Week 1 of the preseason wraps up Monday night with a game between a pair of teams that most NFL fans either love or hate: the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders. It begs the question: Which team will have the better record in 2012 -- the more talented Cowboys, or the Raiders, who play in an easier division?
The Oakland Raiders are going to finish with a better record. Sure, the Dallas Cowboys have more talent, but they also seem to get off-kilter at the wrong time each season. This has been true of the Raiders, too, but Oakland has what seems to be the easier path this season. I think the Raiders will get off to a decent start and use that momentum to carry them through their schedule. The key is running back Darren McFadden. If he stays healthy, the Silver and Black could be the sleeper team in the AFC.
There is a lot to like about where this Raiders franchise is heading, and Oakland's new direction should pay dividends. But the Raiders won't finish this season with a better record than the Cowboys. Even with Darren McFadden healthy and quarterback Carson Palmer getting a full offseason with the team, Oakland's division is much stronger than it was last year. The Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers should all be better, and it doesn't look like the Raiders improved enough to jump ahead of the pack.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, stocked up on defensive personnel, and that unit should continue to climb in Year 2 under coordinator Rob Ryan, while the offense could be more efficient. This is the year that quarterback Tony Romo will lead the Cowboys deep into the postseason after helping them survive the brutal NFC East.
It's quite possible that both Dallas and Oakland will finish 8-8 again in 2012. However, based on their schedules, the Raiders have a slightly better shot at making a playoff run.
In addition to playing in the highly competitive NFC East, the Cowboys have to visit the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons and host the Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers. Between their division games and that six-pack of tough contests, it's easy to imagine Dallas going 4-8.
The Raiders face tough trips to Atlanta, Baltimore and Carolina outside their division, but their home schedule has fewer speed bumps (at least on paper) than Dallas'. I would expect a more in-tune Carson Palmer to help them win at least three games against the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.
Schedules are funny things that can look completely different in January than they did in August. That being said, I agree with the current conventional wisdom that the Raiders seem to have an easier slate. However, when trying to predict which squad will have a better year, my tendency is to go with the better team.
I like the Cowboys' defense more than the Raiders' unit for two reasons: Dallas can rush the passer better and it has a big edge at the cornerback position. On offense, I like Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer more than Tony Romo. Darren McFadden is better than Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, but McFadden's health is more of a question mark. The Cowboys have an edge at receiver, but it's not as big as most people think. Dallas has a huge advantage at tight end with Jason Witten, but injuries to the Cowboys' offensive line make the units tough to compare. If both offenses were completely healthy, I would give the edge to Oakland.
I love the Oakland Raiders' new direction. I believe in new coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie. However, this year will be a work in progress while the team changes its culture. The best-case scenario for the Raiders is to go 8-8 in the very competitive AFC West.
The Cowboys have talent. They also smartly upgraded the cornerback position, adding free agent Brandon Carr and draft pick Morris Claiborne. Coach Jason Garrett told me this offseason that he wants Dallas to establish toughness and be able to finish, just like the New York Giants. Garrett, meanwhile, has also learned lessons from the play-calling and game-management issues he had in 2011. I think Dallas will finish 9-7.
This is a very tough question, but I'll give the Cowboys a slight edge over the Raiders, mostly because I have more trust in Tony Romo's ability to protect the football than I do in Carson Palmer's. The Cowboys also have DeMarcus Ware, arguably the NFL's top pass rusher. The Raiders have a talented defensive line, but it lacks a dominant, game-altering force like Ware. The Cowboys do play in a better division, but the AFC West won't exactly roll over for the Raiders, either. The Broncos will be better with Peyton Manning, the Chargers still have a talented roster and the Chiefs are returning several key players from injury.
Anyone analyzing the Oakland Raiders must consider exactly when running back Darren McFadden will be hurt. Week 6? Week 11? What McFadden has going for him in 2012 is new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who has shown a knack for getting the most out of his starting running backs (Warrick Dunn with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Justin Forsett with the Seattle Seahawks, Arian Foster with the Houston Texans). If you could guarantee me a healthy McFadden, I could guarantee the AFC West title for Oakland. But you can't, so I can't. Eight wins seems about right.
It seems like every year is a "Super Bowl or bust" kind of year for Dallas, but in 2012, the Cowboys will have a real rushing attack for the first time since Julius Jones and Marion Barber were splitting carries. This means Tony Romo won't have to throw costly interceptions in the fourth quarter -- I mean, it means Tony Romo won't have to pull out every game late. I can't tell you how huge that is. Dallas' defense is as well-rounded as it's ever been, its weakest point having been shored up by an "Extreme Secondary Makeover." This year, Dallas will win the NFC East with 11 victories and play the Chicago Bears for the NFC title.
It's fitting that this question would come up on a day that features "Chad 85" making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Just like the Miami Dolphins' former clown, the Raiders and Cowboys perennially receive tons of unearned attention.
They have the toughest schedule of any team this year -- and, starting with the opener, one of the most brutal nine-game stretches I've ever seen -- but I'll still take the Cowboys. Yes, the NFC East figures to be tough, but let's not assume the AFC West is going to be a cakewalk. I seem to recall hearing a thing or two about Denver having cause for optimism, and there's a Kansas City team that's so loaded on offense, even its mediocre quarterback won't be able to slow it down. Plus, you've got the Chargers, who, for the first time in a long time, aren't considered one of the AFC's prohibitive playoff favorites ... which almost certainly guarantees they'll be better than ever.
Oh, yeah ... let's not forget that we're talking about the Raiders. Romo and his pals might not have done much damage in the playoffs over the last six years, but at least they've gotten there.
There are certain things in life that you can't help but be excited for, even though they'll ultimately end up disappointing you. Like any movie based on a DC comic book character (other than Batman, that is).
Of course, everybody likes to laughingly point out that Tony Romo is a loser who always chokes in the clutch. Funny, people thought the same about Peyton Manning -- before he won a Super Bowl in his ninth season. Romo is currently entering his ninth season (seventh as a starter), so it's not too late for him to turn into a winner. The only problem for Romo is that Rex Grossman, who helped the Chicago Bears roll over for Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI, plays for the Washington Redskins and can't do the same for Romo.