One of the more telling sets of numbers that comes out before any given NFL season is the list of expected win totals for each NFL team set by, as Brent Musberger calls them, our "friends in the desert" in Las Vegas. This year, most sports books have elected to set the Cowboys' number at 9.5 wins. The Cowboys need to win 10 games for you to get paid, should you take the over. The Cowboys, oddsmakers believe, are a good team, but one with that faces a lot of variables.
Using the 9.5 win total as a jumping-off point, let's take a look at the three paths the Cowboys season is likely to take.
1. The "Last Year was Just a Preview" Route
There is a chance, thanks to a bevy of returning talent on offense and the grab bag of defensive potential picked up in the draft, that the Cowboys could be a far more complete team than it was during last year's 13-3 regular season, blowing 9.5 wins out of the water. That season goes like this:
On opening night against the Giants in September, Ezekiel Elliott avenges two of the Cowboys' 2016 regular-season losses with the best game of his pro career. He runs for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns, while catching another from his fellow second-year phenom Dak Prescott, who's thankful for a decision by Cowboys coaches to use Elliott more in the passing game. As it did last year, the Cowboys defense bends but doesn't break, relying on an improved pass-rush to cover mistakes by Dallas' rookie cornerbacks, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
After knocking off the Giants 34-20, the Cowboys roll through the first eight games on their schedule, with the kids in the defensive backfield stymieing Aaron Rodgers during another revenge win over the Packers in Arlington on October 8. Elliott continues as he was last year, one of the two best running backs in football, and Prescott shows that 2016 was no fluke, combining with a finally healthy Dez Bryant on nine first-half-of-the-season touchdowns.
A week-nine stumble in Atlanta doesn't slow the team down, and the Cowboys go 5-2 over their last seven games. Taco Charlton, the team's first-round defensive end, leads the team with nine sacks while Ryan Switzer, drafted as punt return specialist in the fourth round, gives the Cowboys' special teams the dynamism they've lacked since Dwayne Harris left for the Giants after the 2014 season. Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys' 2016 second-round draft pick, finally plays — and plays at a Pro Bowl level — for the Cowboys, coming all the way back from the catastrophic nerve injury that forced him to miss all of 2016.
At 13-3, the Cowboys are again the NFC No. 1 seed in the playoffs. This time, they face an easier draw than the Packers in the first round, romping against a Buccaneers team that is just happy to not be sitting at home. After being passed the NFC torch by the Seahawks in a hard-hitting, 20-10 NFC Championship Game, the Cowboys get the chance to end the Patriots' dynasty in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
2. The "Vegas Always Knows Something We Don't" Route
This, the most likely scenario, sees a very good but inexperienced Cowboys team suffer from the rigors of a first-place schedule. Charlton, Awuzie and Lewis each contributes to an improved defense, but none of the trio proves to be a star. Elliott, while still a Pro Bowler, isn't otherworldly, and Prescott, while continuing to protect the football, struggles to make big plays to the increasing frustration of Bryant.
In this telling of the Cowboys' 2017, they beat the teams they should, like the 49ers, Rams and Chargers, split their six tough divisional games and are forced to find four more wins among a schedule that includes the Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Falcons, Packers and Seahawks in order to make a return trip to the playoffs.
These Cowboys are battle tested but end the season with their playoff hopes sitting on a razor's edge. It doesn't mean they've had a bad season; it just means they didn't catch all the breaks they did in 2016, when they got amazing performances out of rookies like Prescott, Elliott and Antonio Brown while remaining remarkably healthy throughout the squad. December 2017 could build the Prescott/Elliott legend or set it back a year.
3. The Disaster Scenario
Turns out, 2017 is just a rehash of 2015. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell elects to suspend Elliott for the season's first six games as punishment for the domestic violence accusations against the running back and because Elliott pulled a woman's shirt down at Dallas' 2017 St. Patrick's Day parade.
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Without his security blanket, Prescott regresses, showing the flaws that caused him to drop to the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He's unable to throw the ball downfield with any regularity, stagnating the offense. With the Cowboys ball-control attack malfunctioning, the defense is on the field too much and gets exposed, repeatedly, during the Cowboys 2-4 start.
The bad start gets to Charlton, Awuzie and Lewis, who receives a suspension for his pending domestic violence case in Michigan. All three players fail to live up to their draft statuses, and the losses of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Barry Church are acutely felt in the Cowboys' defense backfield.
The team claws its way back to 5-6 after a Thanksgiving Day win against the Chargers before an Elliott leg injury ends its playoff hopes against the Redskins in week 13. The Cowboys, despite collapsing under the weight of all those expectations, have reason to be optimistic, as they are handed their second top 10 draft pick in three seasons.
While the Cowboys have all the pieces they need to make a run at the Super Bowl in today's parity driven NFL, they also have plenty of potential liabilities. They could have a bad season, one in which they don't even compete for a playoff spot, much less make the league's winter tournament. A scenario in which both Prescott and Elliott regress is possible, if not likely. The Cowboys' defense, while stocked with new bodies, expects major contributions from three rookies. These are not the mid-'90s Cowboys; they don't need to be to win big, but it opens the door to a lot more variance.