While the main sporting event in the city of Arlington will take place later in the evening, Sunday's clash between the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams will still take on a great deal of significance for both participants involved.
Just a few hours before the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers square off across the way from Cowboys Stadium in Game 4 of the World Series, the Cowboys and Rams will go head-to-head seeking to put an end to frustrating losing streaks. Dallas failed to hold onto late leads in stinging defeats to Detroit and New England in its last two outings, while the injury-riddled Rams are off to a disappointing 0-5 start to a season in which they had been expected to be a serious contender in the seemingly wide-open NFC West division.
St. Louis has dropped six in a row and eight of its last nine contests dating back to last season and hasn't even been competitive in most of this year's bouts, with four of those five losses coming by 12 or more points. The team's latest setback came at the hands of defending world champion Green Bay at Lambeau Field, with the Packers erupting for three second-quarter touchdowns en route to a 24-3 victory last Sunday.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford threw for 328 yards in a losing cause, but the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year also suffered a serious ankle sprain during the afternoon which has rendered him a game-time decision for Sunday's tilt. Bradford did not practice the entire week and may be forced to give way to veteran A.J. Feeley, who hasn't started a regular-season test since 2007.
"I'm definitely doing everything I can to play...whether we were playing in Dallas or in Alaska, I'm going to do everything I can to play every Sunday," said Bradford, who grew up some three hours outside of Dallas in Oklahoma City. "But I've had this Dallas game circled for a while now knowing that it is about as close to home as I get. It'd mean a lot for me to play down there, so hopefully I'll be ready."
If Bradford can't go, it would be another significant blow to a St. Louis offense that had been sputtering even with the 2010 No. 1 overall draft choice at the controls. The Rams are averaging a league-low 9.8 points per game and are also last in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, having scored touchdowns on a poor 25 percent of their chances in that all-important area.
Dallas has had its issues inside the opponent's 20-yard line as well, converting just 33 percent of its tries into six points. The Cowboys' biggest problem has been closing out games, however, as the team has been ahead in the fourth quarter in all three of its losses this year.
The Cowboys were up by a field goal against the mighty Patriots in Foxborough last Sunday before Tom Brady capped a long drive with a touchdown pass with 22 seconds left that gave New England a 20-16 win. Two weeks previously, Dallas squandered a 24-point third-quarter lead in a shocking 34-30 ousting by the rapidly-improved Lions on Oct. 2.
"You just need to figure out how to get the win at the end," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said after the New England game. "I think we will going forward. This team is continuing to grow and get better. We just need to finish out a game like [last week's] and we will as the season progresses."
While the winless Rams may represent a reprieve in the schedule for Dallas, whose first five opponents are all .500 or better at the moment, St. Louis did make an effort to upgrade its sluggish offense at the trade deadline with Monday's acquisition of wideout Brandon Lloyd. The former Bronco led the NFL with 1,448 receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns last season playing for then-Denver head coach Josh McDaniels, now the Rams' offensive coordinator.
St. Louis took an 11-10 lead in its overall regular-season series with the Cowboys with a 34-14 home upset win in 2008, a game in which Romo did not play due to a broken finger, but was handed a 35-7 loss in its most recent trip to Dallas, which took place at the since-demolished Texas Stadium back in 2007. The Rams had strung together three straight road victories in the set prior to that result, including a 20-10 decision in the 2005 season finale.
These teams have a storied postseason history as well, having split eight playoff meetings between 1973 and 1985. That includes a pair of showdowns in the NFC Championship Game, both of which were Dallas wins and were held in Los Angeles when the Rams were still based there. The Cowboys routed the Rams by a 37-7 count in the 1975 edition and also scored a 28-0 verdict in the 1978 conference title game.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
St. Louis has shown an affinity for airing it out under McDaniels' direction, having attempted the fourth-most passes and the third-fewest runs in the league over its first five games. That philosophy hasn't translated into production, however, with Bradford (1177 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) having completed just 53.1 percent of his throws and accounting for a mere three touchdowns in the new system, and the Rams also rank 31st overall in third- down conversions (27.0 percent). The addition of Lloyd (19 receptions, 283 yards with Denver), who averaged nearly 19 yards per catch during his breakout 2010 campaign, should help matters, and the well-traveled veteran should slot in as an immediate starter opposite promising second-year man Danario Alexander (14 receptions, 287 yards, 1 TD). Who will be firing passes to the duo on Sunday remains a mystery, however. Feeley took all the reps during this week's practice and appears to be the favorite to start, but the 34-year-old hasn't seen extensive action in a meaningful game in nearly four years. With all the uncertainty under center, St. Louis figures to lean heavily on running back Steven Jackson (220 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 2 total TD) this week. Now fully recovered from a pulled quadriceps he sustained in the season opener, the six-time 1,000-yard rusher compiled 125 yards from scrimmage (96 rushing, 29 receiving) against the Packers in his best game of the year.
The Rams may be forced to continue their pass-heavy ways regardless of who's at quarterback, as the Cowboys boast the NFL's stingiest run defense so far in 2011. Dallas is yielding a mere 69.6 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry and has gotten excellent play out of inside linebacker Sean Lee (47 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (18 tackles, 1 INT) up front, while perennial All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (17 tackles, 7 sacks) headlines a stout pass rush that's amassed 16 sacks in five games and got to Brady three times last week. The Cowboys also held the potent Patriots to a season-low 371 total yards and forced four turnovers, with Lee and veteran cornerback Terence Newman (10 tackles, 1 INT) each recording interceptions of Brady. Dallas comes in fifth overall in total defense (307.6 ypg) but has encountered trouble coming up with stops at times, as opponents have made good on 43 percent of third-down situations against the unit.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas has been overly reliant on throwing the ball as well, with Romo (1590 passing yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) delivering four 300-yard passing days already as the triggerman for an offense that's third in the NFL in pass attempts and fourth in yards gained via the air (324.8 ypg). Though the highly-scrutinized quarterback is still bothered by a cracked rib suffered in a Week 2 comeback win at San Francisco, don't expect Garrett to be reducing his workload this week, especially with leading rusher Felix Jones (255 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions) out for Sunday's game after spraining an ankle against the Patriots. Dallas expects to use a committee approach in the backfield in his absence, with rookie DeMarco Murray (71 rushing yards, 4 receptions) likely to take the majority of the rush attempts and capable reserve Tashard Choice (67 rushing yards, 11 receptions) getting most of the work on passing downs. The receiving corps is among the league's best, with wideouts Miles Austin (21 receptions, 307 yards, 4 TD) and Dez Bryant (14 receptions, 3 TD) each proven dangerous downfield threats and tight end Jason Witten (31 receptions, 414 yards, 2 TD) a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who's caught at least 94 passes in three of the past four years. Laurent Robinson (12 receptions), cut loose by the Rams during the preseason, has made an contribution as the No. 3 receiver as well, averaging nearly 70 yards in three games since being signed last month.
The Cowboys' vast array of weapons should pose quite a challenge for a St. Louis defense that's been abysmal so far this season. The Rams are permitting a league-worst 161.8 rushing yards per game and have had difficulty stopping the pass as well, with season-ending injuries to top cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher ravaging the secondary. Aging veteran Al Harris was burned for a 93-yard touchdown by Green Bay's Jordy Nelson a week ago and replacement starter Justin King (28 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) has endured his share of trials stepping into a prominent role. St. Louis does possess a couple of solid edge rushers on the roster, however, with former high draft choice Chris Long (10 tackles) having come up with a team-best three sacks on the year from his end spot and 12th-year pro James Hall (18 tackles, 1 sack) posting double digits in that category in 2010, while linebacker James Laurinaitis (39 tackles, 1 INT) has been one of the group's few bright spots with his play in the middle.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Who will be the Rams' quarterback, and just how will that person fare? This is the most pressing question heading into Sunday's game. Conventional wisdom says that Bradford would give St. Louis it's best chance to spring an upset, though that may not be the case if the talented youngster's not at 100 percent or his sophomore slump extends to another week. Feeley brings an experienced arm to the offense, having made 15 starts during a nomadic 11-year career, but there's obviously a risk of rust involved with a player who's attempted a total of five passes over the past four seasons.
Turnovers and breakdowns. These have been two big sore spots during Dallas' slow start, as the expected NFC East contenders have given the ball away eight times in their three losses and been repeatedly plagued by missed scoring opportunities all throughout the year. The Cowboys are clearly the more talented of these two teams and won't have a problem beating the Rams with a sharp effort, but the outcome could be a toss-up if they continue to hurt themselves with ill-timed mistakes.
Slow down the pass rush. The Cowboys will be bring the pressure all throughout Sunday's contest, and a St. Louis offensive line that's given up a league-high 22 sacks in just five games has to be able to hold up for the Rams to have any hope of ending its losing streak.
This has the makings of a blowout at first glance, especially if the Rams are forced to go with Feeley under center. However, the Cowboys have had a remarkable tendency for close games, no matter how tough or meek their opponent, as each of its last 11 outings have been decided by four points or fewer. Dallas will win in a walk if it's clicking in all phases, but that's yet to happen this year, and it wouldn't be the least surprising if the erratic Cowboys stumble enough to let the Rams hang around for a while. While it would be a major reach to think a battered St. Louis squad with all of its problems could come out of Dallas with a victory, there's precedent for this game to be a little tighter than one would initially expect.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 23, Rams 13