There's no sense in beating around the bush, so I'll just put it out there: The Dallas Cowboys will go 11-5 this season and win the NFC East in 2012.
Sure, the division has the defending Super Bowl champs that happened to catch lightning in a bottle. It also has the self-proclaimed -- but now-retracted -- dream team of 2011 that stumbled out of the gates and narrowly missed the playoffs after a nice season-ending run.
The NFC "Beast" is tough. There's no getting around that. But, looking at the overall schedule, there's really not a team that should strike fear into the hearts of the Cowboys or fans. The only one, in my opinion, that would come close is the Philadelphia Eagles. The division rival was really the only team that man-handled Dallas last season.
Keep in mind, though, that quarterback Tony Romo banged up his hand on Dallas' opening drive of the second matchup of the season with the Eagles and didn't return. That's not an excuse, just reality in a 20-7 loss in which Stephen McGee was ineffective and journeyman Sammy Morris was the primary running back.
It seems as though that is where Dallas had the most problems last year, ranging from Romo's fractured rib and punctured lung against San Francisco to DeMarco Murray's season-ending injury against the Giants, a game in which the Cowboys led 34-22 in the fourth quarter. It was one of a handful of fourth-quarter collapses in 2011. I've always heard that a record is an accurate predictor of what a team is, but I just can't help but think the Cowboys were closer to 12-4 last year than 8-8.
Miles Austin was banged up last year, too, with hamstring issues. That is still a concern as it has kept the No. 1 receiver out of each preseason game. Maybe it was just a precaution, which I'm hoping, to make sure he lasts the entire season.
It wasn't just the injury bug that plagued the Cowboys. The offensive line was horrendous with inexperienced or sub-par interior linemen and a rich left tackle that didn't live up to expectations. The defensive secondary was also a black eye to the season, especially against NFC East foes.
Dallas gave up more than 1,800 yards against the Giants, Eagles and Washington Redskins in 2011, along with 12 touchdowns. The Cowboys managed only three interceptions in six games.
The team addressed both issues this offseason with free-agent signings and a solid draft. Although the starting five offensive linemen -- at least on paper -- haven't had significant playing time together, it should be a much-improved group under the tutelage of Bill Callahan.
Also, the additions of Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne have drastically improved the secondary and immediately make it a strong point.
With any new season, predictions are largely based on improvement in areas of concern or need and the emergence of expected potential. Many pundits have said Dallas has one of the most talented rosters in the league, but the Cowboys haven't been able to put it all together.
This is the year it's all put together, beginning with a win at New York. I expect Dallas to go 4-2 in the division, splitting the series with the Giants and Eagles and sweeping the Redskins. I believe the other three losses will be the Monday-night game against the Chicago Bears, at the Baltimore Ravens following the bye week, and the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in December.
Let the games begin.
John Ingle is a graduate of the Midwestern State University Mass Communication program with an emphasis in journalism. He is a life-long Dallas Cowboys and football fan dating back to the late 1970s and has had covered the Cowboys as a journalism intern during two training camps at MSU. You can follow him on Twitter @inglejohn1973.
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