The Dallas Cowboys hope a terrific four-game stretch in November can carry over into December, a month that has given the team problems in years past.
Now in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, the Cowboys will try to stay ahead of the pack in Sunday's showdown with the Arizona Cardinals, who'll have Kevin Kolb back at quarterback for this Week 13 contest at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Dallas seized control of the division race by going 4-0 in November, following up a pair of double-digit home victories by coming out on top in a couple of nail-biters. The surge has given the Cowboys a one-game edge on the slumping New York Giants for first place heading into the season's stretch run.
Continuing such success late in the year has often been elusive, however. Dallas hasn't posted a winning record in December since 1996 and is just 5-7 in the month over the past three campaigns. That includes a 27-26 loss to the Cardinals on Christmas night last season, a game in which starting quarterback Tony Romo did not play due to a fractured collarbone and veteran backup Jon Kitna exited early with a hip injury.
The Cowboys have amassed a stellar 19-2 November mark in games in which Romo has been under center, but he's only 9-12 in regular-season tilts in December and January over his career.
Dallas does have reason to believe this season will be different, particularly with Romo having excelled during the club's current tear. The three-time Pro Bowl selection has thrown for 10 touchdowns while completing 68 percent of his passes over the last four triumphs, and had a string of 128 consecutive attempts without an interception before throwing two against Miami on Thanksgiving.
"He's playing really well for us right now, creating a lot, making a lot of big plays for us," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said of Romo. "That's been huge for us. We're going to need to continue that. His standard for success and what he wants this team to be is so high, and I think all of us kind of follow that, piggyback off that. We know what this month means."
The Cowboys, who will be shooting for their first five-game win streak since ripping off seven straight wins from Oct. 21-Dec. 9, 2007, haven't faced the stiffest of competition lately, however. Dallas' perfect November came against four teams (Seattle, Buffalo, Washington, Miami) presently sporting losing records. The team needed overtime to earn a 27-24 road decision over the Redskins in Week 11, then edged the Dolphins by a 20-19 count on a last-second 28-yard field goal from rookie kicker Dan Bailey.
Arizona would seem to qualify as yet another lightweight on the schedule, having produced just a 4-7 record thus far. The Cardinals have won three of their last four outings, though, all of which have come with second-year pro John Skelton manning quarterback duties with Kolb sidelined with a sprained toe.
Kolb was able to practice this week without incident and is in line to play for the first time since Arizona's narrow loss at Baltimore on Oct. 30.
"This whole time, [the injury] is all everyone has asked about, so I'm ready to talk about some defenses and hopefully some great plays after Sunday," he said.
Skelton wasn't sharp in the Cardinals' Week 12 test at lowly St. Louis, but the team still managed to deliver a 23-20 win over the Rams thanks to uplifting efforts from running back Beanie Wells and sensational rookie return man Patrick Peterson. Wells set a new franchise record by rushing for 228 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, while Peterson tied an NFL single-season mark with his fourth punt return score, a critical 80-yard runback in the third quarter.
Arizona opens up a sequence of three home games in a row this weekend and is 2-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium this year. The Cardinals have also fared well against the Cowboys on their home turf in recent years, taking six of the past seven matchups between the teams held in the Grand Canyon State.
Dallas is just 2-3 on the road in 2011.
Dallas has a 55-29-1 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Arizona, but the Cardinals have prevailed in the last two clashes involving the teams following a three-game losing skid in the set. In addition to last year's Christmas win, Arizona bested the Cowboys by a 30-24 count in overtime at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2008 and as previously noted, is 6-1 in its last seven home bouts against Dallas. The Cowboys' lone victory over that stretch was a 27-10 result in 2006.
The Cardinals did come out on top in their only postseason meeting between the one-time NFC East foes, who shared residence in the same division from 1970-2001. Arizona snapped a 34-year winless drought in the playoffs with a 20-7 verdict at Texas Stadium in an NFC First Round game in 1998.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas ranks sixth in the NFL in total offense (390.1 ypg) and has been able to withstand multi-week injuries to two key skill players, wide receiver Miles Austin and running back Felix Jones (271 rushing yards, 1 TD, 16 receptions), by getting efficient play from Romo (3026 passing yards, 21 TD, 9 INT) and unexpected contributions from fill-ins such as wideout Laurent Robinson (38 receptions, 7 TD) and rookie running back DeMarco Murray (834 rushing yards, 2 TD, 25 receptions). Robinson, signed off the street in September, has hauled in a Romo touchdown pass in five consecutive weeks and has seven total scores over the span, and he'll again work alongside second-year talent Dez Bryant (38 receptions, 6 TD) as the primary outside options with Austin set to miss a fourth straight game with a lingering hamstring issue. Jones is now back from a serious ankle sprain that cost him four games but has yielded his leading role to Murray, who's averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry and eclipsed 135 rushing yards three times in a dazzling debut. The third-round draft choice hasn't been as prolific of late, however, in part due to lead-blocking fullback Tony Fiammetta's absence the last two weeks with an undisclosed illness that could shelve him for the remainder of the year. The seven-time Pro Bowler Witten (56 receptions, 713 yards, 5 TD) has once again been the No. 1 target for Romo, whose 97.5 passer rating trails only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees for tops in the league.
One week after being gashed for 431 total yards in a loss at NFC West leader San Francisco, the Arizona defense rebounded with one of its best showings of the season against the offensively-challenged Rams, permitting just 272 total yards and 12 first downs while being responsible for only 13 of the 20 points its foe scored (St. Louis' other touchdown came on a punt return). The star of the day was rookie outside linebacker Sam Acho (26 tackles, 5 sacks), who racked up two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles and now has five quarterback takedowns in five games since becoming a starter. He and linemen Calais Campbell (55 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) and Darnell Dockett (30 tackles, 0.5 sacks) will be counted on to apply consistent pressure on Romo and help protect a secondary that can be vulnerable to big plays, as the 26 pass completions of over 20 yards the Cards have surrendered this season are the third-most in the league. Stopping the run has been a sore spot at times as well, with the unit having allowed 150 rushing yards or more in three straight weeks before limiting the Rams to just 86 last Sunday in its first game without space-eating nose tackle Dan Williams, who sustained a season-ending broken arm against the 49ers.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona was able to win games in spite of Skelton, who barely completed half of his pass attempts in his four starts and mustered a paltry 213 yards while throwing five interceptions in back-to-back brutal performances the past two weeks, and the more polished Kolb (1706 passing yards, 8 TD, 8 INT) should provide an upgrade if he can shake off the rust from a month of inactivity. Either way, the Cardinals figure to lean heavily on Wells (849 rushing yards, 8 TD), who showed no ill effects from a knee injury that's plagued him throughout the year by putting up the second-highest individual rushing total by a back this season in the St. Louis game, surpassed only by Murray's 253 yards against the Rams in Week 7. Kolb's expected return will likely be welcomed by star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (51 receptions, 888 yards, 6 TD), as the five-time Pro Bowl honoree averaged nearly five catches and 86.1 receiving yards in the quarterback's seven starts prior to his absence. Second-year wideout Andre Roberts (27 receptions), who had a career-best 110 yards on five grabs in last season's win over the Cowboys, and reliable slot man Early Doucet (43 receptions, 4 TD) are secondary options for a Cardinals offense that's converted only 30.5 percent of its third-down opportunities, the second-lowest number in the NFL.
Wells will have a greater challenge picking up yards on a Dallas defense that's 10th in the league against the run (100.3 ypg) and has held seven of its 11 opponents under 90 rushing yards on the season and possesses a pair of standout stoppers in inside linebacker Sean Lee (71 tackles, 3 INT) and hard-working nose tackle Jay Ratliff (29 tackles, 1 sack), not to mention arguably the NFL's premier pass rusher in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (39 tackles). The veteran disrupter tops all players with 14 sacks this year and has compiled an incredible 20 over his past 14 games dating back to last season, and a shaky Arizona offensive line that's given up 36 sacks to date will need to account for his presence. A Cowboys secondary that's been tested by injuries over the course of the year gets cornerback Mike Jenkins (18 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PD) back this week after the former first-round pick missed four straight weeks with a hamstring pull, which should help a group that's been burned for 292 and 288 yards the last two games by Washington's Rex Grossman and Miami's Matt Moore, neither of whom qualify as upper-echelon quarterbacks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Stay focused. Dallas is the more talented of these two participants and has done a very good job taking care of business during its winning run. But with a big game against the rival Giants on the horizon next week, the Cowboys can't be looking ahead and take the Cardinals lightly. Arizona has been competitive in just about all its games and nearly pulled off upsets of the Giants and AFC North leader Baltimore earlier in the season.
With Kolb not having played in five weeks and the Cardinals having had problems protecting the quarterback this season, another big day out of Wells would go a long way towards enabling Arizona to come up with a win. Though Dallas has been usually pretty stout in defending the run, it did allow a combined 536 rushing yards over a three-game stretch against Philadelphia, Seattle and Buffalo from Oct. 30-Nov. 13.
Peterson. The rookie's outstanding return skills have played a part in three of Arizona's four 2011 wins, in which he ran back a punt for a touchdown in each of those contests. Cowboys punter Mat McBriar would be best served to kick away from the dynamic youngster on Sunday.
With an important battle with its closest competition in the NFC East just a week away, this does have the potential of being a trap game for Dallas. And considering that the seven of the Cowboys' 11 games this season have been decided by four points or less and the team had to dig deep to defeat a pair of non-contenders in two straight tests, another down-to-the-wire scenario could be in the offering once again. But although the Cardinals have come close to knocking off some quality teams, they've also yet to beat one the caliber of Dallas this year. As long as the Cowboys can stick to the task at hand and play a precise game, their winning streak stands a good chance of being extended. This one may just not come with a whole lot of style points.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 23, Cardinals 20