At this point there's been plenty of time to digest the Dallas Cowboys 2013 regular season schedule. We've applied offseason activities such as free agency and the 2013 NFL draft and we have as good of a picture as possible regarding which games are most important.
Yes, Dallas wants to win every game, exactly like every other NFL team—but this is far from likely.
DallasCowboys.com columnist Mickey Spangola recently put it best when he described the difficulty Dallas faces in terms of opposing quarterbacks. In other words, there will be very few breaks for the Cowboys next season, at least on paper.
I'm going to highlight eight games on the schedule that are likely to go very far in determining exactly what Dallas' playoff chances are in the coming season.
I'm staying away from most division games, not because they aren't important, but simply because I'm not sold on the quarterbacks causing the Cowboys much harm. These games primarily include the two against Philadelphia and Washington.
The Eagles will feature a first-year head coach in Chip Kelly, an offense that matches that description and nothing to fear too much at quarterback.
The Redskins will trot out second-year passer Robert Griffin III, who's coming off multiple knee injuries from late last season and it's unknown exactly when he'll play again—or how well. We'll see if the Redskins can lead the league in rushing once again.
If Dallas can't take three of those four games then America's Team is probably not playoff-bound.
Elsewhere, the competition gets much more stiff. Notching some wins in the following games could help the Cowboys dramatically as they attempt to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2009.
The good news is that, for the first time since it's opening in 2009, Cowboys Stadium will be open for business on the opening weekend of football.
Winning this game won't mean much in terms of playoff contention. The Cowboys stunned the then-defending Super Bowl champion Giants at New York to open the 2012 season. Dallas would lose the following week at Seattle, setting the tone for a completely average season.
Still, winning a football game at home against the Giants would not only start the season off on a strong note, but it would also give Dallas some confidence in meaningful games in Arlington. Right now the Cowboys have very little of that, especially under the leadership of head coach Jason Garrett.
I recently offered my thoughts as to why this new football palace in Arlington offers seemingly no advantage for it's resident football team.
The losing culture in this building has to stop.
After the season opener against the Giants, Dallas travels to Kansas City before hosting St. Louis on Week 3.
Then things get tough again.
Quarterback Phillip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers await the Cowboys on Week 4 and while this won't exactly be a must-win game, the Dallas defense will likely be put to the test.
Rivers is 1-0 against the Cowboys after hanging on for a 20-17 victory in Arlington in 2009, which fans in attendance got to watch in 3D. Having personally attended the last regular season game between the Cowboys and Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in 2005, I feel confident that 3D won't play a role this time around.
San Diego made bigger changes to its front office than Dallas did following 2012, so it remains to be seen what the Chargers will look like this season. Just remember that Rivers is still in the lineup and that Dallas needs to pick up an important road win against a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback in southern California.
An out-of-conference loss is generally the lesser of two evils, but this would be a good game to win.
The last time Dallas lined up against quarterback Peyton Manning was in early December of 2010 in Indianapolis. It was just the fourth game for Garrett as interim head coach of the Cowboys and Dallas won the game 38-35 in overtime.
The Cowboys have actually played well against Manning in recent years, also defeating him in 2006 at Texas Stadium during the final season for former head coach Bill Parcells. However, Manning and the Colts would go on to win the Super Bowl later that season.
This Week 5 contest will be the first trip to north Texas for Denver since 2005, when they beat Dallas in overtime on Thanksgiving Day. Much has changed since then, though.
Last season, Manning led the Broncos to a 13-3 record in his first year in Denver, which also clinched home field advantage in the AFC playoff bracket. However, Denver failed to win a single playoff game, much like the Cowboys did in 2007.
Expectations will be very high for the Broncos this season and the Cowboys would be advised to bring another stout performance against Manning in what will likely be the future Hall of Fame quarterback´s only visit to Cowboys Stadium.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has combined for 10,005 yards passing in the last two seasons. In his last game against the Cowboys, he brought his Lions back from a 27-3 deficit in the second half for a victory at Cowboys Stadium in 2011.
Stafford's favorite target, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, just missed 2,000 receiving yards last year and it's a safe bet that similar numbers can be expected in 2013.
While Dallas laid that egg against Detroit at home a couple of seasons ago, the next meeting between these two teams is at Ford Field.
The Lions also bring talent on the defensive side of the ball, especially in 2010 second overall selection Ndamukong Suh, a young defensive tackle that can win games by himself.
Out of all 16 games scheduled, this contest looks to be in the top three in terms of difficulty.
Should the Cowboys steal a midseason win in Detroit this year, it could be a clear indicator that things are going very well, especially for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's new 4-3 alignment.
Yes, the ''Bountygate'' scandal has all but faded from memory, but quarterback Drew Brees remains under center for one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL.
In the last two meetings between the Saints and Cowboys, exactly six points decided both contests at Cowboys Stadium—both victories for New Orleans. Despite those losses in 2010 and 2012, Dallas has only been lacking a defense that could hold Brees under 30 points.
If you'll think back to 2009, it was Dallas that gave the Saints their first loss of the season in New Orleans following a huge Saturday night contest in the Crescent City. The Cowboys kept the home crowd at the Superdome quiet by taking an early lead and pressuring Brees all night long.
If Dallas can bring the defense once again, then this could easily be a victory for the Cowboys. Afterall, it's not like new Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will bring much more than bulletin board material as he installs his awful brand of the 3-4 defense.
Otherwise, expect a certain setback as this year's meeting will be a Sunday night affair on NBC, which will be as noisy as it can get for a game against the Cowboys.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the list, the Cowboys have much greater problems defeating the Giants at home than they do on the road at MetLife Stadium.
In fact, the Cowboys are 2-1, all-time, at the Giant's new complex that's only a year younger than Cowboys Stadium.
Division games can go either way and, should the Cowboys win on opening night against the ''G-Men," a Week 12 road loss might not be the end of the world.
We have to remember that Dallas plays a string of quarterbacks in 2013 that have a record of 5-1 in the Super Bowl since 2006. Each win against one of these passers is going to be money in the bank.
Of all those Super Bowl wins earned by this season's list of opposing passers, Eli Manning is the only quarterback with multiple championships to his credit.
No, the Cowboys may not need this victory, but they would certainly like to position themselves for a potential sweep of this particular NFC East rival.
Since being traded to Chicago by Denver in the 2009 offseason, quarterback Jay Cutler hasn't exactly brought the kind of results expected by the Bears' fanbase. While leading Chicago to the 2010 NFC Championship Game, little else has been accomplished in Cutler's four seasons in the Windy City.
Nonetheless, Cutler has had two cracks at the Cowboys in his career, both while lining up under center for the Bears.
I'll make this simple: Cutler is 2-0 at Cowboys Stadium following victories in 2010 and 2012.
The Cowboys will aim to avenge those losses in the not-so-friendly confines of Soldier Field in December.
It's hard to say what kind of team Chicago will field, but I believe that Dallas will match up just fine where talent is concerned. Having said that, talent alone doesn't win games and this particular contest will be critical for the Cowboys' playoff chances.
This will be an important conference matchup that both teams are likely to need, given the timing of the game. The Cowboys will need to rely heavily on their running game in what is likely to be a cold weather contest. To make matters worse, this showdown takes place on a Monday night on ESPN.
The Cowboys have played very few games at Green Bay's historic Lambeau Field. This is a good thing because they have only won a single game there in the history of the franchise.
Fortunately, the Packers have had their share of heartbreak following football games in Dallas.
This will be a huge game for the Cowboys because quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the final Super Bowl-winning quarterback on the regular season schedule, brings another highly skilled offense to Cowboys Stadium. I can't stress how important it is that this game takes place away from the ''frozen tundra'' of Green Bay.
The last meeting between the Cowboys and Packers at Texas Stadium took place in 2007. Brett Favre was still the quarterback and Rodgers was just a third-year bench warmer waiting to take the reigns.
Well, both passers from Green Bay saw action in that Packers loss and Rodgers and company have only returned to Arlington for Super Bowl XLV over two years ago.
Neither of these two teams will be playing for revenge, since they don't know each other very well, despite residing in the same conference for so long. It feels like it's been ages since the 1990s when the Packers were almost like a fifth division rival for the Cowboys, as the teams met twice per year for a few seasons in Irving.
This game will be about the playoffs for at least one of these teams, likely both.
With games against Washington and Philadelphia in the final two weeks of the regular season, one can't really imagine the Cowboys having enough margin for error to drop this game.
The last time the Cowboys closed the regular season at home against Philadelphia, they won that game and the next, a wild-card playoff win over the Eagles in the same building.
For the Cowboys to have at least that kind of standing on the season's final weekend, a win over Green Bay seems absolutely necessary.