A strong recent surge has the Dallas Cowboys in a favorable position in regards to making the postseason. Though the Miami Dolphins still remain well behind in the race, they've certainly been playing like a playoff team as of late.
Both clubs will put three-game winning streaks on the line when they square off Thursday at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas' traditional Thanksgiving Day home event, and there are a few other interesting subplots pertaining to this Week 12 matchup as well.
Dallas has caught the New York Giants in the chase for first place in the NFC East by taking advantage of a softer portion of its season schedule, stringing together home victories over non-contending Seattle and fading Buffalo before outlasting the struggling Washington Redskins in overtime on the road this past Sunday. The surge has the Cowboys tied with the Giants for the division's top spot, with the rivals set to meet twice over the season's final four weeks.
Prior to hosting New York in a potential blockbuster showdown on Dec. 11, Dallas will take on the Dolphins and visit Arizona, two teams that possess non- threatening 3-7 overall records at the moment.
Miami's mark is a bit deceiving, however. After an 0-7 start that contained several painfully-close losses, the Dolphins have ripped off three consecutive impressive wins and outscored the opposition by an average of 22 points over that outstanding stretch. They've also yielded a mere 20 points during the tear, with all three of their foes held to single digits.
After limiting Washington to 246 total yards in a 20-9 home triumph in Week 10, Miami's improved defense allowed just 247 in Sunday's 35-8 dismantling of Buffalo at Sun Life Stadium.
"They are giving us unbelievable field position," remarked Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore, who did his part in the rout by tossing three touchdown passes. "They are making it easy for us."
The unit's task could be considerably tougher this week, however, as the Cowboys come in ranked sixth in the NFL in total offense and have gotten terrific play out of quarterback Tony Romo lately. The veteran gunslinger has thrown for eight touchdowns and no interceptions during Dallas' current unbeaten run, while completing a sharp 69.1 percent of his attempts over that span.
Romo delivered three scoring strikes and finished with 292 yards in last week's 27-24 edging of the Redskins, with two of those touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter.
Moore has been on a nice roll of his own over the past three weeks, with the injury fill-in having hit on an excellent 70.8 percent of his throws with six touchdowns and just one interception during that period.
"Matt's done a tremendous job right now, and it's all about what you do with your opportunities in our league," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said. "As of right now, he is doing a nice job with his opportunities."
Moore, who took over as Miami's starter following a season-ending separated shoulder to Chad Henne back in Week 4, is one of five ex-Cowboys set to take part in Thursday's tilt, having spent the 2007 preseason with Dallas as an undrafted rookie. The Dolphins have brought in 18 players with former ties to the Cowboys since Sparano, who was Dallas' assistant head coach from 2003-07 prior to being hired by Miami, and general manager Jeff Ireland -- also a previous member of that team's front office -- took over prior to the 2008 campaign.
The Dolphins are on their longest stretch of wins since prevailing five consecutive times to close out the 2008 regular season in Sparano's head coaching debut. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will be shooting for their first four- game unblemished sequence in regular-season play since Oct. 11-Nov. 8, 2009.
Dallas had won four straight Thanksgiving Day bouts before being dealt a tough 30-27 loss to New Orleans last season, and each of those four victories were by a margin of 17 or more points.
Dallas has an 8-3 lead in its overall regular-season series with the Dolphins and has won three of the last four meetings between the teams, including a 37-20 triumph in Miami in the most recent encounter back in 2007. The Dolphins did prevail by a 40-21 count in its last visit to Dallas, which also took place on Thanksgiving Day during the 2003 season, and is 5-2 all-time as the visitor in this set.
The Cowboys and Dolphins also faced one another in Super Bowl VI at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, with Dallas claiming a 24-3 win to capture the 1971 world championship.
Thursday's test marks the fifth time these clubs have squared off on Thanksgiving, with the Dolphins prevailing in three of the four previous games. The most memorable one occurred in 1993, when a blocked Miami field goal attempt was needlessly touched and fumbled by Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett to help the Dolphins record a 16-14 win. Miami also came out on top in Turkey Day bouts at Texas Stadium in 1973 and the above-mentioned 2003 clash, with the Cowboys posting a 20-0 shutout over the Dolphins in the 1999 edition.
Both Sparano and Dallas head coach Jason Garrett, who served as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator in Sparano's final year with the organization in 2007, will be opposing both one another and their former co-worker's respective team for the first time in their present positions. Garrett was also Miami's quarterbacks coach for two seasons from 2005-06 before joining the Cowboys.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami has been a far more efficient team on offense over the course of its winning streak, with Moore (1319 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) displaying very good accuracy and decision-making during that time frame and the team showing dramatic improvement in both converting third downs and scoring within the red zone -- two areas in which the Dolphins really struggled early on. Miami has been successful on 50 percent (13-of-26) of its third-down tries in the last two weeks, and the offense produced touchdowns in all four of its trips inside Buffalo's 20-yard line in last Sunday's rout. Though physical wideout Brandon Marshall (54 receptions, 747 yards, 2 TD) is the clear-cut go-to receiver in the passing game, last week's result proved Miami can adjust when teams game plan to stop the two-time Pro Bowl honoree like the Bills did. With Marshall held to just one catch, running back Reggie Bush (506 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 5 total TD) and rookie tight end Charles Clay (12 receptions, 1 TD) combined for 103 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions in the Buffalo game, while Fasano (17 receptions, 4 TD) registered his fourth touchdown grab in four games and has emerged as Moore's preferred choice near the goal line. Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas (406 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 1 TD) have split ball- carrying duties for an offense that's put up the ninth-most rushing attempts in the league this year.
The Dolphins will be attempting to grind it out against a Dallas defense that reduced Washington's impotent running game to 60 yards a week ago, but had permitted a worrisome 178.7 rushing yards over its three previous outings. Inside linebacker and leading tackler Sean Lee (65 tackles, 3 INT) had been out for part of that stretch with a dislocated wrist, but was back in form with a 10-tackle output against the Redskins that helped key the club's run-stopping effort. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh (53 tackles, 2 INT) added nine stops in the win, but also sustained an injury to his right foot that could affect his status for Thursday. The secondary is already without starting cornerback Mike Jenkins due to a hamstring injury that's kept him out the last three weeks, though replacement Orlando Scandrick (23 tackles, 1 INT) came up with a fourth- quarter interception versus Washington in his absence. The Cowboys have picked off seven passes in all during their three-game streak, with the consistent pressure that high-impact outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (38 tackles) and steady end Jason Hatcher (16 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) have brought having contributed to that strong total. Ware's 14 sacks so far this season is tops in the NFL, and he's notched at least one in all but two of Dallas' 10 games.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Injuries to wide receiver Miles Austin and running back Felix Jones over the past month haven't slowed down a Dallas offense that's averaging 398.8 total yards per game (6th overall) and ranks sixth in the league in passing yards (277.0 ypg) too much. The precise passing and largely error-free play of Romo (2800 passing yards, 19 TD, 7 INT) has had a lot to due with that lack of a drop-off, and the ability of well-traveled wideout Laurent Robinson (31 receptions, 5 TD) to step into Austin's spot has certainly been an asset as well. He's recorded a touchdown catch in four straight games as one of the top options in a quality receiving corps that also boasts a seven-time Pro Bowler at tight end in Jason Witten (52 receptions, 670 receptions, 5 TD) and a dangerous deep threat in talented second-year pro Dez Bryant (35 receptions, 6 TD), who's averaging nearly 17 yards per catch on the year. The biggest boost to the offense as of late has come from running back DeMarco Murray (747 rushing yards, 2 TD, 21 receptions), however, with the promising rookie having racked up three games of 135 rushing yards or more over the past five weeks in bringing needed balance to an attack that had been heavily reliant on throwing the ball early in the season. Jones (271 rushing yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions) returned from a four-game absence in the Washington game and may be called on for a larger workload this week after Murray finished with a career-high 31 touches last Sunday.
A defense that was supposed to be Miami's strong suit in 2011 has finally come on after failing to live up to expectations in the initial stages of this season. The Dolphins held both Washington and Buffalo under 250 total yards in their latest two wins and have garnered four interceptions in those games -- two more than the team had over its first eight contests of the year. A secondary that's still surrendering an average of 251.1 passing yards per week (25th overall) has been stabilized somewhat by top cornerback Vontae Davis' (23 tackles, 1 INT) return from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss four games earlier in the season, and the backfield has also benefited by an upgraded pass rush keyed by second-year end Jared Odrick (15 tackles, 4 sacks) and accomplished veteran outside linebacker Jason Taylor (10 tackles, 4 sacks), both of whom have recorded sacks in consecutive weeks. The Dolphins have been very stout against the run as well, with a quality front seven headlined by the inside linebacker duo of Burnett (56 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Karlos Dansby (66 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) having limited the opposition to a scant 69 rushing yards through the past four games, The team rendered a normally-potent Buffalo ground game to only 41 yards last week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The turnover battle. Both these teams' win streaks have been fueled by excelling in this critical department, with Dallas owning a stellar 9-to-1 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio over the past three weeks and the Miami defense having forced four of its overall low sum of eight turnovers in its past two victories. Whichever of these participants can maintain its recent level of performance stands a good chance of coming out a winner.
The Miami defense. The Dolphins simply don't have the weapons to outscore the Cowboys in a track meet, so their fate rests largely on the strength of a revitalized defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in 12 straight quarters. Miami has also been remarkably stingy inside the red zone, an area where the Cowboys have had problems scoring all throughout this season.
Give Murray the ball. The Cowboys are 4-0 when the rookie running back has had 20 or more carries in a game, and the team has averaged an outstanding 177.3 rushing yards in those contests. If Dallas has its ground game humming in addition to another crisp effort from Romo, the Dolphins will be hard-pressed to win here.
Two teams that looked like a couple of turkeys a few weeks back should provide a relatively-entertaining contest to fill the time between the two marquee matchups that will take place on Thursday. Though the Cowboys have been strong at home this season and historically good on Thanksgiving, this one may not be so easy due to Miami's dominance on defense as of late and Moore's emergence into a serviceable quarterback. However, shutting down a balanced Dallas offense with a host of high-caliber playmakers will be far more difficult than doing so against the anemic units of Kansas City, Washington and Buffalo -- the Dolphins' three victims during their winning run. Miami should be able to keep the Cowboys from scoring at will, but may not have the firepower to put up the necessary points to extend its streak.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 20, Dolphins 14