By Matthew Postins
One game to rule the NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys at the Washington Redskins.
Just like the old days.
The winner of Sunday night’s game wins the NFC East. For the Cowboys, a win means a playoff berth, which would be their first under head coach Jason Garrett. A loss means the Cowboys would miss the postseason and finish 8-8 for the second straight year.
This game has been all over sports news this week, partly because this game is the only winner-take-all contest of Week 17. The AFC is settled, except for seeding. The NFC’s playoff picture is murkier, but in truth only one other playoff berth is up for grabs and that’s the second Wild Card berth.
This is exactly what the NFL wanted when it started mandating divisional games in Week 17. The fact that it’s one of the NFL’s best rivalries is just gravy.
So who wins? Well, both teams are pretty hot. The Redskins have won six in a row, with one of those wins coming at Dallas’ expense. The Cowboys are 5-2 in their last seven games.
We here at RattleandHumSports.com are taking the Redskins to end the Cowboys’ season. Here are three reasons why:
The Cowboys won’t run the ball consistently. We thought last week that the Cowboys would run the ball better than ever against the Saints, which had the second-worst run defense in the NFL. Well, we were wrong. The Cowboys ran the ball just 11 times for 40 yards. But that was criminal, in all honesty. Here was the yardage for each of running back DeMarco Murray’s first-half carries – 8 yards, 6 yards, 9 yards (called back for penalty), 5 yards, 4 yards. Then, on the first drive of the third quarter the Cowboys handed the ball to Murray a whopping four times – 5 yards, 9 yards, 5 yards, minus-6 yards. At that point the game was tied 17-17. Murray did have the fumble and that helped trigger a 14-point deficit. But the fact that Dallas ran the ball just four times in the first half was a horrible use of Murray against a below-average run defense. It was reminiscent of how the Cowboys played against Seattle and Tampa Bay, where they stopped running the ball despite getting production. Last week the Cowboys were pulverized on time of possession because they weren’t consistent on offense. This week Dallas could use some long drives to keep the Redskins’ offense off the field. But the Washington run defense is ranked No. 5 in the NFL and head coach Jason Garrett seems determined to put the game in the hands of quarterback Tony Romo. Chances are Murray won’t be much of a factor.
The Cowboys defense is finally going to break. Give this unit and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan credit. They’ve done enough to keep the Cowboys in the game most weeks. But the injuries and new players finally started taking their toll last week against New Orleans. The Cowboys gave up 34 points, the third time the Cowboys have given up 30 or more points in their last five games. That includes the 38 points allowed to Washington in a game in which the Cowboys had just three days of preparation and were really banged up. They’re worse off this week. This defense is now without linebacker Bruce Carter, safety Barry Church, defensive end Kenyon Coleman, linebacker Sean Lee and cornerback Orlando Scandrick. That’s five starters or starter-caliber players on injured reserve. Plus, nose tackle Jay Ratliff isn’t on injured reserve, but he won’t play on Sunday. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware has elbow and shoulder injuries and hasn’t practiced all week, but he’ll probably play. Last week the Saints gained 562 total yards, scored 34 points and possessed the football for nearly 40 minutes. The Cowboy defense is facing a Redskins team that has nearly as many weapons as the Saints and commits the fewest turnovers in the NFL, fewer than one per game. The Cowboys were unable to keep Robert Griffin III from creating big plays in their first meeting. Something tells us that they won’t have a solution on Sunday night.
Romo will finally make mistakes. Romo has been on a nice run the past seven games, especially from the standpoint of turnovers. He’s only committed three. A lot has been made about his Decembers the past two years, and statistically they’re great – 20 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. But faced with this situation last year against the New York Giants Romo didn’t get it done. He threw two touchdowns, but he also threw an interception and lost a fumble. He also wasn’t able to help the Cowboys generate any offense in the first half of that game, as the Cowboys went 3-and-out on their first four drives and didn’t score a point in the first half. The Cowboys had issues last week consistently moving the football, going 3-and-out several times. Romo has been great down the stretch of the last two seasons, but he hasn’t been able to do enough to get the Cowboys over the hump. Romo may put up good numbers on Sunday, but there will be one or two key situations in which Romo either makes a mistake or doesn’t execute, and that will make the difference. For those hoping Romo will shift that paradigm on Sunday, we need to see it to believe it. And let’s not forget that two of Romo’s three turnovers in the past eight games came against Washington.
Three other things to consider:
Late-season meetings: In the last 30 years when the Cowboys and Redskins meet late in the season and both teams have at least eight wins the Redskins are 5-0.
Alfred Morris: Morris has rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie. In any other year Morris would probably be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s as big a reason as Griffin for the Redskins No. 1 ranked run offense.
Dez Bryant: This guy is having the best second half of any wide receiver in football. The Redskins don’t have a corner physical enough to match up with him. He should have a good day in spite of double teams. A solid game running the football would help Bryant have a great day.