Dallas Cowboys: NFL schedule

If the Cowboys can open with a win over the New York Giants again, September should be sweet.

The softest stretch of the Cowboys’ schedule is the three weeks after the opener. The Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers combined to go 16-31-1 last season.

It’s the only stretch of the season that features three foes that had losing records last year. Granted, the Cowboys have to travel to Kansas City and San Diego, but the Chiefs and Chargers were a combined 4-12 at their home stadiums last season.

The Chiefs (Andy Reid) and Chargers (Mike McCoy) have new coaches, so it could also be to the Cowboys’ benefit to face those teams so early in the season.

Dallas Cowboys schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
Breakdown: The Cowboys are always a prime-time draw, and while they have only one "Monday Night Football" game on ESPN (Oct. 1 against the Bears), NBC is putting them on in prime time at least three times. In addition to the Sept. 5 opener against the Giants, the Cowboys play Sunday night prime-time games Nov. 4 (at Atlanta) and Dec. 2 (at home against the Eagles).

The Cowboys got an early bye -- Week 5 for the second season in a row. Players generally don't like the early bye, since it's the last break for a long time, and I wondered earlier today whether teams that got the early byes last season would get later ones in 2012. Not the case. The Cowboys will have played just four games before they take their week off.


Based on the schedule, what will be the Cowboys' record in 2012?


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And their first two games are on the road, as I will discuss in greater detail below, but that means the Cowboys' home opener won't be until Sept. 23, at 1 p.m. ET against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They don't see their traditional rivals from Washington until very late, but the first Redskins-Cowboys game of the year will be watched by a lot of overstuffed people, as it's the second game of the day on Thanksgiving, Nov. 22.

Complaint department: After their Week 4 home game against the Bears, the Cowboys begin a six-week stretch in which they will have just one home game. They're off in Week 5, then play at Baltimore, at Carolina, home against the Super Bowl champion Giants, at Atlanta and at Philadelphia. That's a long stretch of time without the home fans getting a chance to see their team in person, and if those teams perform as expected, it could be a pretty tough stretch of opponents as well. The payoff is that five of the Cowboys' final seven games will be at home, but they can't love ending the season with a road rivalry game against the Redskins in Washington.

A travel break: The Cowboys' longest road trip of the season is to Seattle, but they get about as good a break as they could get on that one. Their game against the Seahawks will be in Week 2, following 10 days off after the Sept. 5 season opener against the Giants in New Jersey. If you're a middle-of-the-country team and you have to play in New Jersey and Seattle in consecutive weeks, the best you can hope for is that the first game is a few days early.

Cowboys Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Wednesday, Sept. 5, at NY Giants, 8:30 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Monday, Oct. 1, Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Atlanta, 8:20 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at Philadelphia, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 22, Washington, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Pittsburgh, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at Washington, 1:00 PM

NFC East schedule release primer

April, 17, 2012
As you know by now, the NFL will officially release its 2012 schedule tonight at 7 p.m. ET. ESPN will cover this event with a three-hour prime-time special during which our NFL analysts will break down each team's schedule in astoundingly thorough detail. Here are a couple of things to look for from the NFC East perspective.

  • The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants have the most difficult schedule in the league, based on the 2011 winning percentages of their 2012 opponents. As we have already discussed here, I consider this a poor measure of schedule strength, since the teams that were good in 2011 aren't guaranteed to be good again in 2012. However, it's worth noting that, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only one team in the past six years that's had the league's hardest schedule based on the prior year's winning percentages finished with a winning record. That team was the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl.
  • From a travel standpoint, the Giants' schedule could be fairly easy. They will leave the eastern time zone only twice -- once to go to Dallas, and once to go to San Francisco. Obviously, since they play Dallas at home in the Sept. 5 season opener, they can't expect to play them again in Week 2. But if the San Francisco trip is in Week 2, the Giants likely would welcome that. They have 11 days between their opener and their second game (12 if their second game is on a Monday night), and to take their only long trip of the season at the end of such a break and to have it out of the way that early would be a nice feeling.

  • By the same token, the Cowboys, who have that same long break between their first two games, would welcome a Week 2 trip to Seattle, which is their longest road trip of the year. The Cowboys don't play a single road game in the central time zone, which is the one in which they play their home games, but their travel schedule is tame other than the Seattle trip, with games in Atlanta, Carolina, Baltimore and Cincinnati, in addition to the road division games.

  • The Philadelphia Eagles leave their time zone three times, to go to Dallas, New Orleans and Arizona. After their disastrous Thursday Night experience last season in Seattle, Philadelphia's biggest hope is that they won't have to make any of those trips on a short week this time.

  • Teams generally don't want to see early bye weeks. The Washington Redskins and the Cowboys were both off on Week 5 last season, and it's safe to say neither appeared very strong at the end of the season. Perhaps the league takes this into account and will give the teams that had early bye weeks in 2011 the later bye weeks in 2012. Ideally, players like to have that bye week as close to the middle of the season as possible. The Giants and Eagles had theirs in Week 7 last season.

NFC East strength of schedule

April, 16, 2012
The hot rumor is that the NFL schedules could be released Tuesday, or if not then at some point this week. When this happens, I promise we will make a large deal about it.

Of course, this announcement will only be about dates of games. We already know each team's 2012 opponents, as those are determined by a formula based on where each team finished in the 2011 standings. We've known since Jan. 2 which teams each team in the NFC East will play in the coming season.

It is on this that John Clayton has based his strength of schedule analysis, which suggests that the NFC East teams -- and especially the Super Bowl champion New York Giants -- could face a tougher road to the playoffs than some of the other teams in the league:
Winning the NFC East won't be easy. It wasn't easy last year when the New York Giants got hot at the end of the season and won an underachieving division with a 9-7 record. The Giants, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles face schedules that range from .26 to .31 tougher than last year. The Giants, for example, face the toughest non-division schedule in football, going against teams with a 98-62 combined record, a burden that means they could play better and still have a tough time getting nine wins.

The NFC East plays the NFC South and the AFC North. The Eagles face a .516 schedule, .26 tougher than last year. The Dallas Cowboys play a .504 schedule, .31 tougher than last season.

This is noteworthy and fun to discuss, and if you'd like the full list of strength of schedule based on last year's records, you can find it here. You'll see that the Giants rank at the top, as the aggregate 2011 winning percentage of their 2012 opponents is .547. The Eagles and Cowboys also face a slate of opponents that combined for a better-than-.500 record in 2011. The Redskins have it a bit easier.

But while noteworthy and fun to discuss, this stuff doesn't move me too much. A team's 2011 winning percentage doesn't automatically correlate to its difficulty as a 2012 opponent. Just because the teams on the Giants' 2012 schedule won a bunch of games in 2011 doesn't mean they're going to be good teams in 2012. The plain fact is, from this far out, we can't possibly know who has the toughest schedule, because we can't know for sure which teams are going to be good and which are not.

This is why the schedule announcement, be it Tuesday or some other day this week, offers a little more clarity about toughness of schedule. Once the full schedules are announced, we can see who has the short weeks, who has the cross-country trip on the week following a "Monday Night Football" game, things like that. I think travel schedules have as much to do with the toughness of a team's schedule than do April projections about the quality of its opponents. There aren't too many easy games in this league, and sometimes those that look the easiest are the ones that jump up and bite you. Yes, the schedule matters, but I'd caution against reading too much into those 2011 opponents' winning percentages just yet.