Five key games for Cowboys in 2011
Most important games on this year's schedule will take place away from home
IRVING, Texas -- So what are the five biggest games of the season for the Dallas Cowboys?
They all come on the road because the home schedule is not too sexy when you take away the NFC East foes.
Sept. 18 at San Francisco
How in the world can the second game of the season be against a team that finished 6-10 in 2010 and has a new coach in 2011 be considered one of the biggest? Because of the Sept. 11 opener at the New York Jets, that's why. It will be extremely difficult for the Cowboys to win the opener against a team that has been to the AFC Championship Game in the past two seasons. If you pencil that in as a loss, then the Cowboys must leave San Francisco with a win to avoid a second straight 0-2 start. The only time the Cowboys started a season 0-2 and made the playoffs in Jerry Jones' tenure as owner and general manager came in 1993. That's not a good omen.
Oct. 16 at New England[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Matt SlocumTom Brady lit up the Cowboys the last time he faced them, but new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has had success against the Patriots' quarterback.
The second trip to an AFC East foe will be as difficult as the first against the Jets. The last time Tom Brady played against the Cowboys, he threw for 388 yards and five touchdown passes in a 48-27 win at Texas Stadium in 2007. The last time he went against a Rob Ryan-led defense came last year at Cleveland and he took the loss, completing 19-of-36 passes for 224 yards and two scores. Ryan will also be able to take some of what his brother, Rex, used to slow Brady in the playoffs last year. A win here would legitimize the Cowboys as they hope to forget last year's 6-10 finish. A close loss wouldn't be that bad either, but a blowout would only lead to doubt.
Oct. 30 at Philadelphia
The Cowboys are not afraid of playing at Lincoln Financial Field, even if the 44-6 nightmare to close the 2008 season is fresh on some minds. They won there last year with their No. 3 quarterback, Stephen McGee. Of course, Michael Vick did not play as the Eagles were thinking more about the playoffs in January than the regular season. The Eagles provide a huge threat all over the field offensively, led by Vick, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. But Andy Reid will be breaking in a new defensive coordinator in Juan Castillo, the former offensive line coach, so Jason Garrett could find some holes in the Eagles' scheme.
Dec. 17 at Tampa Bay
The Cowboys will have a short week to get ready for the Buccaneers with the Sunday night home game the week prior against the Giants. Tampa Bay was a surprising 10-6 last year and has one of the better young quarterbacks in Josh Freeman. We'll know by this time if the Bucs were a one-year wonder or if coach Raheem Morris has some staying power. If he does, then this game could be a huge tiebreaker when it comes to the wild-card standings as both teams play in two of the toughest divisions. The good news for the Cowboys is that the heat should not be much of a factor with a prime-time kickoff.
Jan. 1 at N.Y. Giants
The NFL purposely puts division games at the end of the season to create even more drama with playoff implications. Last year, the Cowboys went into New Meadowlands Stadium in Jason Garrett's first game as interim head coach and used a 101-yard interception return by Bryan McCann for a touchdown to beat the Giants, 33-20. While winning the season opener at the Meadowlands will be tough, closing the season there -- even in the cold weather -- should not be as difficult. The Giants have a two-game winning streak at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys would like a two-game winning streak of their own in the Giants' new digs.
Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.