We won't have to wait until December to discover whether the Dallas Cowboys are playoff worthy.
Dallas' season opener Wednesday night against the New York Giants will provide some insight.
But the defining stretch could be Weeks 5 through 9, when the Cowboys face a grueling schedule.
A midterm grade a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving might be more important than the final exam around the holidays.
From Oct. 14 to Nov. 11, the Cowboys play four road games in a five-game stretch. Extremely challenging road games. At Baltimore. At Atlanta. At Philadelphia. Even a road game at Carolina is a challenge with quarterback Cam Newton leading the Panthers.
The only home game during that stretch is the rematch with the Giants.
The Cowboys' storyline often times has been December meltdowns. This season, the litmus test arrives much earlier.
Quarterback Tony Romo's bottom-line stat has been well documented. Romo is 19-2 in November but 9-18 after Dec. 1.
But this season, how the Cowboys fare the first half of the schedule should reveal whether they can compete in the NFC, loaded with viable playoff contenders.
The Packers, 49ers, Saints, Falcons, Lions, Bears, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys have playoff caliber rosters. That's nine teams fighting for six spots. And that list doesn't include Carolina or another emerging team emerging like San Francisco.
If the Cowboys can prevent getting buried at the midway point, they could be in position to make a second half run.
Health always is a key issue. Especially in Dallas. Complementing DeMarco Murray and the ground game, receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten can force opposing defenses to pick their poison.
But Bryant, Austin and Witten must prove they can stay healthy. All three enter the season with a little red cross next to their names on fantasy league Internet sites. If they're watching games in street clothes, the passing game suffers.
A revamped offensive line should be an improvement but must prove it. Plugging in new O-line pieces sometimes requires time to mold into a cohesive unit. But Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau — the two new guys — are an upgrade.
The defense should be improved.
It's sometimes fool's gold to place much stock in preseason results. But it was noteworthy that Dallas' first-team defense didn't allow a touchdown in the equivalent of one full game.
Dallas' defensive starters didn't face a top-notch offense but played well. For the record, the majority of snaps were against Philip Rivers (San Diego), Carson Palmer (Oakland) and Sam Bradford (St. Louis).
Eli Manning and the Giants will provide a good test in the opener. Manning and the Giants have been the biggest contributor to Dallas' December tailspins. The Giants are 7-2 against the Cowboys the past four years, including a 4-1 record after Dec. 1.
But will December even be relevant if Dallas can't navigate through the telltale portion of its schedule?
Owner Jerry Jones constantly reminds people what he loves most about the NFL is unexpected Hollywood scripts. It's why millions of television sets tune in every Sunday.
Do the Cowboys, facing a grueling schedule, have enough to make a run? Their 2012 story begins Wednesday night in the Meadowlands.
Oddsmakers don't like Dallas' chance to make Super Bowl
Tied for the most Super Bowl appearances, the Dallas Cowboys haven't played in the Super Bowl in 17 years, the longest drought in franchise history.
The previous record was a dozen years. After losing to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIII the Cowboys didn't play in another Super Bowl until they won three Lombardi trophies in a four-year span in the mid-1990s under Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer.
Las Vegas oddsmakers don't think Dallas' streak will end in 2012. The Cowboys aren't projected to make the playoffs.
Dallas is getting 12-to-1 odds to win the NFC trailing seven other teams — Green Bay (3/1), San Francisco (4/1), Philadelphia (6/1), New Orleans (7/1), New York Giants (8/1), Atlanta (10/1) and Chicago (10/1).
Dallas' Super Bowl history
Most Super Bowl appearances
8 Dallas Cowboys
8 Pittsburgh Steelers
7 New England Patriots
6 Denver Broncos
5 Washington Redskins
5 San Francisco 49ers
5 Oakland Raiders
Dallas Super Bowl scores
1970 Baltimore;L 16-13
1971 Miami;W 24-3
1975 Pittsburgh;L 21-17
1977 Denver;W 27-10
1978 Pittsburgh;L 35-31
1992 Buffalo;W 52-17
1993 Buffalo;W 30-13
1995 Pittsburgh;W 27-17