(Sports Network) - It has been six weeks since fans of the Dallas Cowboys have watched quarterback Tony Romo take the playing field at Texas Stadium. Needless to say, his presence in Sunday's Week 12 affair against the San Francisco 49ers will be a sight for those supporters' sore eyes.
When Romo walked off the field following Dallas' 31-22 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 5, the Cowboys were a 4-1 football team still being discussed as one of the NFC's prime Super Bowl contenders.
But one week later, in the closing stages of a 30-24 overtime loss at Arizona, Romo suffered a broken pinkie finger on his throwing hand, helping precipitate a downward spiral from which some feared (or perhaps hoped) Wade Phillips's squad could not recover.
Dallas went just 1-2 in the three starts Romo missed, meaning the two-time Pro Bowler had one threatening mess to clean up when he made his return to the lineup at the Washington Redskins last week.
Romo exhibited some rust following the layoff, completing 19-of-27 passes for 198 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions while working a protective splint on his right hand, but his presence was enough to lift Dallas to a vital 14-10 road victory, a triumph that has the Cowboys being talked about as a dangerous team again.
Dallas enters Week 12 tied for second in the NFC East along with similarly 6-4 Washington, in the thick of the conference's Wild Card race but still three games behind the streaking Giants in the division.
The Cowboys will likely improve their postseason viability if they can prevail while serving as prohibitive favorites over San Francisco (3-7) and Seattle (2-8) over the next two weeks.
But first thing's first, and the 49ers don't figure to lay down in what was once a fierce NFC rivalry.
San Francisco pulled off the first win of the Mike Singletary era last week, outclassing the visiting St. Louis Rams, 35-16, just six days after taking the first-place Cardinals to the wire in a 29-24 road loss.
Niners quarterback Shaun Hill moved to 3-1 in his NFL starting career with the win, completing 15-of-20 passes for 213 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers in the triumph. Hill has now posted a passer rating of better than 100 in four of six career appearances.
Running back Frank Gore also hit triple-digits to help fuel the win, rushing 18 times for 106 yards and a pair of scores.
The Niners enter Week 12 in sole possession of second-place in a soft NFC West, four games behind Arizona.
The 49ers own a 14-9-1 lead in their all-time regular season series with the Cowboys, but were 34-31 home losers in the most recent meeting, in 2005. San Francisco won the previous meeting, a 31-27 road triumph in 2002. The Cowboys last defeated the Niners at home in 2001.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have an extensive history in the postseason, with Dallas owning a 5-2 lead in playoff games with San Francisco. The franchises have played six times for the NFC Championship, with the Cowboys earning the chance to go to the Super Bowl with wins over the Niners in 1970, 1971, 1992, and 1993, and the Niners downing "America's Team" in the 1981 and 1994 NFC Championship games. The 1981 win included the fabled last-second touchdown catch by San Francisco wideout Dwight Clark. The other playoff meeting between the franchises was a win for Dallas in a 1972 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Phillips is 1-2 in his career against the 49ers, including losses while he was at the helm of the Saints (1985) and Broncos (1993-94), and a win while serving as head coach of the Bills (1998-2000). The 49ers' Singletary will be meeting both Phillips and the Cowboys for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
What has set Hill (603 passing yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) apart in his three extended appearances this season, including a pair of starts, is that he has not been subject to the large number of turnovers and sacks that plagued predecessor J.T. O'Sullivan. Hill has thrown five touchdowns passes versus two picks in two-and-a-half games leading the offense, and last week completed an impressive 15-of-20 passes for two touchdowns, no interceptions, and just two sacks absorbed. Hill's touchdown passes went to wideout Bryant Johnson (23 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Vernon Davis (18 receptions, 2 TD), who now has TDs in each of his past two games. Veteran Isaac Bruce (26 receptions) continues to lead the Niners in receiving yards (433) and touchdown catches (4), but has caught just three balls totaling 34 yards in Hill's two starts and hasn't gone for 50-plus receiving yards since September. Of course, the development of the passing game has been made easier by the strong running of Frank Gore (834 rushing yards, 35 receptions, 7 TD), who last week had his best rushing day since September. Gore continues to lead San Francisco in receptions as well.
Hill will be going up against a Dallas defense that ranks seventh in the NFL in pass defense (188 yards per game) and did a good job against the Redskins' Jason Campbell last Sunday. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (55 tackles, 11 sacks) and lineman Jay Ratliff (31 tackles, 6 sacks) accounted for three sacks of Campbell in the game, while cornerback Terence Newman (16 tackles, 1 INT) came up with a rare interception of the former first-rounder. Washington wide receivers accounted for just 67 yards on the night. Still, the Cowboys continue to rank near the bottom of the league with just four interceptions on the year. The Cowboys have been hot-and-cold against the run this year, but held Clinton Portis in reasonable check with 68 yards on 15 carries last week. Inside linebackers Bradie James (65 tackles, 3 sacks) and Zach Thomas (70 tackles, 1 sack) combined for 14 tackles in the win, while Ratliff was credited with six stops from his spot on the interior.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
After being somewhat cautious in the passing game against Washington, Romo (1887 passing yards, 15 TD, 7 INT) figures to open it up a bit more on Sunday with more time elapsed since his injury. That can only mean good things for the Cowboys' pass-catching corps of wideouts Terrell Owens (40 receptions, 6 TD) and Roy Williams (23 receptions, 2 TD) along with tight end Jason Witten (48 receptions, 2 TD). Owens hasn't posted as many as 40 receiving yards in his past five games, and has scored just one touchdown over that span. Witten has battled a rib injury, and came up with just two receptions totaling 34 yards in Washington. The Cowboys' leading receiver against the Redskins was also its overall offensive star, as running back Marion Barber (779 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 TD) caught a team-best six passes for 39 yards to go along with a hard-nosed 24-carry, 114-yard rushing effort. All but 31 of Barber's rushing yards came in the decisive fourth quarter. Rookie change-of- pace running back Felix Jones (266 rushing yards, 3 TD), who has missed four games with a hamstring injury, is not expected to return on Sunday.
The 49ers enter Week 12 ranked just 21st in NFL total defense (341.7 yards per game), and will have to cover up their deficiencies by trying to make big plays against Romo and company. The Niners posted four sacks and forced three Marc Bulger turnovers last Sunday against St. Louis, helping disguise the fact that the Rams amassed more than 400 yards of total offense. Cornerbacks Walt Harris (40 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) and Nate Clements (38 tackles, 2 INT) both had interceptions of Bulger, while outside linebackers Parys Haralson (20 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Manny Lawson (24 tackles, 2 sacks) each brought him down for sacks. The group seeking to contain Barber on Sunday comes off a week in which it allowed Rams backups Antonio Pittman and Kenneth Darby to combine for 121 yards on just 21 carries. Linebackers Patrick Willis (90 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) and Takeo Spikes (60 tackles, 3 INT), along with strong safety Michael Lewis (59 tackles, 2 sacks), have been San Francisco's most dependable run-stoppers, while end Justin Smith (50 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) leads the team's linemen in stops.
Gore continues to produce from a fantasy standpoint, and tight end Davis has begun scoring touchdowns with regularity, so start both. Elsewhere on the 49ers, the team hasn't had a consistent every-week receiver, and Hill is not a good choice against a Cowboys team that can get after the quarterback. Kicker Joe Nedney is worth considering, but the 49ers defense is not.
Romo got the Cowboys a win last week, but he didn't do the same for many fantasy owners hopeful he'd revert back to his prolific ways. With a more favorable matchup this week, there's a chance he'll look like the old Romo, and that figures to be a good thing for Owens, Witten, and perhaps even new No. 2 wideout Roy Williams. Owners were heartened to see a bounce-back effort from Marion Barber last week, and Barber has once again earned must-start status. The Cowboys have kicked the fewest field goals in the league, so leave kicker Nick Folk on the bench or waiver wire, but give a look to a Dallas defense that will be playing against an opponent that has committed the most turnovers in the league.
When Jerry Jones said publicly that his team would make the playoffs, you better believe part of his math involved the Cowboys taking care of the 49ers and Seahawks at home over the next two Sundays. For all its troubles of the past month-plus, Dallas still has a great deal of talent, and with Romo back in the fold, is ready to look like the team the world saw running up and down the field over the first three weeks of 2008. Meanwhile, the 49ers and their head coach are still a big-time work in progress that isn't ready to seriously test a high-quality opponent like the Cowboys in a road environment. Look for Dallas to keep the Niners at arm's length throughout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 34, 49ers 13