With the 2022 NFL schedule release now in the rearview, the Dallas Cowboys are flooring the accelerator toward minicamp and beyond, knowing who they'll face, where they'll face them and when it'll all go down. Their 17-game slate is one wrought with pitfalls they'll need to avoid, especially early on, needing to fly out of the gate if they're to establish any momentum that might carry them through the challenges of injury at certain positions and the inevitable loss or two birthed from controversial calls and/or non-calls -- as is often a part of the fabric every Cowboys season. With Dak Prescott now completely healthy and leading OTAs, and a very strong rookie class joining the fray as the calendar turns to June, the work has already begun.

That work doesn't include defensive end Randy Gregory, All-Pro wide receiver Amari Cooper or former starting tackle La'el Collins, all of them having parted ways with the Cowboys in headline fashion. It's an offseason filled with a lot of unpleasantry from the Cowboys, which follows a postseason that delivered heartbreak, so getting off to a slow start to next season simply won't do. But in analyzing their schedule, it's clear what the top-five must-watch contests are, considering the fireworks that await.

Is it September yet??

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Week 1 - Sunday, Sept. 11
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET

What's better than a battle with the GOAT? A rematch with him, and after he ends a brief retirement. The Cowboys entered the 2021 season surfing a wave of optimism from the return of Dak Prescott from a season-ending ankle injury suffered in 2020, and despite his preseason run in with a strained shoulder, all eyes were on this matchup to in Week 1. It was to serve as a litmus test for both Prescott and most certainly the defense -- now led by Dan Quinn -- against Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers. In a contest the Cowboys narrowly lost, and in controversial fashion, they showed they could walk into Raymond James Stadium and deliver a loss to Brady, prior to falling just short. 

This time the battle is in Texas, and once again the Cowboys will have a chance to send a message to start their season; and only months after Brady retired and then unretired, followed by Bruce Arians leaving his head coaching role to allow Todd Bowles to take over. With no shortage of headlines in this one, it'll define the Cowboys season early, and in a major way. Dallas has never defeated Brady in his illustrious 22-year career (he's 6-0 against them). Does that streak end in 2022??

2. Green Bay Packers

Week 10 - Sunday, Nov. 13
Location: Lambeau Field (Green Bay, WI)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET

Insert the appropriate gif from The Joker here, because here ... we ... go. This matchup marks the long-awaited return of head coach Mike McCarthy to Lambeau Field, where he spent most of his NFL coaching career helping to mold the Hall of Fame careers of both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, including winning a Super Bowl with both. Rodgers hasn't been back to the top of the mountain since, but neither has McCarthy (who took a year off after being dismissed in Green Bay and eventually landing in Dallas). The two will forever be linked and you can bet McCarthy, who was extremely sour about how things went down in his final season at Lambeau, wants nothing more than to not only defeat the Packers this season, but to humiliate them. 

It's a surreal moment of the highest order, especially considering the last time McCarthy was in Green Bay, he was leading the Packers in the defeat of the Cowboys in the game that is now notoriously known for the Dez Bryant catch and overturn -- later labeled a catch by the NFL, to no consequence. And, similar to Brady, Rodgers usually has the Cowboys number, but that was mostly when McCarthy was at the helm. Having also lost the last three matchups to Rodgers, all at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys have a metric ton of motivation to march into Green Bay and exorcise some demons.

3. Los Angeles Rams

Week 5 - Sunday, Oct. 9
Location: SoFi Stadium (Los Angeles, CA)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET

Not long after trying to finally defeat Brady, the Cowboys will face the quarterback who took him down this past postseason -- en route to leading the Chargers to a Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Stafford stole a page right out of Brady's playbook: leave longtime NFL team for new team and hoist a Lombardi trophy in his first season. But for all the good and great achieved by Stafford in 2021, there were also some very lean times as well, and he also didn't go up against Quinn's defense (one that was tops in the league in more than one category and top-5 in several others). 

The current defending champs don't look exactly the same as they did last season when they won it all -- e.g., no Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr. or Robert Woods (to a lesser degree) -- but they're still extremely dangerous on both sides of the ball. And having added perennial All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, whom the Cowboys had interest in signing but wouldn't up their offer to acquire, this is a fight that will serve as another early-season measuring stick to the gauge Dallas' potency in the NFC.

4. Philadelphia Eagles

Week 16 - Christmas Eve, Saturday, Dec. 24
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET

Now, on to toxic NFC East rivalries, and it doesn't get much more so than the one between the Cowboys and Eagles, plus you can now throw Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown into the mix -- acquired via blockbuster trade during the 2022 NFL Draft. So while the Cowboys will meet the Giants on the major holiday in November, they'll clash with the Eagles only 30 days later on Christmas Eve. It's a rare Saturday meeting between the two, and the Eagles want to be the ones who burn the Cowboys en route to potentially becoming the kings of the East -- challenges from the Washington Commanders notwithstanding. Not entirely dissimilar from Daniel Jones, Hurts is entering a pivotal season wherein he must definitively prove he's the face of the Eagles going forward, and the Cowboys have to continue to reign him in as they mostly have to this point.

As a starter, Hurts is 0-2 against the Cowboys and All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs has intercepted him three times in those two contests. He's hoping playing Brown in tandem with DeVonta Smith will go a long way in preventing a fourth INT (or more) in 2022, and the addition of first-round pick Jordan Davis could help wreak havoc against a Cowboys offensive line that's currently in rebuild mode; but the Cowboys were 6-0 in the division last year and want to continue steamrolling the NFC East in 2022. One of these teams will get an early Christmas gift, and the other will get a lump of coal in their stocking. 

5. New York Giants

Week 12 - Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 24
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET 

Speaking of the Giants, of course this one is a must-watch. After all, it's the Thanksgiving game, and what makes it even better is you won't see the Cowboys take the field on Turkey Day to face the Detroit Lions, but instead a bitter division rival for a late-season conflict that also serves as the second and final regular season matchup between the two. Contingent upon the outcome of their meeting in Week 3 at MetLife Stadium, one of these teams will be looking for the sweep while the other looks to avoid it, and the Giants aren't planning on laying down or being the same ole Big Blue that's been rolled over by Prescott and Co. the past few seasons. 

On paper, the Cowboys are still the better team, but that's arguable after controversial losses in the offseason, while the Giants added Brian Daboll as head coach and replaced Dave Gettleman with general manager Joe Schoen. There's an air of change sweeping through the Giants organization, and both Jones and running back Saquon Barkley are entering pivotal years that will define the rest of their NFL careers. Add in a very strong NFL draft haul and the Giants are in position to keep the Cowboys from repeating as NFC East champs, and this game will help decide the fate of the division -- so grab the turkey leg and dig into this one. 

Honorable mention: Cincinnati Bengals

Week 2 - Sunday, Sept. 18
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET

In 2022, the Cowboys will face not one, but both teams that appeared in the most recent Super Bowl. Before they get to take on Matthew Stafford and the champion Rams, they'll have to suit up against Joe Burrow and the Bengals -- a team looking to get off to a hot start after going on arguably the best run in franchise history before losing a nail-biter against Los Angeles for all the marbles. It is this exact hunger, combined with the lethality of Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and others, that makes this one of the most challenging matchups the Cowboys will face all year. And to have such a challenge only one week after opening their season against Tom Brady makes it that much more difficult, considering it's a back-to-back brawl with a recent Super Bowl champion and a one that very nearly won it in February, respectively.

Burrow has proven himself one of the best QBs in the league and Chase is inhuman in his potency as a wideout, leaving only the Bengals defense to match serve, which they eventually did with the help of All-Pro safety Jessie Bates. And since it's doubtful the current contract standoff will lead to Bates holding out (the new CBA severely penalizes such a thing nowadays), the Cowboys can expect to see him on the field and playing angry; in a game that will either see Dallas launch to 2-0 to open the year after downing two of the best teams in the league, 1-1 in a split or 0-2 and drowning in criticism labeling them as anything but a contender.

The only reason this isn't a top-five watch is because it's an AFC team, as far as impact on playoff standings goes, and that matters in the grand scheme of these rankings. That said, former Cowboys starting tackle La'el Collins is now a Bengal after being unceremoniously released this offseason, and seeing him square up against All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence will be must-see TV, in and of itself. 

In looking at their schedule and the aforementioned contests, and having failed yet again in the most recent postseason, there are only two options for the Cowboys in 2022:

Put up or shut up.