The Dallas Cowboys are considered by many to be the best challengers to the reigning NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East, a surprisingly tough division in 2022 that hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2003-04. The Cowboys and Eagles won’t meet head-to-head until Week 5 and then week 14, but just how much weight these games carry could easily be determined by how both teams get out of the gate in the first few weeks.
The Cowboys have a playoff rematch against the 49ers to look forward to in Week 5, and before then face a schedule that poses some potential early trap games. In order for the Cowboys to hit the Bay Area with thoughts of it being just the first time they’ll see the 49ers or other NFC contenders this year, they’ll need to avoid extending a current three-game losing streak to the Jets in Week 2 and a two-game streak to the Cardinals in Week 3, part of a larger stretch of six losses in seven tries against Arizona.
Before looking even much further ahead to road games at the Bills and Dolphins in December, the importance of these early season games for the Cowboys shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here is a closer look at some of the best case/worst case scenarios for Dallas in the first four games.
Week 1 at New York Giants (Sunday Night Football)
From 2012-17, the Cowboys and Giants played in Week 1 all but once, a tradition that will be renewed in 2023. The Giants were a surprise team in the division last year, winning nine games in year one under head coach Brian Daboll and putting a supporting cast around Daniel Jones that could make them dangerous for a while.
This hasn’t stopped the Cowboys from out-dueling the Giants in their last four meetings, winning both by one score in 2022. These teams opening in primetime feels like a bigger vote of confidence from the league for the Giants to build off their nine-win season and remain relevant, but will also be the debut of Mike McCarthy’s offense and a solid opening test for Dan Quinn’s defense.
Best case: For obvious reasons, divisional games are the most black-and-white to look at from a best or worst case scenario. It’s hard to find silver linings when losing to NFC East rivals, especially if Dallas drops their first game against New York since 2021.
For a team that leaned even further into being defensive-minded this year, the Giants will be a solid opening test though. Adding TE Darren Waller and drafting speedster WR Jalin Hyatt give Daniel Jones the best supporting cast he’s had in his time as the Giants’ starter. The Cowboys haven’t broken 30 points in any of their last three wins against the Giants, so this game will be just the first benchmark on how many points the Cowboys need to average to support this defense.
The Cowboys offense is expected to take a step up with McCarthy and OC Brian Schottenheimer in charge. The best case scenario after waiting all day for Sunday night in week one is McCarthy’s offense finding its stride, creating big plays against the Giants that allows the defense to play from ahead and pick up where they left off with pass rush and takeaways.
Worst case: Losing to the Giants on the road would put the Cowboys in an early hole. With the benchmark for the rival Eagles being much more than just a division title this season, losing ground to both Philadelphia and New York early is not something Dallas can afford. The Giants offense can test the Cowboys in some of the same ways the Eagles can, stretching the field horizontally with a mobile quarterback and strong run game.
The Giants defensive front led by Kayvon Thibodeaux will also be a tall order for whatever version of the best five offensive linemen the Cowboys line up with to start the season. If the Cowboys struggle to run the ball and keep control of this game, anything can happen in a rivalry marked by consistently tight contests.
Week 2 Vs. New York Jets
This game provides one of the league’s best storylines early on. Rumored to be saved for Thanksgiving before the schedule release, instead the Cowboys open with consecutive games against New York teams - with the bigger headline being another McCarthy vs. Aaron Rodgers game. The Cowboys couldn’t turn their fortune against Rodgers in McCarthy’s return to Lambeau Field last year, and now can’t avoid him again in his first year in the AFC.
Best case: If the Giants offense proves to be just an appetizer for the Cowboys defense in Week 1, the main course isn’t far behind in Week 2. The advantage of this game being early on is that Rodgers will still be adjusting to his new weapons, but on paper it has potential to be a potent offense. Garrett Wilson, Allen Lazard, Mecole Hardman, and Corey Davis will all test the depth of the Dallas secondary, but for a team with strength in numbers here they should be able to keep it from being an all-out shootout.
Scoring at will against the Jets won’t be an easy task either, as they led the league in fewest pass TDs allowed in 2022. Whether or not quarterback play is truly all the Jets have been missing to contend will be put to the test early against a team that’s proven they have a QB that keeps them in nearly every game. The best case scenario for Week 2 isn’t just to squeak out a win against the Jets, but for McCarthy to get his revenge against Rodgers by calling a big game for Dak Prescott and forcing Rodgers to keep up. For as much as the Cowboys want to win with defense and put games away on offense, this feels like one the offense has to step up for.
Worst case: As far as potential losses go, AFC opponents make the least impact on the Cowboys playoff standing. This is why Week 2 isn’t as clear cut as the season opener to say the worst case scenario is merely losing outright. Rodgers has never lost a game he’s played at AT&T Stadium, including a Super Bowl win, so keeping this streak alive would immediately raise questions as to how prepared the Cowboys are to play against other elite quarterbacks. The Jets may not be built to test their run defense in the same way the Giants will in Week 1, but they are still a young and upcoming team in perfect position to prove how much of a year-to-year league the NFL is. This isn’t a potential loss that would break the Cowboys season, but one to certainly look back on as a missed opportunity at home.
Week 3 at Arizona Cardinals
The Cowboys travel to the site of last year’s Super Bowl, to face off against new Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon - who was the defensive coordinator in that Super Bowl for the Eagles. The Cardinals are looking to rebuild around Kyler Murray, but should be excited about seeing the Cowboys on their schedule early. Arizona has won six of their last seven against Dallas, the last two coming on the road.
Best case: The volatility of the Cowboys first two games makes it even more important they avoid another letdown against the Cardinals. Under McCarthy, the Cowboys have already proven they are a consistent presence in the playoffs. If this season is truly going to be about making sure they’re “viable” in the playoffs beyond the Divisional Round, the Cowboys need to capitalize against a defense that allowed the highest completion percentage in the league last year. If the best case scenario for the previous games was to win in anyway possible, this is the first game we can add the caveat that Dallas should win big to justify leaving the desert as the best early-season version of themselves.
Worst case: Allowing the Cardinals to continue their surprising streak against the Cowboys is the bare minimum for outcomes that are the worst case scenario here. By this point in the season the Cowboys will have played against other dual-threat quarterbacks in Jones and Rodgers, but Murray is easily the biggest rushing threat of the three. The Cowboys made the most serious commitment to tightening up their run defense in years by drafting Mazi Smith in the first round, and with the depth of talent he’ll be playing with up front the immediate impact needs to be felt.
Murray and the Cardinals running wild on Quinn’s defense would leave a ton of questions about how quickly the Cowboys can right this ship, with the 49ers meeting and Kyle Shanahan’s run game on the horizon.
Week 4 Vs. New England Patriots
The Cowboys last meeting with the Patriots was it’s very own example of both a best and worst case scenario playing out in real time. The Cowboys earned an overtime win on the road with CeeDee Lamb’s walk off touchdown in 2021, but this game marked an early-season high point for an offense that couldn’t find a similar spark all year.
Playing against a Bill Belichick defense can have this effect, as this feels like yet another game the Cowboys will be leaning on their defense to have the advantage against Mac Jones and the Patriots offense.
Best case: A win against the Patriots heading into the 49ers rematch would be a great confidence boost early on for the Cowboys. Dallas will face bigger tests on the road against the AFC East when they play at the Bills and Dolphins, so these early-season home games against the Jets and Patriots are important. By this point the Cowboys backfield without Ezekiel Elliott will have a chance to have proved itself, and it’s the types of big plays they’re expecting from Tony Pollard and Co. that can easily make the difference against a team that struggled to create similar plays themselves. Getting greedy and wishing for any particular type of win against Belichick and the Patriots isn’t a smart idea, but a decisive enough win for the Cowboys to still be living up to their offseason hype would be huge here.
Worst case: Just like the other AFC East team in this stretch of games, a loss isn’t the end of the world and shouldn’t be treated as such. It’s a repeat of how the Patriots game two years ago turned the fortune of that season that serves as the worst case scenario in Week 4 for the Cowboys this year. The Cowboys suffering a setback at home vs. the Patriots just to give the 49ers a blueprint to follow it up a week later is a potential first quarter pitfall Dallas could be digging out of the rest of the season. McCarthy’s offense should be fresh enough to avoid this, but for a veteran coach whose system has been in the league for years, the same concerns that have plagued the Cowboys offense for years could be realized in this game and beyond.