DALLAS COWBOYS (13-6)
EXPECTATIONS: The Cowboys are way overdue for their next trip to the NFC championship game. The most recent time Dallas made it that far was the 1995 season, when the franchise won its fifth Super Bowl title. The past two seasons could be considered progress. The Cowboys lost a wild-card game at home to San Francisco two years ago before beating Tom Brady and Tampa Bay in that round last season. The 49ers eliminated Dallas again, this time in the divisional round. Anything short of that will be a setback this season. Mike McCarthy is taking over play-calling duties in his fourth year as Dallas coach, an intriguing development going into QB Dak Prescott's eighth season. While RB Ezekiel Elliott is gone, WR Brandin Cooks gives Prescott a legitimate deep threat to go with No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb. Pass rushing star Micah Parsons is in his third season as the club's best defensive player. Dallas traded for Cooks and CB Stephon Gilmore, who gives the Cowboys another former All-Pro opposite Trevon Diggs.
NEW FACES: WR Brandin Cooks, CB Stephon Gilmore, QB Trey Lance, OL Chuma Edoga, DT Mazi Smith, TE Luke Schoonmaker.
KEY LOSSES: RB Ezekiel Elliott, TE Dalton Schultz, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, G Connor McGovern, DT Carlos Watkins, rookie LB DeMarvion Overshown (preseason knee injury).
STRENGTHS: The Cowboys probably waited until too late into the 2022 season to upgrade at receiver with the December addition of T.Y. Hilton. They didn't make the same mistake this season with the addition of Cooks. With the emergence of second-year man Jalen Tolbert in training camp, Dallas has a potentially deep group of four behind Lamb and Cooks. Michael Gallup is now close to two years removed from the ACL injury sustained late in the 2021 season. The Cowboys believe they'll see the previous version of Gallup, who was an emerging threat before the injury.
WEAKNESSES: The interior defensive line has been an issue basically since McCarthy arrived. He often says that he tells the defensive coaches he would run right at the Cowboys if he were the opposing play-caller. Johnathan Hankins re-signed after a midseason trade last year to bolster the run defense. The Cowboys also targeted that weakness in the first round of the draft, taking Michigan's Mazi Smith 26th overall. Smith is getting mixed reviews from coaches in camp.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Six-time All-Pro RG Zack Martin ended a contract holdout going into the last of four weeks of camp in California. His return erased the last question about the starting offensive line. Tyler Smith is set for LG, replacing McGovern, after a solid rookie season filling in for perennial Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith. Dallas decided to put the elder Smith back in his old spot after he started late last season on the right side when the 32-year-old returned from a torn hamstring. RT Terence Steele is back after tearing an ACL last season, and C Tyler Biadasz is set for his third season as the starter. The Cowboys finished the preseason by adding QB Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick by San Francisco in 2021, in a trade with the 49ers. Lance is expected to be the third-stringer for now.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Tony Pollard takes the role of lead back from Elliott and is playing on the $10.1 million franchise tag. Pollard was the most explosive player on offense last season before breaking his lower left leg/ankle in the playoff loss to the 49ers. The fifth-year player has been full-go most of camp. He should be a threat as a runner and receiver. The biggest question is pass protection, one of the reasons Elliott kept his job even as his production waned compared with Pollard.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 13-1. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl