NFL Preview - Dallas (7-7) at Washington (3-11)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Dallas Cowboys must have short memories in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. That won't be an easy task when they close out the season series with the rival Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
The Cowboys blew a golden opportunity to grab the NFC East lead with Sunday's heartbreaking 37-36 home loss to the Green Bay Packers and even blew a 26-3 halftime advantage. There were more issues than Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's two interceptions in the final three minutes, as the defense, which has been an Achilles heel all season, blew coverage and missed tackles.
Packers quarterback Matt Flynn sandwiched a pair of touchdown passes around a Dan Bailey field goal in the third quarter and the Packers scored 20 of the 27 points in the final stanza, taking the lead for good on running back Eddie Lacy's one-yard touchdown plunge with 1:31 remaining.
Lacy ran for 141 yards on 21 carries and five Green Bay receivers recorded at least 30 yards. It may come as no surprise for the gaudy numbers because the Cowboys are the worst in passing yards allowed (297.4) and total yards allowed (427.3) and near the bottom against the run (129.9). Also, opponents are scoring 27.5 points per game on Dallas' stop unit.
Cowboys safety and leading tackler Barry Church (120 tackles) led the defense with 11 stops. The Cowboys played without linebacker and interceptions leader (4) Sean Lee, who is nursing a neck injury and is unsure when he'll return.
"It's getting close to the end of the year, and obviously we only have so much time left," Lee told the team's website. "And so, obviously I'd like to be back as soon as possible. "But I don't know exactly when that is because the doctors have to give me a timetable and figure out when they can clear me. Hopefully I can be back, but right now we still have to go week-to-week."
Dallas was without its top four linebackers when Justin Durant (hamstring) and Ernie Sims (hip) both suffered injuries versus Green Bay and Bruce Carter (hamstring) was already sidelined with Lee. Durant was placed on IR Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Romo has been a lightning rod for criticism and didn't help his cause with two late interceptions, including one on an audible. The play was supposed to be a run for DeMarco Murray, who played well to the tune of 134 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Romo threw the INT with less than three minutes to go and the Cowboys gripping to a five-point lead.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett talked about the play.
"The idea was to run the ball and make them use clock," Garrett said. "Run it, and then if we have to throw it, throw high percentage passes to keep the clock going and make them use their timeouts. Tony threw a pass on what we call a smoke or a flash, that we have accompanying runs for if he gets a bad look. That's what happened on the interception, it was a run call that he threw the ball on."
Garrett still has the support of owner Jerry Jones.
"We've got to rebound. We've got a ballgame coming up, and, by the way, Garrett will coach that game against the Redskins. So write about that," Jones said. "He'll coach our ballgame we've got coming up, and as far as I can see in the future, he will be coaching games for the Cowboys."
The future could mean Sunday's game in Washington and the season finale at home versus Philadelphia. The Eagles have a one-game lead over Dallas in the NFC East, but the latter owns the tie-breaker. If the Cowboys lose Sunday and the Eagles defeat Chicago at home in the nightcap, the Cowboys will be out of the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Washington is going through some turmoil itself and raised eyebrows in the nation's capital when franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III was benched for the last three games in favor of backup Kirk Cousins. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan made the decision so Griffin III will be healthy for next season.
Cousins played well in Sunday's 27-26 loss at Atlanta and threw for 381 yards with three touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions. Pierre Garcon was a reliable target for the second-year quarterback and caught seven balls for 129 yards. Veteran Santana Moss made an appearance with 64 yards and a score on eight receptions for the 3-11 Redskins, who fumbled five times and have lost six in a row.
After Moss scored on a three-yard pass from Cousins with 18 seconds to go, Shanahan decided to go for two instead of forcing overtime, but a pass for Garcon was incomplete. Shanahan was asked for his opinion after it was said the offense looked better under Cousins than RGIII.
"I think Robert has a lot of confidence in himself and he should. He's got all the ability in the world and he will get better and better every day. And I think that's one of the reasons why we decided to not play him anymore ... for the last three games," Shanahan said. "We want him to go into the offseason fully healthy, be able to get all the reps that you normally get in the offseason and give himself a chance to get better. We thought that was more important than the reps in the last three games. Kirk has had that ability to do that in the offseason and that's one of the reasons why we decided to make the decision that we made going into this game."
It was rumored Shanahan's son, offensive coordinator Kyle, wants to separate himself from his father and move on with his coaching career. But the coach said it's still his "responsibility to be accountable for everything that's done." Mike Shanahan could be headed to the unemployment line at season's end, which occurs Dec. 29 on the road against the New York Giants.
The Redskins have dropped three in a row at home and lost the first meeting with Dallas, 31-16, in Week 6 on Oct. 13. Dallas has won seven of the last 10 meetings between the NFC East foes and leads the all-time series, 63-42-2. The 63 wins are the most against any other team.
Washington has prevailed in two of the last three meetings in Landover. Romo has won six of his last nine starts against the Redskins and owns 3,263 passing yards with 22 TDs and 14 INTs in this rivalry. Dallas is 4-0 against the NFC East and 6-4 in the conference, while the Redskins are winless (0-4) in division play and just 1-9 against teams from the NFC.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Redskins have absolutely no pressure even if they lose Sunday's game. But it would be a nice send-off for the fans if they can knock off the Cowboys and make their season just as miserable.
So how can the Redskins accomplish the improbable task? It's easy: by protecting the football and getting running back Alfred Morris off to a strong start. Morris bounced back from three straight subpar performances by collecting 98 yards on 18 carries against the Falcons. Morris, who already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second straight year, has rushed for 394 yards and five TDs in three meetings against the Cowboys.
Cousins, of course, has to play well even though the Cowboys are simply dreadful on defense. Dallas now has some film on the Michigan State product, both from the preseason and last Sunday. The Falcons struggled against Cousins, who became the first Redskins quarterback in the Super Bowl era to throw for 300 yards in each of his first two career starts.
He threw for 248 yards in the first half on Sunday, the most in a first half by a Redskins quarterback since Mark Rypien passed for 259 yards in the first two quarters versus Atlanta on Nov. 10, 1991.
"I didn't do enough to win," said Cousins, who was sacked just once. "Two interceptions that were on me, a fumble that you don't want to have, the two- point conversion the failed attempt there; I felt like that was on me.
"Those are four plays right there where if they go differently, it's probably a much better result. I felt like we had them on the ropes and I, we just didn't do enough to execute but it starts right here with me."
Dallas has a potent offense that carries its mediocre defense and Romo will be out to quiet his critics once again. With the help of Murray running the ball and wide receiver Dez Bryant controlling his temper on the sideline, Sunday's game should be a breeze for the Cowboys.
Bryant, of course, left the field with time on the clock in the fourth quarter and was upset with himself and the team for blowing a missed opportunity. He took to Twitter to discuss why he exited during another mental breakdown on the sideline.
"I walked back to the locker room because I was emotional...it had nothing to do with my teammates we had it... We fought and didn't finish"
Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware missed practice Wednesday and it's not considered serious. He has played the last five games after suffering a quadriceps strain against the Redskins in October and owns 11 sacks in the last 15 meetings with Washington. His presence alone could keep Cousins guessing and under pressure all afternoon.
Ware is just one of several Dallas defenders nursing injuries this week, joining Carter, Lee, Sims, defensive end George Selvie and cornerback Morris Claiborne, who is expected to miss another game.
Dallas knows what's at stake if they lose Sunday and the Eagles win. That means the defense must play better in weeks past and coordinator Monte Kiffin has to knock off some cobwebs. Dallas has allowed an average of 35 points over the previous five games and at least 21 per game in that awful span.
It doesn't help that some key contributors are banged up on Dallas' defense, but there's no excuses. Romo, Murray and Bryant will make sure the game doesn't end up in the hands of the defense, as the Cowboys will set up an important Week 17 battle versus Philadelphia for all the division marbles.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 30, Redskins 13
12/19 15:13:35 ET