There's a revenge angle that's part of the backdrop for Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, though Chan Gailey is more concerned about how his team rebounds from its worst performance of the season.
Gailey at one time was the head coach of the Cowboys, serving a brief and moderately successful two-year stint with one of the NFL's most high-profile organizations from 1998-99. Dallas amassed an 18-14 record and made the playoffs in both of its seasons under the now 59-year-old offensive architect, but early postseason exits in each of those years prompted ever-present team owner Jerry Jones to fire Gailey after the second of those losses.
After a couple of coordinator jobs sandwiched around a six-year run at Georgia Tech, Gailey resurfaced in the NFL head-coaching ranks with the Bills last season and will be facing his former employers for the first time since his dismissal, though he insists that payback will be the furthest thing on his mind come Sunday.
"That's not the focus. The focus is trying to win a game," said Gailey. "We've got everything in front of us. We hold our own destiny in our own hands, so we've gotta go take care of business."
Buffalo enters a critical stretch of three straight road tests locked in a three-way tie with New England and the New York Jets for first place in the AFC East, but won't be heading into Cowboys Stadium with a whole lot of momentum after being handed a 27-11 home loss to the fellow division resident Jets last Sunday. The Bills' high-scoring offense was held to a season low in points and turned the ball over three times against New York, while the unit's 287-yard output was nearly 100 yards below its 2011 average coming into the contest.
The Bills are just 1-2 as the visitor this season, though both of those defeats came by three points to opponents that are presently leading their divisions in Cincinnati and the New York Giants.
Dallas finds itself two games behind the Giants in the NFC East standings but appears to have an opportunity to potentially gain some ground in the race. The Cowboys began a sequence of five straight matchups in which Buffalo is the only foe that owns a winning record at the moment with last week's clash with Seattle, and three of those bouts will take place at home.
The Cowboys got the presumed softer part of the schedule off to a positive start by posting a 23-13 victory over the floundering Seahawks, bouncing back well from a forgettable 34-7 road dismantling by rival Philadelphia in Week 8. Rookie running back DeMarco Murray led the way with 135 rushing yards and a touchdown, giving the third-round draft choice an impressive 466 yards in three games since taking over primary ball-carrying duties for the injured Felix Jones.
"We needed to win," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo stated afterward. "We know that the record is important, obviously, to where you're at. We need to take care of the stuff we can right now. Being where we are at 4-4 is better than 3-5."
Dallas, which improved to 3-1 at Cowboys Stadium this year, will take on Washington, Miami and Arizona -- teams that are a combined 6-18 through the first nine weeks -- following this week's battle with the Bills.
Dallas has a 5-3 lead in its overall regular season series with Buffalo and have topped the Bills two straight times, most recently a 25-24 victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2007 in which the Cowboys rallied for nine points in the final 20 seconds to prevail. Dallas also bested Buffalo by a 10-6 count at Texas Stadium in 2003 and is 3-1 all-time at home in this set. The Bills' only prior win in Dallas occurred on Sept. 12, 1993, a 13-10 triumph.
The Cowboys and Bills also went head-to-head in back-to-back Super Bowls to conclude the 1992 and 1993 seasons, with Dallas winning both times. The Cowboys routed Buffalo by a 52-17 scored in Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena and recorded a 30-13 decision in Super Bowl XXVIII from Atlanta the following year.
As previously mentioned, Gailey was Dallas' head coach from 1998-99 and will be opposing the team he once guided for the first time since being let go. Cowboys sideline boss Jason Garrett, a reserve quarterback during Gailey's two-year tenure in Dallas, has also never faced either the Bills or his onetime coach in his current position.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
A strong running game has played a big part in Buffalo's surprising first-half success, and it's expected that the team will attempt to assert its proficiency in that area this week against a Dallas defense that's struggled to contain enemy ground attacks as of late. The Bills rank seventh in the NFL in rushing offense (135.0 ypg) for the season, while top back Fred Jackson (803 rushing yards, 6 TD, 30 receptions) is averaging a healthy 5.4 yards per carry and had a string of three straight 100-yard efforts before being held to 82 by the Jets last Sunday. The underrated veteran is also Buffalo's third-leading receiver and figures to be leaned on heavily due to some recent hiccups from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (1930 passing yards, 15 TD, 9 INT), who's coming off a subpar 15-of-31, two-interception display against the Jets' stingy pass defense and has been picked off five times over the club's past three games. The Harvard graduate's 191 passing yards last week was also a season low, though he's still completing a sharp 65.4 percent of his attempts for the year and has been sacked just eight times behind a no-name front line that's held up very well in protection. Stevie Johnson (42 receptions, 523 yards, 4 TD) is on pace for a second straight season of 80-plus catches as Buffalo's go-to receiver, with second-year pro David Nelson (35 receptions, 3 TD) emerging as a reliable option for Fitzpatrick out of the slot and journeyman tight end Scott Chandler (18 receptions) an asset in the red zone, as the ex-Cowboy's six touchdown catches are tied for the most among players at his position in 2011.
The Bills will be aiming to add to a disappointing string of games for a Dallas defense that had been tough early on in the season, particularly against the run. The Cowboys yielded a mere 69.7 rushing yards over the first six games, tops in the league at the time, but were gashed for 239 yards on the ground by the speedy Eagles two weeks back and allowed the usually non-threatening Seahawks to run for 162 yards in last Sunday's victory. The regression has coincided with inside linebacker Sean Lee's (51 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD) absence caused by a dislocated left wrist, but the young difference-maker resumed practicing this week and appears on track to play on Sunday. Lee is also the team leader in interceptions, though his unavailability didn't have much of a negative effect on coordinator Rob Ryan's group's play against the pass a week ago. Dallas intercepted Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson three times, with cornerback Terence Newman (22 tackles, 2 INT) and safety Gerald Sensabaugh (39 tackles, 2 INT) also credited with two passes defensed in addition to coming up with a pick, while the secondary gets ample support from the pass-rushing prowess of outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (34 tackles). The five-time All-Pro has racked up 12 sacks through the season's first half, the second-highest individual total in the NFL.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
A Dallas offense that had been overly reliant on throwing the ball has achieved much better balance in the three games in which Murray (539 rushing yards, 1 TD, 9 receptions) has been the feature back. The Cowboys have averaged over 180 rushing yards over that span, and the talented rookie is producing at a sensational 6.7 yards-per-attempt clip during his debut campaign. With Felix Jones likely out again with a troublesome ankle sprain, Murray will again carry the load this week. While Romo's (2238 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) yardage totals have decreased with the newfound emphasis on the running game, the three-time Pro Bowl selection is still an accurate and experienced quarterback who operates the league's seventh-ranked offense (400.3 ypg) and has a bevy of quality targets to choose from, though big-play receiver Miles Austin will miss Sunday's tilt after aggravating a hamstring injury. Laurent Robinson (24 receptions, 2 TD) has proven to be a capable fill-in when called upon, however, while 2010 first-round draft pick Dez Bryant (26 receptions, 4 TD) averages 17 yards per catch as the team's top deep threat and tight end Jason Witten (44 receptions, 548 yards, 4 TD) owns seven Pro Bowl citations and four straight seasons of over 80 catches and 950 receiving yards. Murray showed off his pass- catching skills by hauling in four passes for 47 yards in addition to his big day on the ground against Seattle.
After completely dominating a hapless Washington offense in a shutout effort in Week 8, a Buffalo defense that had surrendered over 400 total yards in five straight games took a step back against the Jets. The Bills permitted 126 rushing yards and allowed quarterback Mark Sanchez to hit on 20-of-28 throws while failing to record a sack, one week after piling up 10 on the overmatched Redskins. Buffalo still managed to force two turnovers in the loss and have been adept at that department all year long, having generated a league-best 20 takeaways and ranking second overall with 15 interceptions. Strong safety George Wilson (71 tackles, 6 PD) leads the Bills with four picks and has also been one of the team's better players in run support during an excellent season, while promising rookie Marcell Dareus (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks) has really come on of late after being shifted to nose tackle in the wake of 2010 Pro Bowler Kyle Williams' season-ending foot injury. Despite their outburst against Washington, the Bills have only totaled 15 sacks in their eight games and stand 27th in the league in total defense (381.1 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. The Bills have built their respectable record in large part because of excelling in this area, as the team has come up with 16 takeaways in its five victories. Dallas has had a tendency to be turnover-prone at times but has been noticeably better in taking care of the ball as of late, with the offense committing only three giveaways over the past three games. The Cowboys are the more talented of these two participants, but will still have a tough time winning if they're making costly mistakes, as Buffalo has shown a knack for making the most of its opponent's miscues.
Murray. The Cowboys are far more dangerous on offense when their running game is clicking, which it certainly has since the rookie back's been placed in a prominent role. Dallas is 3-0 this season when rushing for over 125 yards, and the Bills allow about that many per game on average.
Red-zone proficiency. This could be a big advantage for Buffalo. The Bills have scored touchdowns on 64.3 percent of possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line, tied for second-best in the NFL. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have the second-worst success rate (38.5 percent) in the league within the red zone. How both offenses execute down near the goal line could very well be the difference if the game is close.
Expect a tightly-played contest here, as the Bills have been in every game this season with the exception of last week's loss and Dallas' only two double-digit wins have come against St. Louis and Seattle, two teams that haven't been on Buffalo's level. The Cowboys are at home and have two other variables that seem to work in their favor, as Murray's emergence as given an offense that already had a number of dynamic playmakers and added dimension and Lee's expected return will be a huge boost to a defense that really struggled against the run when the active linebacker was missing. Buffalo's efficient offense and ability to induce turnovers should allow the visitors to have a chance to win, but that won't be the case if a still-shaky defense can't come up with enough stops against a potent Dallas attack.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, Bills 24