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NFL Preview - San Diego (9-3) at Dallas (8-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Dallas Cowboys would love to remove the dubious label of a team prone to late-season collapses, but the schedule-makers don't seem to be that sympathetic to their plight.
The NFC East co-leaders continue a daunting December stretch with this Sunday's visit from the scorching San Diego Chargers, who will invade Cowboys Stadium riding a streak of seven consecutive wins and an even-longer run in games played during the year's final month.
Dallas hasn't posted a winning record in December since 2001, and lost three of four games during the month last season to miss out on the NFC Playoffs with a 9-7 record. Since quarterback Tony Romo has become the team's full-time signal-caller in 2006, the Cowboys have gone just 5-9 in December.
Talk of a another free-fall was sparked once again by last weekend's frustrating 31-24 defeat to the New York Giants, a game in which the Cowboys outgained their division rivals by a 424-337 advantage in total yards but were victimized by two tide-turning plays -- a 74-yard catch-and-run by lumbering New York running back Brandon Jacobs late in the third quarter and a 79-yard punt-return score from the Giants' Domenik Hixon with 5:33 left to play.
Romo could hardly be blamed for Dallas' latest December shortcoming. The highly-scrutinized triggerman established career bests for passing yards (392), completions (41) and attempts (55) and threw for three touchdowns on the afternoon.
The loss moved the Cowboys into a first-place tie with Philadelphia in the NFC East, with the Giants lurking just one game back of those two. And with a showdown with still-unbeaten New Orleans looming next week as well as a huge game against the Eagles in the regular-season finale, Dallas has little margin for error in its attempt to avoid another unwanted ending.
The Chargers have been the Cowboys' antithesis, customarily starting the season slow before closing with a flourish to reach the playoffs. That formula seems to be in play again in 2009, as San Diego's current tear following a 2-3 beginning has vaulted Norv Turner's club back to the top of the AFC West heap, one game in front of the surprising Denver Broncos.
San Diego has averaged an outstanding 31.1 points over its seven-game surge, which includes victories over the Giants and Eagles, and clicked once again on offense in last Sunday's 30-23 triumph over wayward Cleveland. The Bolts piled up a season-best 477 total yards on the overmatched Browns, with quarterback Philip Rivers leading the charge with a brilliant 18-of-25, 373-yard, two- touchdown effort.
The Chargers have now prevailed in an astonishing 15 straight December games, an NFL-record streak that spans the entire 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons. That includes a 10-0 mark in Turner's three-year reign as head coach.
San Diego is in the midst of its longest winning streak since it closed out the 2006 campaign with 10 straight victories under Marty Schottenheimer. The team's defensive coordinator that year was current Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips.
The three-time defending AFC West champion Chargers have an outside chance of clinching a fourth consecutive postseason appearance this weekend. San Diego will secure a spot with a win on Sunday coupled with losses from Baltimore, the New York Jets, Pittsburgh and either Miami or New England.
Dallas has a 6-2 edge in its all-time series with San Diego, including a 28-24 road victory in the most recent matchup, the 2005 regular season opener. The Chargers won the previous meeting, a 32-21 decision at Texas Stadium in 2001. The Cowboys are 2-1 against San Diego in home games, with their most recent win occurring at Texas Stadium in 1990.
Phillips, who served as defensive coordinator with the Chargers from 2004 through 2006, is 3-3 in his career against San Diego, including 2-2 while with Denver (1993-94) and 1-1 while with Buffalo (1998-2000). Turner, the offensive coordinator of the Cowboys from 1991 through 1993, is 5-9 against America's Team all-time. Phillips is 1-0 head-to-head against Turner, with the win coming for his Bills against Turner's Redskins in 1999.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego's success would not be at all possible without the contributions of Rivers (3311 passing yards, 21 TD, 6 INT), who's emerging as a dark-horse MVP candidate with his nearly flawless play under center as of late. The fiery sixth-year pro has hit on a sizzling 76 percent of his throws and tossed seven touchdown passes with no interceptions over the last four weeks, while his 111.3 overall quarterback rating is tops in the NFL this season. The Chargers' fifth-ranked passing offense (266.8 ypg) has also made excellent use of five- time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates (67 receptions, 994 yards, 4 TD), who abused the Browns for a career-best 167 yards on eight catches last week, and physical wide receiver Vincent Jackson (51 receptions, 869 yards, 7 TD), with 6-foot-5 wideout Malcom Floyd (26 receptions, 1 TD) giving Rivers another inviting target. The Chargers don't offer much explosion in the running game, with the team averaging a league-worst 3.3 yards per attempt, but declining superstar LaDainian Tomlinson (561 rushing yards, 9 TD, 11 receptions) still gives great effort between the tackles and the diminutive Darren Sproles (254 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 4 total TD) can be quite dangerous in the open field. San Diego's 342 points are the third-most in the NFL, while its 12 giveaways are the fewest among any team.
While the Chargers don't make many mistakes on offense, the Cowboys don't force a lot on the defensive side. Dallas has produced just eight interceptions and 15 total turnovers so far in 2009, the third-lowest amount in the league, and has also had couple establishing a complementary pass- rusher alongside All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (47 tackles, 9 sacks), who's still managed a sack in six of the last eight games despite drawing constant attention. Cornerback Mike Jenkins (38 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) has developed into a playmaker in his second season, however, and the 2008 first-round pick forms a solid coverage duo opposite veteran Terence Newman (51 tackles, 1 INT, 14 PD). A stout run defense anchored by nose tackle Jay Ratliff (34 tackles, 4 sacks) and inside linebackers Keith Brooking (85 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bradie James (85 tackles, 1 sack) has yet to allow an opposing running back to rush for over 100 yards this year and stands ninth overall in that category (102.5 ypg). Dallas will likely be without free safety Ken Hamlin (39 tackles) for a fourth straight game because of a high ankle sprain, with converted corner Alan Ball (20 tackles) again slated to fill in.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
After generating only 14 total points and struggling to gain yards in back-to- back November tilts with Green Bay and Washington, the Dallas offense has begun to operate at its usual efficient level in its last two outings. The Cowboys put up a season-high 494 total yards in a Thanksgiving Day win over Oakland, then compiled 379 net yards through the air against the Giants behind Romo's (3325 passing yards, 20 TD, 7 INT) career day. The play-calling was heavily skewed towards the pass last week, with Dallas surprisingly managing a mere 45 rushing yards on 23 attempts against a New York defense it ran for 251 yards on in a Week 2 meeting. Expect the backfield duo of Marion Barber (669 rushing yards, 4 TD, 18 receptions) and Felix Jones (427 rushing yards, 2 TD, 10 receptions) to be more of a factor on Sunday and provide better balance to an offense that ranks third in the league in total yards (394.8 ypg). The Chargers will have plenty of weapons to prepare for when Dallas does air it out, as sure-handed tight end Jason Witten (73 receptions, 1 TD) delivered a career-high 156 yards on a whopping 14 catches in last week's loss, big-play wideout Miles Austin (52 receptions, 928 yards, 9 TD) added a personal-best 10 grabs totaling 104 yards with a score and well-paid receiver Roy Williams (32 receptions, 6 TD) hauled in two of Romo's three scoring strikes versus the Giants.
The Chargers will attempt to counter Dallas' potent passing game by unleashing its furious pass-rushing combo of outside linebackers Shaun Phillips (52 tackles, 7 sacks) and Shawne Merriman (31 tackles, 4 sacks), although the latter won't be 100 percent on Sunday as he fights through a nagging foot injury that caused the three-time All-Pro to miss last week's game. Phillips has stepped up remarkably in the meantime, having registered seven sacks and forcing five fumbles over the course of San Diego's current win streak. Quentin Jammer (47 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD), one of the game's surest tackling corners, figures to spend most of his day shadowing Austin, who excels at making yards after the catch, but the Chargers' secondary depth will be tested with starting free safety Eric Weddle (70 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) out for a second straight week with a sprained knee. San Diego can be run on, as the club comes in just 21st in rushing defense (117.8 ypg) even with opponents often forced to take to the air while playing catch-up. Progress has been made in that area, though, following a number of midseason lineup changes, namely the insertion of rookie Kevin Ellison (36 tackles) at strong safety and journeyman Ian Scott (12 tackles) taking over as the starting nose tackle.
This one certainly has the makings of being a shootout, so Rivers and Romo each should get plenty of opportunities to put up big numbers and make their owners happy in an important time on the fantasy schedule. The game also features two extremely productive tight ends in Gates and Witten, both of whom are mainstays in weekly lineups, and a pair of top-tier receivers who are also must-plays in Dallas' Austin and the Chargers' Jackson. Williams deserves a look at the wide receiver position as well after scoring four touchdowns in the last four games. Tomlinson is on a roll of his own, with the one-time NFL MVP having reached the end zone eight times in San Diego's six most recent contests to achieve fantasy relevance once again. Dallas' running back options are more hit-or-miss, with Barber the best of a deep bunch. Stay away from either defense this week with the possibility of a high-scoring affair.
Dallas will undoubtedly be feeling the pressure with all the talk of its down- the-stretch failures of seasons past, but there's a very real chance the Cowboys could play well on Sunday and still come up short if the Chargers continue to perform at their current level. Nobody has been better than Rivers over the past month, and few opponents have been able to keep San Diego from scoring at will during its string of wins. The Cowboys certainly have the talent to light up the scoreboard as well, but the team's recent breakdowns in special teams and the kicking game could wind up haunting Dallas once more in what should be a close matchup, which would do little to dispel the prevailing notion that the Phillips/Romo regime cannot deliver in crunch time.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 27, Cowboys 24
12/10 17:23:23 ET