NFL Preview - Dallas (7-5) at Chicago (6-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - December looms for the Dallas Cowboys.
The 'Boys are in the top spot in the NFC East as the calendar turns toward Christmas and now all they have to do is finish things, starting Monday night in Chicago where Dallas faces off with a Bears team minus its leaders on both offense and defense, quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs.
Here's the problem, though. Dallas is just 13-17 in the month of December since Tony Romo took over as the team's starting quarterback in 2006, and Romo himself is 11-15 as a starter with some high-profile missteps.
"We've always known that what they remember is what you do in December," Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones said this week when talking about his team's troubles in December. "We need to change that. That was our goal this year. And we've got a chance to do something about it this year."
A 3-1 November has the Cowboys tied with Philadelphia in the NFC East but the Cowboys currently hold the tie breaker thanks to a 17-3 win in Philadelphia back on Oct. 20 and a perfect 4-0 division mark. A Week 17 matchup with the Eagles in Dallas still remains on the schedule, however.
The Cowboys have had extra time to prepare for Chicago after coming back to win their annual Thanksgiving Day affair. Romo threw for 225 yards and a score on Turkey Day this year, while DeMarco Murray joined elite company with his career-best three-touchdown performance, as Dallas took down Oakland, 31-24.
Murray joined Emmitt Smith as the only Cowboys running backs to accumulate three rushing touchdowns on Thanksgiving Day, totaling 63 yards on 17 carries.
Romo completed 23-of-32 passes, including a third-quarter TD pass to Dez Bryant, who racked up 61 yards on seven receptions. Lance Dunbar totaled 82 yards on 12 attempts before leaving the game late with a left knee injury.
"We did start slow, but it's getting to that point where there is no panic anymore," said Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr.
The Bears weren't so lucky in Week 13, losing a tough 23-20 overtime decision to NFC North-rival Minnesota when Blair Walsh hit a 34-yard field goal with 1:43 left in the extra frame.
Alshon Jeffery broke his own team record with 249 receiving yards on 12 catches -- two of which went for touchdowns -- for the Bears, who have dropped their past two games and are a full game behind the Detroit Lions for the top spot in the division, a predicament made even worse by the fact that the Lions have already swept the Bears this season.
"We've got to put up a win in the win column," quarterback Josh McCown said. "The standings don't matter if you don't win football games."
McCown was 23-for-36 for 355 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings, while Matt Forte carried the ball 23 times for 120 yards for Chicago.
"I was really proud of the effort in all three phases of the game," said Chicago head coach Marc Trestman. "But as hard as we played, we didn't play hard enough to win. We just didn't get it done."
Trestman took plenty of heat for a strange decision in overtime, deciding to let the ever-reliable Robbie Gould attempt a potential game-winning 47-yard field goal attempt on second down. Gould missed his chance wide right and the Vikings went the other way for the win.
"I didn't do it from an analytics standpoint. I did it from having been around Robbie the entire year and knowing how he kicks the ball," Trestman said of Gould, whose field goal percentage of 85.8 ranks third-highest in NFL history dating back to 1938.
Dallas leads its all-time series with the Bears by a slim 11-10 margin but the Bears have won the last two meetings, including a 34-18 win in Dallas back on Oct. 1, 2012 when the defense recorded five interceptions, with two returned for TDs (by Briggs and Charles Tillman, two players who won't be available in this one for Chicago.)
The teams haven't met in the Second City since a Sept. 23, 2007 affair won by the Cowboys 34-10.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
McCown's solid play has masked any desire to push Cutler back too quickly from his latest problem, a balky left ankle. McCown has been rock solid in six games (four starts,) completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,462 yards with nine touchdowns against one interception while compiling a 103.6 rating, far better than Cutler's 88.4.
All that said though the Bears clearly miss Cutler's ability to extend plays and make something out of nothing, a trait McCown really does not possess.
Still McCown has been able to get the football to the Bears' dynamic receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Jeffery, whose 2,099 combined receiving yards are the most of any duo in the NFL entering Week 14.
Those two, along with tight end Martellus Bennett, who has 48 catches for 545 yards and five TDs, could be an untenable matchup for a Dallas secondary allowing 294.9 yards a game through the air, second-worst in the NFL.
Marshall, though, has been impressed by Carr, Dallas' best defensive back.
"I don't like playing against Brandon Carr," Marshall said. "He presents a lot of tough challenges throughout a game. You'll notice he changes up his game when he plays against bigger receivers. He's strong. He's physical. He plays that way against guys like myself. I absolutely hate the matchup. It's like playing chess out there with him. Every single play is a battle. He just makes you work so hard."
The Cowboys defense also figures to get a boost from the return of middle linebacker Sean Lee, perhaps the unit's best all-around player, who has missed the last two weeks with a strained hamstring.
The Bears' defense has remained opportunistic with 15 interceptions, but the team's run-stopping ability is virtually non-existent. Chicago is giving up 205.2 rushing yards a contest and nearly six yards a clip on every run over its past six games.
That poor play basically coincides with the loss of Briggs to a shoulder injury and veteran middle linebacker DJ Williams to a season-ending pectoral problem.
Dallas, though, has an offense heavily tilted toward the pass to begin with and will be without Dunbar, who is expected to miss the rest of the season after being diagnosed with a torn posterior lateral corner in his knee.
"There's a whole lot of football to be played," Trestman said. "We've got to start on Monday night and do that. That was the message: Let's worry about what we can control and that's being at our best on Monday night against the Cowboys."
This game will also mark the first time Bears defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, who was signed Nov. 6, will face his former team.
Ratliff, a four-time Pro Bowler in Dallas when he called himself Jay, left North Texas on bad terms. He never played a down for the Cowboys after signing a $40 million extension, with $18 million of that guaranteed, due to a groin injury.
"To me it's just another game," Ratliff said Thursday after practice. "As they say, they're moving on, so have I, and that's the end of it."
A trend is a trend until it stops being a trend and the Cowboys December struggles aren't going away until Dallas makes them go away. This is a perfect opportunity to start that process on the road in a hostile environment with potential weather issues.
A Bears team with Cutler, Briggs and Tillman beats the Cowboys in this spot but one without its key playmakers simply can't be allowed.
"You hear me say this all the time, but we're focused on winning one game," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We want to play one good ballgame. That's really what we're focused on. We'll let everyone else figure out what the history of the world is."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 21, Bears 16
12/06 11:19:21 ET