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Gut Feeling: Writers Debate The 2018 Schedule's Key Stretches & Matchups

FRISCO, Texas – The 2018 regular-season schedule is out, and the Cowboys now know the path in front of them as they eye a return to playoff contention.

The staff sizes up the schedule below, highlighting key stretches and matchups on paper:

David Helman: It's often said that the Cowboys' drawing power works against them during the stretch run of the season. Last fall, they played two primetime games in December. Back in 2016, they played four of their final five games of the season at night. That complaint doesn't hold water this year, as this is shaping up to be the most manageable December in recent Cowboys history. The month starts off with a mini bye week, following a Thursday night game on Nov. 29. From there, they play four afternoon games – three of which are currently slated for 12 p.m. What's even more amazing than that? Only one of them is slated for cold weather. Yes, the Cowboys have to close out the season on Dec. 30 in New York, which promises to be a frigid affair. Aside from that, they get two home games and a road trip to Indianapolis – and the Colts play indoors. Yes, the Dec. 9 game against Philadelphia will be tough, but at least it's at home. After that game against the Eagles, Dallas is dealing with three straight games against teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2017 – and only one of those is outdoors. If the Cowboys can navigate the first three months of the season, the final four weeks look awfully nice.

Rob Phillips:Let's say the Cowboys start fast and put themselves in playoff contention by November, which I absolutely believe is possible. In that case, we'll find out just how good they are after the Week 8 bye. Five of their first six games after the bye are 2017 playoff teams: Tennessee, at Super Bowl champion Philly, at Atlanta, New Orleans and the Eagles again at home. (Washington is the Thanksgiving home opponent in Week 12, and we all know that rivalry can go either direction.) Look, it's impossible to predict in April who's healthy and who's playing well seven months from now. But there's a good chance most of those teams will be in the playoff conversation because they have good coaching and good quarterback play. If the Cowboys are to get back to the playoffs, November is the key month.

Bryan Broaddus:Two seasons ago, the Cowboys didn't lose a game to a team from the NFC and AFC North on their way to a 13-win season – a feat at the time I believed was nearly impossible. Difficult matchups with NFC South teams Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, plus games against AFC South teams Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee could likely make or break the season. Their units will be tested on both sides of the ball with quality quarterbacks and deep defensive rosters. If the Cowboys don't want this season to go south, they need to handle business against the South.

Nick Eatman: I'm always skeptical about how good or bad a schedule looks when it comes out, mainly because it's always mid-April. Who really knows? Just go back one year and imagine if a team looked at its December schedule and it read: Minnesota, LA Rams, Eagles and Saints. You'd probably be rather excited about a chance to sweep the final month, only to find out it would be against all NFC division winners. My point is that we think the Colts and Bucs seem good in the final month, but it could be turned around by then. The game I'm circling is Sept. 23 at Seattle. It just seems like a pivotal turning point after playing the Panthers and Giants the first two weeks. Perhaps this game will be more meaningful personnel-wise, but even if the rosters are unchanged, facing the Seahawks will be a huge challenge. AN interesting tidbit about Week 3 for the Cowboys is that this team is 14-1 in the third game of the season, dating back to 2003 with the only loss occurring to Atlanta in 2015 with Brandon Weeded starting his first game. 

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