That's what I get for writing some of these stories a bit ahead of time to lessen my future workload when possible!
My original lead for the Cowboys here was: "I'm sure it has happened, but I can't remember the last time a team was 4-12 one season and last in its division but then favored to take said division the next year. But that's the case in 2016 with the Dallas Cowboys."
I thought Dallas would certainly be better this year with a healthy Tony Romo but that sportsbooks as usual were over-valuing the Cowboys because the casual bettors love backing America's Team. The Boys were slight favorites to win the NFC East, but that all changed last Thursday when Romo fractured a vertebra in his back in a preseason game in Seattle. He's expected to miss at least four regular-season games and perhaps up to eight. I frankly think Romo should retire after yet another serious injury, but that's easy for me to say. Now Dallas is a +275 third-favorite in the division and probably would be fourth of the four (Eagles are) if not for the amazing preseason play of rookie fourth-round QB Dak Prescott. Dallas sure seems like it's in better position than Minnesota is in the wake of the Vikings losing QB Teddy Bridgewater for the season on Tuesday.
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The Cowboys were 1-11 without Romo last season. I couldn't believe that Dallas didn't sign an accomplished backup this offseason, and then we saw projected No. 2 Kellen Moore go down with a serious injury. Dallas tried to sign Nick Foles and trade for Josh McCown, but Foles went to Kansas City and McCown is still in Cleveland. It was rather short-sighted to plan on Prescott backing up the incredibly fragile Romo, but so far it looks like genius as he has been the steal of the draft in the preseason. But guys like Todd Marinovich, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf and Cade McNown also had good rookie preseasons, so I wouldn't get too excited yet.
Many experts questioned why the Cowboys took Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft when Dallas had so many needs on defense and was already set at tailback with Darren McFadden (hurt now) and Alfred Morris. But Zeke is the clear Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite (Prescott climbing) behind the NFL's best offensive line. The Cowboys didn't help their defense for this year in Round 2, either, in taking Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. He might have been the first overall pick in the draft if healthy, but Smith won't play in 2016 off a very, very serious knee injury suffered in his final game at Notre Dame.
I worry a lot about that defense considering end DeMarcus Lawrence is suspended the first four games and fellow end Randy Gregory and linebacker Rolando McClain each 10, if McClain ever even reports to the team. Gregory is already in rehab, and it's likely neither of those two play a down in 2016, with McClain's career perhaps finished. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is coming off major knee surgery that cost him all of 2015 and now is dealing with a groin injury. Linebacker Sean Lee has a knee injury. All I can say is: the Cowboys better score a ton this year if they expect to contend the NFC East, whether that's with Prescott or Romo under center.
Dallas was 1-7 at Jerry World -- otherwise known as AT&T Stadium -- last season, 1-6-1 against the spread and 5-3 "over/under." The Cowboys host two 2015 playoff teams this year. I project a record of 4-4 (instead of 5-3 pre-Romo injury). BetOnline had given Dallas a wins total of 9.5 but that's now at 8, with both options at -110. I was leaning toward a 9-7 record but now am thinking 7-9. I am also taking away one road win from my June projection. Overall, the Cowboys' strength of schedule ranks as tied for the third-easiest in the NFL with an opponents' combined 2015 winning percentage of .465. Odds listed below for the home team. They are all pre-Romo numbers except Week 1.
Sept. 11 vs. Giants (+1, 47.5): It's the sixth time in the past nine years these two open against one another, and it wouldn't surprise me if both teams scored in the 40s here so I love the over even with Prescott making his real debut. In Week 1 in Dallas last year, the Cowboys beat the Giants 27-26. Romo threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten with 7 seconds left to give the Cowboys their fifth straight season-opening win in the series. Romo threw for 356 yards, three scores and two picks. Dez Bryant had five catches for 48 yards before leaving with a broken foot that would cost him several weeks. Not often you win committing three turnovers to an opponent's zero, but that was the case. Key trend: O/U is 9-1 in past 10 meetings in Big D.
Sept. 25 vs. Bears (-6): Sunday night game, with Dallas off a trip to Washington the previous Sunday. Chicago is on a short week, hosting the Eagles on Monday in Week 2. The Bears have won their first two trips to AT&T Stadium. But the Cowboys won the most recent meeting 41-28 in Chicago on Dec. 4, 2014. Key trend: Cowboys have failed to cover past nine as a home favorite of at least 6 points vs. anyone.
Oct. 9 vs. Bengals (pick'em): Cowboys off a trip to San Francisco in Week 4. Cincinnati is home to Miami the previous Sunday and ahead of a big trip to New England. Interesting stat according to ESPN: Jerry Jones has made a trade with every team in the NFL but the Bengals. First game in Big D for Bengals QB Andy Dalton, who played at TCU. Dallas has won two straight in the series. Key trend: Cowboys haven't played in pick'em game anywhere since 2004.
Oct. 30 vs. Eagles (-3.5): Dallas is off its bye week for this Sunday night matchup. I would think this could be a good spot for Romo to return. Philly is home to Minnesota in Week 7. The Cowboys lost to the visiting Eagles 33-27 in overtime in Week 9 last year, only the second OT game ever between the rivals. Matt Cassel actually had perhaps his best game in place of the injured Romo in throwing for 299 yards and three scores, but his only pick was returned for a TD. Key trend: Cowboys 3-7 ATS in past 10 as home favorite in series.
Nov. 20 vs. Baltimore (-4.5): Cowboys in Pittsburgh the previous Sunday. The Ravens on extra rest as they host Cleveland on Thursday in Week 10. Dallas is 0-4 all time in the series, and only one has been close. Key trend: Cowboys 2-4 ATS at home vs. AFC North.
Nov. 24 vs. Redskins (-3.5): Thanksgiving game and the first of two on Thursday for Dallas as it heads to Minnesota the next week for the national Thursday game. Washington is home to Green Bay the previous Sunday. First meeting between the Skins and Cowboys on Turkey Day since 2012, which Washington won behind a big game from Robert Griffin III. The Cowboys closed last season at home with a 34-23 loss to Washington. Moore threw for 435 yards, three touchdowns and two picks. Key trend: Cowboys 2-8 ATS in past 10 as home favorite in series.
Dec. 18 vs. Buccaneers (-6): Dallas off a trip to the Giants in Week 14. Tampa is home to New Orleans the previous Sunday. The Cowboys lost in Tampa 10-6 in Week 10 last year on a late 1-yard TD keeper from Jameis Winston. Romo and Bryant missed that one. Key trend: Cowboys 5-5 ATS in past 10 at home vs. NFC South.
Dec. 26 vs. Lions (-5): Final Monday night game of the 2016 regular season. Detroit is off a trip to the Giants in Week 15. First meeting between the clubs since the Lions got totally robbed by the referees in a 24-20 wild-card loss in Dallas on Jan. 4, 2015. Key trend: Cowboys 0-5 ATS in past five at home vs. NFC North.
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