Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cowboys close out December schedule at Washington

(Sports Network) - Two longtime NFC East rivals working towards decidedly different goals will square off this Sunday at FedEx Field, where the rejuvenated Dallas Cowboys aim to move a step closer towards making the playoffs in their primetime matchup with the Washington Redskins.

The Cowboys accomplished three notable feats with their 24-17 road victory over NFC South champion New Orleans in Week 15. Not only did the critical win ruin the powerful Saints' quest for a perfect season, it solidified Dallas' chances of ending a one-year absence from the playoffs while keeping the team's hopes of capturing the NFC East title within reach. The Cowboys trail 10-4 Philadelphia by one game for the top spot in the division with two to play, and the two foes will meet in Dallas in what could be a winner-take-all showdown in the regular-season finale.

And maybe even more importantly, the Cowboys were at least temporarily able to remove the unwanted tag of being a team that can't win a big game late in the season. Dallas entered its clash with the then-unbeaten Saints off back-to- back stinging losses to the New York Giants and San Diego, and had dropped six of its last seven December contests prior to last week's breakthrough.

With a win over the beaten and battered Redskins that coincided with a Giants' loss to Carolina this weekend, the Cowboys will have secured the playoff berth that slipped through their grasp at this time last year, when the club dropped three of its final four tests to finish out of the mix with a 9-7 record.

On the other hand, a loss to a Washington squad that's clearly looking towards the future would have Dallas back to being branded as crunch-time choke artists, not to mention dredging up the never-ending speculation about the long-term job security of head coach Wade Phillips.

The fate of Redskins' sideline boss Jim Zorn is widely believed to have already been sealed, with the focus now shifted to who will be wearing the second-year coach's headset in 2010 and beyond. The early clubhouse leader appears to be former Denver Broncos mastermind Mike Shanahan, a man with close ties to newly-appointed general manager Bruce Allen.

The non-stop rumors, combined with an unfortunate rash of key injuries, seemed to take their toll on the Burgundy and Gold in their most recent outing, when the team offered little resistance in an embarrassing 45-12 home loss to the Giants on Monday. The Redskins allowed New York to score on six of its first seven possessions while repeatedly hurting themselves with a litany of mistakes and breakdowns.

Washington had been playing hard and competitive in the weeks leading up to Monday's disaster, enduring narrow losses to three potential playoff participants before routing Oakland by a 34-13 score in Week 14. One of those close shaves came to Dallas on November 22, with the Cowboys escaping with a 7-6 decision on Tony Romo's 10-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton with 2:41 left.

The Redskins could have gone ahead by two possessions in that game, but now- departed kicker Shaun Suisham misfired on a 39-yard field goal try late in the first half. Ironically, he'll have a chance to impact the outcome of Sunday's tilt as well, only this time as a member of the Cowboys. Suisham was signed by Dallas on Monday to take over for Nick Folk, released by the team the same day after missing seven of his last 11 attempts.


The Cowboys lead the all-time regular season series with Washington, 58-37-2, including the above-mentioned 7-6 win in a Week 11 nail-biter at Cowboys Stadium. The teams embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home- and-home, with the Redskins coming up 26-24 winners in their trip to Texas Stadium in Week 4, but dropping a 14-10 decision when the clubs met at FedEx Field in Week 11. The Redskins last won a home game over their longtime NFC East rival in 2007.

The Cowboys will be vying for their first home-and-home sweep of the Redskins since 2004.

Washington is 2-0 against Dallas in the postseason, winning in the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship games.

Phillips is 4-2 all-time against Washington, with one of those wins coming for his Bills team in 1999 at FedEx Field. Zorn is 1-2 against both Phillips and the Cowboys as a head man.


Dallas owns the NFL's third-ranked offense in terms of yards per game (394.5 ypg) and was able to flex its muscles against the Saints, combining the precision passing of Romo (3886 passing yards, 23 TD, 7 INT) with effective running from the inside-outside backfield duo of Marion Barber (778 rushing yards, 6 TD, 21 receptions) and Felix Jones (536 rushing yards, 2 TD, 12 receptions). The pair combined for 120 rushing yards and two touchdowns (both by Barber) last week, and totaled 148 yards on 30 attempts in the Cowboys' victory over the Redskins in November. Romo completed a sharp 22-of-34 throws for 312 yards, 49 of which came on a touchdown strike to big-play wide receiver Miles Austin (65 receptions, 1138 yards, 11 TD), in the New Orleans game and did not have an interception for a fourth straight week. The dangerous Austin finished the contest with 139 yards on seven catches and has emerged as one of the game's premier deep threats, with sure-handed tight end Jason Witten (82 receptions, 1 TD) serving as Romo's main underneath target and wideouts Roy Williams (37 receptions, 6 TD) and Crayton (32 receptions, 4 TD) offering two more capable, albeit inconsistent, options in the passing game. The Cowboys have been excellent at taking care of the football, having committed just one turnover over the past four games and only 19 for the season.

That trend of preventing costly miscues seems to have a good chance of continuing on Sunday, considering the Redskins are tied for last in the NFL with 15 takeaways and have induced a mere three turnovers during the previous three weeks. Washington still can play tough defense, even though it wasn't evident in Monday's debacle, and the Cowboys found that out first-hand by mustering a pedestrian 305 total yards and converting only 3-of-11 third-down situations in last month's meeting. The Redskins only sacked Romo one time in that game, however, as Dallas was able to keep the excellent pressure-causing combo of end Andre Carter (59 tackles, 11 sacks) and rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo (46 tackles, 11 sacks) in check by skillfully mixing the run and pass. Washington surrendered 153 rushing yards to their hated rivals, but didn't have difference-making tackle Albert Haynesworth (35 tackles, 4 sacks) in the lineup that day because of a sprained ankle. Middle linebacker London Fletcher (126 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) helped compensate with an extremely active and productive game, with the durable veteran amassing 13 tackles along with an interception and forced fumble. A solid secondary headed by two-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall (45 tackles, 4 INT) was able to hold Austin to a modest 47 yards and four catches back in Week 11, but was torched for 273 net passing yards and three touchdowns by the Giants on Monday.


An extensive series of injuries, particularly at the running back position and across the line, and a lack of viable playmakers have rendered the Redskins into one of the NFL's lowest-scoring and least threatening offenses. The team's primary ball-carriers for Sunday's encounter are expected to be Quinton Ganther (159 rushing yards, 3 TD, 7 receptions) and Marcus Mason (90 rushing yards, 5 receptions), two undrafted players who've bounced around practice squads for much of their careers, while a front wall that been forced to start 10 different players this year has allowed quarterback Jason Campbell (3138 passing yards, 18 TD, 14 INT) to be sacked 38 times for the season, five of which came in last week's loss. Campbell also hasn't gotten a whole lot of help from his receiving crew, save for second-year tight end Fred Davis (40 receptions, 6 TD), who's hauled in a touchdown pass in four straight games and softened the blow of the season-ending loss of two-time Pro Bowler Chris Cooley in October. At the wideout positions, veterans Santana Moss (56 receptions, 3 TD) and Antwaan Randle El (44 receptions) have shown signs of decline, while sophomore Devin Thomas (25 receptions, 3 TD) has yet to fully tap into his considerable potential.

Washington's patchwork offense will be trying to make some headway against a Dallas stop unit that came through with an inspired and highly-impressive performance a week ago. The Cowboys limited the high-powered Saints to season- lows in points (17) and total yards (336), and most of the damage came with the team in desperation mode in the fourth quarter. Game-changing outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (53 tackles, 11 sacks), just six days after being hospitalized by a frightening neck sprain, led the charge with two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles, with counterpart Anthony Spencer (57 tackles, 4 sacks) also taking down New Orleans triggerman Drew Brees on the night. Young cornerback Mike Jenkins (44 tackles, 16 PD) also made a big impact, as the 2008 first-round pick posted his team-best fifth interception of the season and provided blanket coverage throughout. The Redskins' stable of journeyman backs figure to encounter their share of trouble against Dallas' sixth-ranked run defense (97.7 ypg). The three-man front of ends Igor Olshansky (36 tackles, 1 sack) and Marcus Spears (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (36 tackles, 4 sacks) is stout at the point of attack, while 12th-year inside linebacker Keith Brooking (100 tackles, 3 sacks) has proven he hasn't lost much at age 34.


Those astute enough to grab Austin off the waiver wire and still alive in their fantasy playoffs know full well that the once-unknown wide receiver helped get them there, and they also don't need me to tell them to start the Dallas playmaker this week. Romo is almost always a solid choice at the quarterback position as well, but keep in mind that one of his lowest point totals of the season came against the Redskins last month. Barber's two- touchdown effort last week was an encouraging sign for someone who's had a so- so year from a fantasy perspective, and Witten invariably gets enough targets to be a useful tight end. Lean towards sitting Williams in a tough matchup, unless there aren't any other good options available. As usual, the pickings are slim on the Washington side. Davis is certainly worth a look at tight end, and Campbell will probably air it out quite a bit due to his team's dearth of talent at running back. That gives both he and Moss, a noted Cowboy killer in the past, some appeal. Give a thumbs up to the Dallas defense, which should have its way with the Redskins' depleted line, but anyone who's watched these teams this year knows to stay away from either kicker.


Are the Cowboys primed for a classic letdown after getting the December monkey off their backs with last week's monumental win? Have the Redskins finally reached the breaking point in a season filled with adversity and decided to pack it in? Those are the questions that need to be answered when breaking down this game. The feeling here is that Monday's humiliating loss and the animosity that exists between these two teams will bring out the fight in Washington, but that still won't be enough. If anything, the victory over New Orleans gave Dallas the confidence boost it so sorely needed, and last season's late collapse will be a constant motivator for the Cowboys to take care of business against an opponent they should be able to handle.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 20, Redskins 10