The nine-month wait is over.
The Cowboys are finally back in the regular season this Sunday, motivated to exceed expectations after missing the postseason a year ago. First up: a road trip against a Carolina Panthers team that has reached the playoffs in four of the last five years.
The DallasCowboys.com staff gives their gut feelings for Sunday's opener in Charlotte, N.C.:
Lindsay Draper: There's no joy in the unknowns quite like Week 1 of a new football season. My gut has flipped, flopped and turned 18 different directions this entire offseason, but this week, it chose the direction of a DUB. The Cowboys are going to win on the road on Sunday, for a few reasons. Here we go: Carolina can't overcome offensive line injuries, Cowboys overcome their offensive line injuries with the power of an angry Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee contains at a high level because he's rested and healthy, Carolina doesn't have film on a slew of new Cowboys receivers, and because Dallas is going to have a top 10 defense this season. Oh, you want to rewind that? Yeah – reread my last point. The Cowboys are going to have a top 10 defense this season. Enjoy the win Sunday, y'all.
David Helman: This is as clueless as I've ever felt about a Dallas Cowboys team heading into a season. I've said it before, and I'll repeat myself one more time: very little would surprise me for this group, good or bad. But heading into Week 1 against a Panthers team with questions of its own, I can't come up with good reasons not to believe in them. Yes, Kawann Short and this Panthers defensive line will present a tough challenge for Joe Looney and Connor Williams – but the Cowboys have two other All-Pro blockers and an All-Pro running back. Yes, these Cowboys receivers and tight ends are completely unproven – but they are working against a no-name Carolina secondary. Yes, Cam Newton is a difficult quarterback to keep tabs on – but the Panthers' offensive line is hobbled by injury, and the Dallas pass rush looks as nasty as it has in a decade. I don't think it's going to be easy, but I believe the Cowboys' offense can execute its game plan, and I believe the Dallas defense can play up to its potential. I think that amounts to 140 all-purpose yards for Ezekiel Elliott and a Cowboy win – something like 24-20.
Rob Phillips: The Panthers' defensive front might be their best strength, and the Cowboys have two new starters on the interior offensive line. That's the key matchup. But my gut tells me the offense is going to surprise people Sunday. Just got the sense in the locker room this week that a lot of guys, quite frankly, are sick of being doubted. Are there questions at the skill positions? With so many new faces, absolutely. But I think Elliott is ready to rock, and I liked what I saw from Dak Prescott and the passing game in 39 preseason snaps without Zeke on the field for a single one. I'll say the offense finds a way to score three touchdowns in humid, drizzly conditions – and that'll be enough to get a road win against a good Carolina team.
Bryan Broaddus: On tape these are two evenly matched squads. Go through the lineups and player for player each cancels the other out. Where the Panthers have an advantage is at defensive tackle. As much as this Cowboys offense relies on the run, the absence of Travis Frederick, particularly in this game, is big. Joe Looney has prepared for this opportunity, but I struggle with him not only having to do his job but helping Connor Williams as well. If the Cowboys have trouble blocking inside, they will struggle to run the ball consistently, which puts Prescott in a tough spot. Carolina wins this one in large part to their run defense, 24-16.
Nick Eatman: Wow, I can't believe we finally made it here. Feels like forever ago that I was writing one of these. There's so much intrigue about this team and so many question marks. Still, I think it's important to remember this is still a team with a lot of talent. It'll start with Zeke, who in my opinion, is ready to go crazy this year on opposing defenses. I truly believe he'll be a legitimate MVP candidate and it starts on Sunday. I'm looking for about 150 all-purpose yards out of him this week. I think Brett Maher will make at least three field goals – hopefully that will equal his attempts as well. I see Geoff Swaim catching a TD pass in the red zone and overall, I have the Cowboys winning this game. If it rains a lot, advantage Cowboys. I don't think it won't be as close as people are thinking. Give me Dallas, 27-14.
Mickey Spagnola: Look, I understand the Carolina strengths and I understand where the Cowboys' weaknesses are, but this is the one factor in the game that I can't minimize: Zeke. He's back. He knows he's playing. No cloud hanging over his head. He is incredibly energized. At times, I think we forget how this guy would dominate games his rookie year. To me, same guy, two years later. His ability and his threat will become the difference in the Cowboys kicking off the season with a victory. Watch the Cowboys get him on the edge. Watch the Cowboys throw him the ball. And watch the Cowboys' offense explode if the Panthers start overly concentrating on stopping Elliott.