It's been nearly half a decade since America's Team has put together a winning season, and it appears on paper that the league's worst defense found a way to get significantly weaker during another cap-strapped offseason.
Stud defensive linemen DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone, star linebacker Sean Lee is out for the year, pass-rushing specialist Anthony Spencer remains out and cornerback Orlando Scandrick is suspended, which could make things nearly impossible for that talented offense.
But every year, the overwhelming majority is dead wrong about at least a few teams. There's no reason Dallas can't be a part of that group this season.
Frankly, if that's going to happen—if the Cowboys are going to shock the world, or at least the NFC East, in 2014—Week 1 could be pivotal. That's because the 'Boys could be running into one of the league's best teams in the right place and at the right time.
See, while the Cowboys get slightly healthier thanks to the return of defensive end George Selvie and defensive tackle Terrell McClain, and quarterback Tony Romo seemingly gets stronger every week after undergoing offseason back surgery, the San Francisco 49ers are, at the moment, a bit of a mess.
Their top pass-rusher, Aldon Smith, has been suspended half the season for violating the league's personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
As he recovers from reconstructive knee surgery, Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman is out indefinitely. Regular starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey (torn biceps) is as well.
All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis is still a force, and standout defensive end Justin Smith hasn't gone anywhere. However, Smith is 34 now and has lost a step or two. Those guys can't do it all on their own.
They're hurting on the offensive side of the ball, too, with CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco reporting that wide receiver Michael Crabtree's status for Sunday is still unknown. Crabtree has been out of practice with a nagging calf injury.
This was one of only 11 offenses to score 400 points last year, but it was oftentimes anything but consistent last season and ranked 24th in terms of yardage.
Down the stretch, Crabtree emerged as one of quarterback Colin Kaepernick's favorite targets.
It was a tough offseason for the 49ers, who lost prominent defensive backs Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown during free agency.
It was also a tumultuous one, what with Aldon Smith's airport arrest and those rumors that head coach Jim Harbaugh considered jumping ship to join—of all teams—the Cleveland Browns. Center Daniel Kilgore and cornerback Chris Culliver were also arrested. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald was as well...just this past weekend. All three of those guys are starters.
|Figure||What's going on?|
|Jim Harbaugh||Almost left for Cleveland?|
|Aldon Smith||Can't avoid the police|
|Chris Culliver||Offseason arrest|
|Daniel Kilgore||See: Chris Culliver|
|Ray McDonald||See: Daniel Kilgore|
|Tarell Brown||So gone|
|Michael Crabtree||Status unknown for Sunday|
|Justin Smith||Man's getting old!|
The roster has taken some hits, but you have to wonder if the team's morale has, too. Will the players be distracted in Week 1?
So, sure, the 'Niners have been to back-to-back NFC Championship Games and had a top-six defense in terms of scoring, yardage and takeaways last year. However, they're no lock to cruise into AT&T Stadium and walk all over the Cowboys on the road Sunday afternoon.
Who will win Sunday's game?
This is a decent matchup for the Cowboys, and they know it. It might not be extremely fresh in their memory, but they did beat this San Francisco team in overtime on the road in 2011.
With all that in mind, this game merits—at the very least—an upset alert. If Dallas can pull it off, the confidence boost truly could be a game-changer. Division rivals New York and Washington are in tough this week, and the NFC East is always up for grabs.
A 1-0 start with a playoff-caliber opponent checked off the list would be huge for a Cowboys team that has winnable games against Tennessee and St. Louis in Weeks 2 and 3.
Rarely does a Week 1 game make or break a season, but in Dallas, that notion might not be far from reality.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.