After looking at how the Cowboys open their season in September, it’s time to move into a stretch of games with no shortage of juicy storylines that fans can’t wait to see play out. The Cowboys return to primetime after opening at the Giants on Sunday Night Football for consecutive games against the 49ers on Sunday night in week five and Chargers on Monday night in week six.
A playoff rematch under the lights in San Francisco, and meeting against former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore calling plays against Dan Quinn’s defense, is just the start of what defines this stretch of games for the Cowboys, at a point where the makeup of the 2023 team should be coming together.
Here is a deeper, albeit perhaps way-too-early, look at the best and worst outcomes of these games for Mike McCarthy’s team.
Week 5 at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday Night Football)
So much has already been said and written about the back-to-back season-ending losses the Cowboys have been dealt by the 49ers. The team has continued to build it’s roster to eventually get the best of Kyle Shanahan’s squad.
These playoff losses both followed different scripts, with the 2021 Wild Card game taking a frantic comeback effort from the Cowboys pass offense to match - and slide just short of - the efficiency the 49ers found on the ground to come out on top 23-17.
Just like the Cowboys offense was better that season than the 17 points they ended their season with, the same is true of last year’s 19-12 loss on the road in the Divisional Round. Still, the Cowboys have leaned into being a more physical defense that can match up with the 49ers’ ground game, hoping a change in play-callers is all the offense needs to come up big in more important spots moving forward.
Best case: Though this isn’t a divisional game, laying out the best and worst case outcomes for an early season meeting between NFC contenders feels nearly as cut and dry as the Cowboys games against the Giants, Eagles, and Commanders this season. The potential for an absolute best case scenario of beating the 49ers as a direct result of how they’ve prepared to do so would be especially sweet, but any type of win is going to be a game to bookmark for the rest of the year as one to remember. With this game coming in week five, McCarthy’s offense should have found it’s footing at this point, helping this side of the ball hold up their end should Dan Quinn’s defense keep them in another tight contest with the 49ers again.
Worst case: A week five regular-season loss is hardly a deal breaker for any playoff run, but yet another loss to the 49ers would raise doubt about where the ceiling for the 2023 Cowboys sits. The Cowboys had a golden opportunity in the playoffs to advance by beating Brock Purdy, but now must be ready to play against Trey Lance or Sam Darnold as well. The Cowboys have had the QB advantage in these matchups with San Francisco, and with four more draft picks going to the defense this year, it’s not a stretch to say the direction of this franchise hinges on if they get over this hump or not. While a close 49ers win could be discouraging, a decisive win that shows the gap has widened between these classic rivals is the worst case scenario for week five.
Week 6 at Los Angeles Chargers (Monday Night Football)
Which coach meant more to the Cowboys success over the last two seasons, Kellen Moore or Dan Quinn? This is the question at stake as Moore’s offense led by Justin Herbert faces Quinn’s defense, in yet another early season matchup between two teams with all the potential to make a deep playoff run.
The Cowboys broke a three-game losing streak to the Chargers on the road in 2021 with a walk-off Greg Zuerlein field goal, a defining win for Mike McCarthy to avoid a quick 0-2 start.
Best case: If the 49ers game is the peak test for just how much more this team can ask from it’s defense, this should be a game where playing complementary football led by the defense is on full display. Though both Quinn and McCarthy are veteran coaches that will say all the right things about scheming against Moore for a primetime Monday night game, the added motivation for the Dallas defense to be a step ahead of a deeply talented Chargers offense can’t hurt. The Cowboys have remarkably led the league in takeaways in consecutive seasons, and adding to their 2023 total in this game to give the offense short fields is the best way this week six road game could go.
Worst case: On the other hand, Herbert going off against Quinn’s defense while McCarthy’s offense fails to find its footing would be disastrous for the Cowboys. The coaching carousel here may be more of a local storyline for Cowboys fans to follow in a game that has national appeal for the ESPN audience, but the Chargers stretching the field and putting on a show offensively while Prescott and the run game struggles would lead to a tense short week in Dallas. The Chargers were the fifth-worst team against the run last year, making this a game the Cowboys need to see contributions from not only Tony Pollard but any RB that earns an opportunity behind Pollard.
Week 7: Bye
Best case: The Cowboys get any injured players back, they’re on a win streak, and everyone in Cowboys Nation enjoys a slightly less stressful week of football.
Worst case: None of these things happen.
Week 8 vs Los Angeles Rams
The Cowboys triple down on games against California teams as they close out this stretch with a home game against the Rams. Hardly recognizable as the team that won a Super Bowl on their home turf just two years ago, I still tabbed this game as a potential primetime pick as a best case scenario for the TV networks airing games.
Still on the fringe of being early enough in the season to feel out where these teams are, a Cowboys vs Rams primetime game would either be a stepping stone to proving the Cowboys are contenders with a big win, or be a large platform for them to fall short against a team they should handle on paper.
Since the game isn’t played on paper, and this one won’t be in primetime, but rather the early window on FOX, the scenarios look just a little different.
Best case: How the Cowboys defense handles Rams WR Cooper Kupp, and the offense deals with DT Aaron Donald, are probably the two most intriguing individual matchups in this game. Both feature position groups the Cowboys will need most of training camp and the preseason, and even some of these games mentioned above, to sort out. Though the secondary and offensive line have a great mix of proven talent, depth, and potential, how the starting groups will gel together is to be determined. Matt Stafford will be motivated to play in his home state, and the Cowboys defense will need to bring the pass rush to avoid a track meet type of game. By winning both of these matchups against two of the league’s best players, the Cowboys will have a claim as one of the NFL’s most complete teams, getting the best of Sean McVay’s Rams with an all-around effort.
Worst case: With Donald being one of the few household names left on this Rams defense, letting him single-handedly wreck a game at this point would be inexcusable for any team with playoff hopes. The Rams play in a division with the Cardinals going through transition, Seahawks looking to sustain success under Geno Smith, and 49ers as the clear favorite, so playing to establish themselves in a winnable division is the type of focus the Cowboys must match in a rare 1 PM ET kickoff at home. Failing to do so at this point in the season, with two divisional games to follow at the Eagles and vs. the Giants, would feel reminiscent of the Jaguars loss a year ago - though this one even more consequential coming against a NFC opponent. Zack Martin feels like a lock to handle Donald when lined up over right guard, but the competition is wide open at left guard currently for the Cowboys to look ahead at trying to keep Prescott upright or room to run in this week eight game.