for the Cowboys, they’ve won 12 games in each of the last two seasons, doing so for the first time since Barry Switzer’s first two years in Dallas. That was also the last time the Cowboys had three straight 12-win seasons, with Jimmy Johnson having won 12 games in his final year with the team. Facing a much harder schedule this year, the Cowboys will have to make leaps as a team to match that streak this year.

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