Let's analyze it, game-by-game, all with an eye toward whether the slate is the result of some devilish Cowboys-hating schedule-maker or an NFL that views Dallas as a club once again ascending toward "America's Team'' status:
Sun., Sept. 10 @ Jacksonville (FOX) 3:15 p.m. -- The Terrell Owens Debut will be the much-publicized storyline going in to the 'Boys first-ever visit there. And it should be noted that Jacksonville, where T.O. excelled in his Eagles' Super Bowl loss, is the site of his last true triumph. But coming out of this game, it might be more about withstanding pressure. The Jaguars, under former Cowboys family members Jack Del Rio (the head coach) and Dave Campo (the defensive coordinator) continue to be a team on the verge of greatness, largely because of the front-seven pressure they can bring. A test for T.O.? Sure. A test for the Cowboys' rebuilt, retooled, rehabbed offensive line? More sure.
Sun., Sept. 17 WASHINGTON (NBC) 7:15 p.m. -- Washington is presently a critical darling, and in Dallas, this is being billed as a prime-time showdown. But in fact, the Redskins -- with their new assemblage of other teams' non-true-No.-1 receivers -- will be rebounding from a Week 1 prime-time game against Minnesota. Washington will be hosting Minnesota as part of the NFL's first-ever Monday Night doubleheader six days before the Dallas game. As much as everyone seems to love the Redskins in April, it's worth watching to see if they wilt under the September spotlight.
Sun, Sept. 24 BYE -- Coaches hate this. Maybe the largest true disadvantage on the Dallas schedule, because on paper, a third-week bye does nothing for a team. It is notable that the rest of the NFC East benefits from later byes, if only slightly: New York's is Week 4, Philly's is Week 9, and Washington catches a nice break here, with a Week 8 bye that preceeds its second meeting with the Cowboys.
Sun., Oct. 1 @ Tennessee (FOX) Noon -- No predictions of outcomes here -- how can we possibly guess at wins and losses when we don't really know the makeup of the involved teams? -- but the Titans do appear to be a vulnerable club. This week, the Titans' spittin' match with all-time-great QB Steve McNair escalated to the point where McNair was asked to leave the facility. Maybe the Cowboys will get lucky here and NcNair won't be in the building in October either? And/or interestingly, maybe the Cowboys will oppose a rookie QB from Texas named Vince Young?
Sun., Oct. 8 @ Philadelphia (FOX) 3:15 p.m. -- The hype machine is already rolling. Did you catch Philly-based ESPN reporters Sal Palantonio and Stephen A. Smith locking horns in the issue of whether the Eagles fans will treat T.O. rudely? Sal Pal tried to suggest that Philly fans still love the guy and will therefore be emotionally divided. Stephen A. claimed. ... well, I don't know what Stephen A. was saying, because he placed an exclamation point after every single word he screamed. But suffice to say: A 3:15 start? That's 4:15 in Philly. That's a full day for the Eagles fan to get hammered before he attempts to break laws while attending a football game.
Sun., Oct. 15 HOUSTON (CBS) Noon -- The original concept in Cowboys-vs.-Texans: A natural rivalry! Didn't work out that way. The two clubs have entered in the history books one notable game, alright: The Texans' debut game, in 2002, when they shocked the lordly Cowboys on national TV. It was an embarrassment for the organization, and while I doubt the Cowboys lose much sleep over it, this much is true: Can't be a rivalry when one team "always'' beats the other!
Mon., Oct. 23 N.Y. GIANTS (ESPN) 7:30 p.m. -- Doesn't New York always seem like the measuring stick team for the Cowboys? Every season, I feel that if the Cowboys can only be a little better than the Cowboys, the Cowboys can launch themselves on their way to a decent year. This Monday nighter on ESPN will be about such a "launching,'' I predict -- even if the ESPN crew makes it all about Jersey Guy Bill Parcells opposing his first NFL team.
Sun., Oct. 29 @ Carolina (NBC) 8:15 p.m. -- How to stop Steve Smith from scoring? How to stop Keyshawn Johnson from talking? Dallas oughta know; the Cowboys should be almost as familiar with the Panthers as they are with their NFC East rivals. This will be the ninth time the two teams have played since 1996. That's right, nine meetings in 11 years. Familiarity breeds. ... contempt? I think that is a word Keyshawn will use, yes.
Sun., Nov. 5 @ Washington (FOX) Noon -- The Cowboys find themselves in the middle of a three-game road trip, the schedule-makers' devilish curse. Or is it? Two points: 1) The Dallas Morning News does the math on teams with the three-game-roadie burden and calculates that "since 1990, the NFL has sent 92 teams on three-game road trips and only 32 survived to make the playoffs.'' A "death knell,'' the Morning News calls it. Well, that does sound scary. Except those numbers mean that 34.7 percent of three-roadie-game teams make the playoffs. And how does that compare with the NFL at-large? Well, 12 of the 32 teams make the playoffs. That's 37.5 percent. A 3 percent difference is the playoff-chances impact of the three-straight-road-games scheduling curse? Three percent? Hardly a "death knell.'' Oh, and for point No. 2? Wait until you get to Game 11 against the Bucs.
Sun., Nov. 12 @ Arizona (FOX) 3:15 p.m. -- The third leg of the supposedly dastardly road trip. It could be kinda fun -- Denny Green orchestrating an offense that features two budding stars at receiver, Kurt Warner at QB and newcomer Edgerrin James as the running-game focal point, all housed in the new Cardinals Stadium -- but. ... it's friggin' Phoenix! OK, OK, this year the Cardinals have win-their-division buzz. But if you are forced to play a third consecutive game on the road, you might as well do it in the place where 50 percent of the audience is wearing your replica jerseys.
Sun., Nov. 19 INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) Noon -- Old-timers believe that the modern system of free agency and player movement erases the traditional rivalries that once existed when, say, the Cowboys and the Redskins had the same core players for a decade and developed an on-field hatred for one another. Maybe that's lost, but you know what's gained thanks to free-agency movement? Headlines made by athletes facing their former employers in emotional situations. Not just T.O. Not just Keyshawn. It can even happen with a kicker like Mike Vanderjagt, who will undoubtedly celebrate like an "idiot kicker'' if he nails a game-winner for Dallas against his former mates.
Thurs., Nov. 23 TAMPA BAY (FOX) 3:15 p.m. -- Here's where the schedule-maker eases up on a Cowboys team forced to play six of the first nine on the road. Where do the Cowboys want to be on Thanksgiving? At home. Where do the Tampa Bay Bucs want to be for the holiday? Not away from home. Not on a plane. Not in a hotel. Not playing at Texas Stadium. This is a massive-but-grossly-underplayed edge for the Cowboys. Yeah, I know, three straight games on the road was challenging. Wonder if the schedule-maker can make that up to the Cowboys come some more holidays?
Sun., Dec. 3 @ N.Y. Giants (FOX) Noon -- The Cowboys play in the NFC East, and while Dallas ain't exactly "east,'' New York and Philly and Washington can be unpleasant, weather-wise, this time of year. Yet this is the only potential "bad-weather'' game for the Cowboys. It has been suggested that Parcells will be disappointed by that fact, that he'd prefer more games in inclement weather. Well, um, that's just ridiculous. A team from Texas WANTS to play in the snow? Baloney. Parcells might say that, but he doesn't mean it. And none of his athletes -- the people who actually have to perform in the wind and the sleet and the snow -- they aren't even dumb enough to fake-say it.
Sun. Dec. 10 NEW ORLEANS (FOX) Noon -- Another area where it is dangerous to make assumptions, but. ... the Saints, by the time we get to Dec. 10, will be mailing it in, right? They will still be hopeless at quarterback, their fans will still be wearing grocery-bag hats, and the idea that ex-Cowboys assistant Sean Payton had some Parcells-influenced magic wand will have, like magic, disappeared.
Sat., Dec. 16 @ Atlanta (NFL Network) 7:00 p.m. -- A made-for-TV movie here. Michael Vick? Terrell Owens? Warrick Dunn? Julius Jones? Bill Parcells? Jim Mora? Some awfully photogenic personalities here -- and still another making-the-best-of-things opportunity for the Cowboys. Yes, this is a Saturday night on the road, so it's a short week. Traveling from DFW to the ATL is a short and easy trip, though. Beats the heck out of last year's two-straight-games-in-the-Bay-Area challenge, right?
Mon., Dec. 25 PHILADELPHIA (NBC) 4:00 p.m. -- One of the oddities of the 2005 season at Texas Stadium: Pennsylvanians overran the joint. Steelers fans did it by the thousands, turning Irving into their home-away-from-home. And it was not pleasant for the Cowboys season-ticket holder. Eagles fans don't do it with the same numbers, but they do it with excessive crudeness. It's a Monday. It's Christmas. And, somebody ought to remind Cowboys fans who attend the game, it's TEXAS Stadium, not PENN Stadium.
Sun., Dec. 31 DETROIT (FOX) Noon -- And that final reward to make up for the three-straight roadies: Three times in six weeks, the Cowboys play holiday games and they play them at home. Thanksgiving in Dallas. Christmas in Dallas. New Year's Eve in Dallas. And this final "makeup" comes against potentially the poorest team in potentially the NFL's poorest division. If the Cowboys are lucky enough, and good enough, to still be playing "meaningful'' games in December, this sets up beautifully. The Eagles' final regular-season foe is the possibly contending Falcons. The Redskins and the Giants play each other. And the Cowboys get a home game against a team that goes through coaches and quarterbacks like birdshot through Dick Cheney's rifle. All in all, Cowboys fans, with at least six national TV appearances, an understanding that those roadies aren't really a "death knell,'' holidays at home and back-to-back home games to close the year, nothing much to complain about.
Fish: 2006 Schedule Breakdown
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