The Dallas Cowboys have hit a soft spot on the schedule and failure to take care of business against inferior teams will only hamper their chances of making a case for the playoffs.
Since getting sideswiped in a loss at Philadelphia on Oct. 30, the Cowboys have ripped off back-to-back home wins versus Seattle and Buffalo to remain a game behind the New York Giants for the NFC East lead. The Washington Redskins are next on the list for Dallas and a win Sunday at FedEx Field could propel Dallas to new heights.
The Giants have New Orleans and Green Bay on the upcoming slate and now is the perfect chance for the Cowboys to start a lengthy winning streak. The Cowboys have won back-to-back games on two separate occasions this season and their 44-7 win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday was the 10th-largest margin in team history. Tight end and leading receiver Jason Witten was pleased with the recent outcome and hopes it will catapult his team to even more success.
"We needed a game like this," said Witten, who moved into third place all-time among tight ends for career receptions. "This needs to be the foundation of what lies ahead for this team."
It was a good sign for the offense and quarterback Tony Romo in the latest win. Romo led the Cowboys to touchdowns on their first four drives and threw for 270 yards on a precise 23-of-26 passes with three TD strikes and a 148.4 QB rating. Those numbers were a far cry from what Romo produced in an 18-16 win over the Redskins in the first meeting of the season back on Sept. 26 in Big D, where he was 22-of-36 for 255 yards and an interception. Generally the Cowboys/Redskins matchups are played closely and kicker Dan Bailey nailed six field goals to provide the scoring.
If a team is forced to rely on a kicker for points than it's time to start planning early vacations. Dallas how no intentions on doing that quite yet and is in the midst of winnable games against Seattle, Buffalo, Washington, Miami and Arizona. So far the Cowboys have taken care of their business and one slip could cost them a chance for a postseason run. Chicago is heating up right now and is one of a handful of teams fighting for a playoff spot. The 'Boys still have their sights set on an NFC East title and need New York to stumble.
Washington has been staggering since a promising 3-1 start with five straight losses. It is averaging 11 points per game during the current slide and barely showed up in Sunday's 20-9 loss at Miami highlighted by another shaky performance from quarterback Rex Grossman.
Grossman was appointed the starter against the Dolphins, replacing John Beck four weeks after being benched. Head coach Mike Shanahan said he initially wanted Beck to remain the starter, but injuries across the offensive line and certain matchups forced his hand towards Grossman. Grossman said he's just here to play and will do whatever the coaching staff asks of him. He was excited for the opportunity despite taking only half of the reps in practice and passed for 215 yards with two interceptions, including one in the red zone.
"I gotta be more careful with the ball," he said after the loss. "We moved the ball pretty well but didn't get it in the end zone. I felt good going into this game. I wish I could have delivered today."
Shanahan made his two QBs wait a few days before announcing Grossman would remain as the starter for the Dallas game even though he was impressed with how Grossman managed the Miami game despite the results. Only an injury could supplant Grossman as the starter right now. An injury cost Grossman one of his very few deep threats in Leonard Hankerson, as a hip ailment will end the young receiver's season. Hankerson had started the last two games, including last week's game in which he caught a team-high eight passes for 106 yards.
Anthony Armstrong and Terrence Austin are expected to see extended time and veteran wideout Santana Moss is still sidelined with a fractured hand. Donte Stallworth was just re-signed to fill Hankerson's roster spot and played the first eight weeks before his release. Unfortunately, it has been an issue all season for Washington's offense to produce a go-to guy even with a healthy Moss. Scoring points has become a famine for the Redskins and it doesn't appear that will change anytime soon.
The last time the Redskins lost six in a row was when they opened the 1998 season under Norv Turner with an 0-7 record.
The Cowboys have a 61-38-2 advantage in the all-time regular-season series between the divisional foes and now have won five of their six most recent meetings with Washington following the above-mentioned two-point victory back in Week 3. The Redskins' lone triumph over that stretch occurred in last year's season opener, a 13-7 home decision, with Dallas exacting revenge via a 33-30 verdict at Cowboys Stadium last December. The Cowboys left FedEx Field with wins in both 2008 and 2009, recording a 14-10 decision in the earlier matchup and besting Washington by a 17-0 count there the subsequent season.
The Redskins have prevailed in each of their two previous postseason clashes with Dallas, topping the Cowboys in both the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship Games, both of which took place at Washington's RFK Stadium.
Shanahan owns a 4-3 lifetime record against Dallas, including a 3-1 mark during his 14-year tenure with the Denver Broncos from 1995-08, and had defeated the Cowboys four straight times prior to last December's setback. Dallas head man Jason Garrett has now won each of his two head-to-head matchups with both Washington and Shanahan after this past September's result.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Romo (2,508 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT) had his best game of the season last week with three touchdown passes and no interceptions for the second week in a row and third time in four weeks. Romo hasn't been sacked either in each of the last two games after going down eight times over the previous three contests. He'll need another cohesive effort out of his offensive line in this heated NFC East showdown and recorded 255 yards with an interception and no touchdown passes in the first meetings with Washington on Sept. 26. Romo has won four of his last five starts in this series and is an astounding 17-2 in November. He hopes to have wide receiver Miles Austin (403 yards, 4 TD) back after he missed the Buffalo game with a hamstring injury. Austin can stretch the field and gives the offense more depth at the position alongside Dez Bryant (517 yards, 5 TD) and Witten (585 yards, 4 TD). Romo seems fully healed from a fractured rib and did not wear a protective vest last week. Offensive linemen Montrae Holland (illness) and Kyle Kosier (foot) have missed practice this week and should be ready to go Sunday. Running back Felix Jones (253 yards, TD) has missed four straight games with a foot problem and appears ready to go. Rookie DeMarco Murray (674 yards, 2 TD) has filled in nicely and will remain the starter. Murray leads all rookies in rushing yards.
Washington was able to hold Miami to 103 yards rushing and is aware Murray could run for that total in one half. The Redskins will focus on shutting the rookie running back down by clogging the lanes, but won't have beefy defensive tackle Kedric Golston (16 tackles, 2 sacks) up front after he was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a knee injury suffered against the Dolphins. Kentwan Balmer is expected to see increased playing time with Golston done for the year. Linebacker Perry Riley (10 tackles) has filled in nicely in place of ineffective ILB Rocky McIntosh (56 tackles, sack), who is second on the team in stops. Riley said he's been waiting a long time for this opportunity and wants to take full advantage of it. Stepping up against the despised Cowboys will certainly boost his confidence and trust from the coaching staff. Rookie defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (42 tackles, 5 sacks) is proving his worth as a first-round pick and registered two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles last week. The Redskins will need Kerrigan and sack leader Brian Orakpo (34 tackles, 6 sacks) to play at a high level and wreak havoc up front. London Fletcher (80 tackles, 2 INT) has been a cog at the middle linebacker spot and will keep his eyes on Murray.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Musical chairs at the quarterback spot continued for the Redskins and Grossman is back in good faith with Shanahan. Grossman (1,347 yards, 6 TD, 11 INT) was named the starter for the second time this season and has a lot to prove this weekend in a tough matchup with the Cowboys. He is tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions and his 5.6 interception percentage is the worst in the league. It's not his fault the Redskins have dealt with injuries across the offensive line and with the receiving corps, as Hankerson (163 yards) was placed on injured reserve and Moss (301 yards, 2 TD) is still bothered by a hand injury. Moss has been ruled out for Sunday. Jabar Gaffney (478 yards, 2 TD), Austin (94 yards), Anthony Armstrong (47 yards, TD) and Stallworth are what's left of a depleted receiving bunch, while tight end Fred Davis (587 yards, 2 TD) is enjoying a fine season with a team-best 43 receptions. It will be a formidable task trying to get open against a suddenly-clicking Dallas defense and the offensive line has to devise a way to stop linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Tackles Jammal Brown (groin) and Sean Locklear (ankle) are nursing injuries and guard Maurice Hurt (knee) is banged up as well. Grossman has been sacked 12 times, including three in Sunday's loss.
The Cowboys should be prepared to face Ryan Torain, Roy Helu and Tashard Choice quite often this Sunday and will dare Grossman to beat them on his own. Cornerback Mike Jenkins (18 tackles, INT) hopes to get back on the field after missing the last two weeks with a hamstring injury, but it's still uncertain for him. Linebacker and leading tackler Sean Lee (54 tackles, 3 INT) will continue to play with his dislocated wrist and made five tackles last week. Lee wore a wrap on the wrist and switched to a more open cast during practice in order to form a grip. He may switch back to the club-like cast for Sunday. Ware (36 tackles) will try to add to his 13 sacks on the season. Ware has posted 10 sacks in the past 11 games against the Redskins and will be the X-factor for Rob Ryan's defense. Ware had the team's only sack against the Bills. With Bradie James (22 tackles) losing time, veteran Keith Brooking (32 tackles) and undrafted rookie Alex Albright (3 tackles) have seen their reps increase. Defensive back Terrence Newman (25 tackles) had two of the Cowboys' three interceptions last week and leads the team with four. Frank Walker posted the other interception and Dallas scored 14 points off of their four takeaways.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Expect the Cowboys to drive Murray into the ground against Washington's 18th- rated run defense on Sunday. The downhill runner, whom owner Jones compared to Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson, is averaging a league-best 6.7 yards per carry and topped the 100-yard mark for the third time in four starts last week. His 601 rushing yards are the fifth-most by an NFL rookie over a four-game span.
Will Grossman do enough to keep the starting job for another week? That remains to be seen, but even if he does play well it wouldn't be a shock if Shanahan waffles back to Beck. Clearly Grossman has the experience factor going for him and will have to transfer that onto the field.
When breaking down Dallas' defense, Ware has to be accounted for on nearly every down. The talented linebacker has emerged as the NFL's premier pass rusher with 19 sacks in the past 12 games and an NFL-high 85 quarterback takedowns since the start of 2006. Expect Ryan to send Ware through Washington's depleted offensive line early and often on Sunday.
Both teams are headed in opposite directions and this is the time of year Romo shines. With the NFC playoff picture clearing up, Dallas has emerged as a contender with three wins over the past four games. It will add to that total come late Sunday with a hard-fought victory behind another impressive showing by Murray and the Cowboys' offensive line. The NFC East lead could be at stake for Dallas, while Washington is battling to stay out of the division basement. The Cowboys needed six field goals from Bailey in the first meeting and the last three matchups in this series have been decided in the final moments. Dallas won't have to worry about biting its nails this time around, however.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 20, Redskins 13