2012 schedule: Five key games for Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- The easiest way to make it to the playoffs in the NFL is to win the division, but that does not figure to be easy for the Cowboys, considering the improvements the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins made and the presence of the defending Super Bowl champ New York Giants.

Two of the five key games the Cowboys face in 2012 come from the division in part because of what type of message victories would send. The other three come against playoff teams from 2011, in Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Here goes:

Sept. 5 at NY Giants: The Cowboys opened and closed last season at MetLife Stadium, losing to the New York Jets and Giants, respectively. They get to open 2012 there on a Wednesday night against the Giants. A victory would not eliminate the odor of last year’s collapse, but it would put the Cowboys in the proper frame of mind in a first quarter of the season where they must finish at least 3-1. As they walked out of the stadium following the 31-14 loss to the Giants in January, the Cowboys promised the sting of losing out on a divisional championship game would motivate them throughout the offseason. They get an early chance to show just how much it will.

Nov. 4 at Atlanta: The Falcons figure to be playoff contenders and are difficult to beat inside the Georgia Dome. Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game, but he does not get the same label as Tony Romo, who has one playoff victory and is derided by a lot of pundits. Ryan has a number of talented players around him on offense in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner. The defense has some holes to fill to get to the offense’s level, and that’s how the Cowboys can return home with a victory. When you’re looking for tiebreaker advantages late in the season, games like this are a must, as is the Week 4 meeting vs. Chicago.

Dec. 2 vs. Philadelphia: By the end of last season the Eagles were the best team in the NFC East, even if the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl. Philadelphia was doomed by a slow start, but they lit up the Cowboys twice in 2011. There was a pronounced difference in speed between these teams a year ago. I’m not sure LeSean McCoy was tackled up at Lincoln Financial Field. Romo was bounced after the first series from the rematch at Cowboys Stadium with a bruised hand because of the speed of Jason Babin’s pass rush. As has been the case around here for more than a decade, the Cowboys’ success depends on how they fare in December. With extra time to prepare for the Eagles following Thanksgiving, the Cowboys could be in position to kick off December with a win.

Dec. 16 vs. Pittsburgh: The Steelers are among the AFC’s big boys and the Cowboys have to show they can hang with the big boys, especially late in the season. In 2008, they went to Heinz Field needing a win and were dealt a 20-13 loss, thanks to a fourth-quarter collapse. The last time the Steelers visited the area came in 2004, and their fans took over Texas Stadium. You can only imagine the number of Pittsburgh fans that will be inside Cowboys Stadium for this game, and the $1.2 billion stadium has hardly been a homefield advantage for the Cowboys.

Dec. 23 vs. New Orleans: Sean Payton will likely be watching this one from his Westlake home because of his year-long suspension due to Bountygate. It would’ve been juicier had Bill Parcells taken over for Payton, but the former Cowboys coach chose to remain retired. But Drew Brees will be there and so will the Saints passing game. The Cowboys’ secondary fell apart at the tail end of 2011, contributing to a playoff-less season. The Cowboys changed coaches (Dave Campo out, Jerome Henderson in) and players (Terence Newman out, Brandon Carr in) just for these occasions. In 2009, the Cowboys won a late-season game against an undefeated Saints team and turned around their season at the Superdome. They might need to do that again at Cowboys Stadium in 2012.