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Helman: Cowboys Are Improved From A Year Ago, But Will The Record Show It?

IRVING, Texas – Collectively, I'm not sure there's a group that hates making predictions more than sports writers.

It's the ultimate no-win scenario. No how much you study, your predictions are most likely going to come out wrong, and there will be a host of people waiting to let you know about it. On the off chance you're right, it'll never receive as much attention as when you're mind-numbingly wrong.

That's why, when you read this week's batch of predictions for the upcoming season, you'll see plenty of writers quick to point out the potential flaws in their prognostications or acknowledge that there's no way to know for certain.

Fortunately for you, reader, I don't possess any of those 2015 buzz words like "shame" or "self-esteem." I'm beyond confident that my predictions are going to flop, and I'm here to charge headlong into the fray regardless.

There might not be a more polarizing team than the 2015 Dallas Cowboys. They're either a Super Bowl contender or a safe bet to miss the playoffs, depending on who you ask.

There's plenty to feel good about – Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, the monstrous O-Line, the revamped pass rush and Sean Lee's return. And yet there's no shortage of question marks – an unproven running game, a terrifying lack of depth at offensive tackle, Lee's inability to stay healthy and a lack of confidence in the secondary.

Case in point: of 13 writers who predicted the NFC East race for – which you can see here – six picked the Cowboys to win the division, while seven sided with Philadelphia.

That's more or less par for the course. Peter King picked Dallas to lose the division race to the Eagles, but he tabbed them as one of two NFC wildcards along with Arizona.'s Gregg Rosenthal picked the Cowboys to fall out of the playoffs entirely.

My esteemed colleague on the Cowboys beat, ESPN's Todd Archer, called for a 10-6 record and a division title.

So it goes, back and forth. From a national perspective, there's enough to like about this team to expect playoff contention – but not so much that anyone is making any bold proclamations. As of this writing, on Tuesday, Sept. 8, I have yet to see a single major outlet call for the Cowboys to make it to Super Bowl 50, let alone win it.

All of this meshes beautifully with the opinion I've been formulating for about four months now – which is this:

From a talent standpoint, the 2015 Dallas Cowboys are a better team than the one that claimed the NFC East last fall. Even with the departure of DeMarco Murray and the injury to Orlando Scandrick taking the headlines, I think the depth the Cowboys have created on their offensive and defensive lines and in their secondary is impressive.

That's why it feels weird to pick them to finish with a worse record than they did last year.

Stop calling me mean names and just hear me out.

The schedule looks tough. The Cowboys will play three of the four representatives in the conference championship games from last season – including the defending champion Patriots and the league runners-up Seahawks. Dallas opens the season with back-to-back division games, and it will face a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in six of the first seven games on the schedule.

On top of that, the Cowboys are on the road for five of the final eight games of the season – including the much-discussed rematch with Green Bay, as well as a miserable-sounding trip to frigid Buffalo after Christmas.

The running backs worry me, too. Even with the addition of Christine Michael, I can't get over the fact that three of the Cowboys' four running backs have combined to start two career games. The one guy with any experience, Darren McFadden, has missed 29 career games due to injury.

There's good stuff – don't get me wrong. The line is stacked, and it should pave the way for Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to enjoy sterling success, along with an acceptable effort from the aforementioned ground game. Somehow, some way this pass rush all of a sudden looks like a force, especially once Greg Hardy returns from suspension. And if Sean Lee can give the Cowboys even just 12 games, if not more, I think it'll make a world of difference.

So that's where my head is at as the season approaches. With that in mind, I figured why not make a few more predictions. I'm going to do 11, to be exact – one for every Dallas win on the way to a repeat division title.

1. The Cowboys have gone 9-3 against the NFC East the past two seasons, and those good vibes continue in 2015. I see Dallas splitting its games with Philly but sweeping both New York and Washington to go 5-1 in the division.

2. The 8-0 road record last fall was an amazing accomplishment, and it's something I can't see happening again. There's a slew of tough road venues on this year's schedule, including Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay and Buffalo. I see a minimum of two road losses.

3. Three opponents dominate the schedule when you look at it: defending champ New England, led by recently-reinstated Tom Brady, defending NFC champ Seattle and the Green Bay team that ended the Cowboys' run last year. I think the Cowboys have what it takes to go 2-1 in these matchups, but 1-2 wouldn't surprise me. They won't go 3-0 or 0-3.

4. I think the ground game will flirt with 2,000 combined rushing yards, but I'm not convinced they'll surpass it. Barring injury, either Darren McFadden or Joe Randle should hit the 1,000-yard mark – probably Randle, if I have to guess.

5. It's not fair to expect Dez Bryant to match or surpass his absurd total of 16 receiving touchdowns from 2014. He'll probably finish with 11 or 12, and some slappy on the Internet will use that as justification for why Bryant fell off. Either way, I'm calling for the total number of #DezThings and otherwise swag-tastic Dez Bryant performances to live up to his lofty standards.

6.I was pretty critical of the Randy Gregory pick. You can go find articles or radio shows where I said so. Four months later, I'm on the bandwagon. I think this guy is going to notch eight sacks as a rookie, placing him firmly in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation.

7. Much like Odell Beckham Jr. last year, Jameis Winston is going to ball out against the Cowboys. That won't be enough to earn him a win when Dallas goes to Tampa on Nov. 15, but the No. 1 overall pick is going to show his stuff against a susceptible Dallas secondary.

8.The Cowboys will have a hard time holding on to Tyrone Crawford when this season is done. In a contract year, I'm guessing the Canadian pass rusher notches six or seven sacks – on top of a boatload of pressures. He'll fetch a hefty price in free agency – assuming the Cowboys don't hit him with the franchise tag or extend him before the league year starts.

9.I fully expect a loss that no one will see coming, in the same vein as that nightmare of a game against Washington last October. As much as you might like to look past a lousy club, this is still the NFL. Take your pick: Atlanta, Tampa, Washington, the Jets, maybe Buffalo? A team that isn't considered very good will find a way to beat the Cowboys.

10.The Cowboys and Eagles will have played both of their games by midseason, which is a misstep by the scheduling office. The last six weeks of the year are going to resemble a baseball playoff race, with fans of each team anxiously checking the standings to see who won and who lost – but no payoff meeting between the two teams. The Cowboys' 11-5 record will win them the division, but Philly will make the playoffs at 10-6.

11. An 11-5 record and the NFC East title will see Dallas wind up in the same playoff positioning as last year – the No. 3 seed in the NFC, hosting a wildcard from the NFC North. This time it'll be Cowboys-Vikings. Green Bay and Seattle will claim the bye weeks, and the Panthers will be No. 4 as NFC South champions.

That's about all I've got. Feel free to bookmark this so you can tell me what an idiot I am as the season goes along, or feel free to tweet me your own predictions @HelmanDC.

Let's get this thing started already.

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