The 2006 Record Will Be . . .

efficiently than last year.

And this defense? Now here will be the essence of the 47th edition of the Dallas Cowboys. And I know it was only preseason, but do not minimize the first-team giving up but a touchdown and a field goal in four first halves.

The defensive line is stout, and with the exception of a legitimate backup nose tackle, deep, and really, that's where Jay Ratliff will come into play, as he and Jason Hatcher eventually will at defensive tackle when the Cowboys move to the four-man front in the nickel.

The linebackers? Catalytic at last. They played it pretty straight for most of the preseason. Now it's time to turn them loose. These guys are fast and versatile. And if you are worried about Greg Ellis being lured out into the slot against three wide receivers on like first or second downs, well, as Bill Parcells says, "There are two side to that pancake," meaning while they might be trying to exploit a perceived weakness on this defense, they will leave themselves vulnerable somewhere else - like blocking DeMarcus Ware one-on-one if the Cowboys should shoot their middle linebackers.

And the secondary? Shoot. With the exception of the breakdowns at the end of the first Washington game, this was a pretty good bunch with Anthony Henry healthy last year, and he's healthy again. And just maybe, if the lights aren't too bright for rookie Pat Watkins, having a free safety with more range and more speed than Keith Davis can allow Roy Williams to roam closer to the line of scrimmage more times than not.

Kinda makes you want to smile, doesn't it?

Now if judging moods means but one iota, then Parcells has been quite chipper this week, which kinda makes you think he feels good about this team. Now he'd never say so, but take a listen to what he did say when asked if this was his most talented team in Dallas:

"That's really hard because every time you have ever started a season as a head coach you always have apprehension, you always have anxiety. I don't know if I can ever remember myself brimming with confidence, because you really don't know how your team is going to behave and what they're going to do under pressure . . . .

"We have a long season here. We've got 17 weeks, and I'm just trying to look down the road. We have six of our first nine on the road. Those are all things we are going to have to deal with. But I can't tell you expectation-wise, because I don't know what the performance is going to be. I am hopeful that we can perform solidly."

Parcells is right. The Cowboys do play six of the first nine on the road, and that's not conducive to a fast start. But then, four of the first nine are teams coming off losing seasons, for what that's worth, and oh, by the way, once you step back, well, look it here, five of the last seven are at home.

Again, see what I mean?

So, there really are only two factors at this point - injury we'll just assume is a constant reason for failure - that can sabotage an 11-5 season: The offensive line and the kicker, and I really think the offensive line can at least hold its own. As for the kicker, well, it's not just me, but as Parcells said Thursday, "I am concerned about the field-goal situation as it is, I have to tell you that."

So do I.

But think about this: The Cowboys suffered through the same two problems last year and finished 9-7, not to mention beating one of the teams to play in the NFC title game (Carolina) and played the pants off the NFC champs on the road (Seattle).

Yet they are better on offense this year. They are better on defense, and maybe significantly better - if the loss of La'Roi Glover does not handicap them too much. And if Mr. 87.5 can kick at just 80 percent, they'll be better on special teams, too.

So put me down for 11-5 and at least one playoff victory, if not more.

There, the deck's been cut. Start dealing the cards.

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