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NFL Preview - Dallas (0-0) at Washington (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The premiere Sunday night matchup of the 2010 NFL season has everything one could ask for in a primetime Week 1 event -- a pair of high-profile teams and bitter rivals, plus plenty of star power and a dash of drama mixed in as well.
The soap opera scenario will be provided by Washington Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, whose simmering feud with new head coach Mike Shanahan serves as the backdrop for this weekend's divisional showdown with the defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys from FedEx Field.
While the hiring of Shanahan, who directed the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl victories and seven playoff appearances during a successful 14-year run from 1995-2008, was received with overwhelming approval from fans and observers alike, Haynesworth hasn't shown much exuberance over the move. Miffed by a possible position change in a re-arranged defensive scheme, the well-paid lineman voiced his displeasure by sitting out the team's mini-camp session in June, a decision which set off a battle of wills between player and coach that has yet to reach a resolution.
Shanahan has done his best to fan the flames, sticking Haynesworth with the second-team defense throughout training camp and the preseason schedule in an obvious response to having his authority challenged by the two-time All-Pro. And when the Redskins take the field for game one of their new era, it appears as if Haynesworth will be nothing more than a $100 million situational rusher in the team's nickel looks.
The power struggle has overshadowed the other major move Washington made as a consequence of last year's forgettable 4-12 campaign. The Redskins brought in an accomplished quarterback to run Shanahan's offshoot of the West Coast offense, making a stunning trade with fellow NFC East member Philadelphia in April for veteran Donovan McNabb. The six-time Pro Bowler gives the Burgundy and Gold its best signal-caller since it captured its last division title under Brad Johnson in 1999, which was also McNabb's rookie year with the Birds.
McNabb's Redskins debut will come against a most familiar foe, with the 33- year-old's final two games as an Eagle coming in a pair of disheartening defeats to the Cowboys, including a 34-14 setback in last January's NFC Wild Card Playoffs that marked Dallas' first postseason victory in 14 seasons.
That breakthrough result, which followed a three-game win streak to end the regular season that vaulted them past the Eagles for the division crown, has put the Cowboys on the short list of preseason favorites to represent the NFC when Super Bowl XLV takes place in the franchise's extravagant home stadium this coming February. Dallas returns all but two starters from last year's 11-5 squad and added another potential impact player with the selection of wide receiver Dez Bryant in the first-round of April's draft.
Bryant sat out the entire preseason after suffering a high ankle sprain early in camp, but the former Oklahoma State star will be ready to go in the opener. The Cowboys could be without two other key offensive pieces, though, with left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo likely to miss with knee injuries.
The Cowboys lead the all-time regular season series with Washington, 59-37-2, including a home-and-home sweep of their longtime NFC East rival last season. Dallas scored a come-from-behind 7-6 win in a Week 11 nail-biter at Arlington last year, and completed the sweep with a 17-0 shutout at FedEx Field in Week 16. Washington is 0-3 against Dallas since defeating them by a 26-24 count at Texas Stadium in 2008. The Redskins last won a home game over the Cowboys in 2007.
Washington is 2-0 against Dallas in the postseason, winning in the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship games.
Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 5-2 all-time against Washington, with one of those wins coming for his Bills team in 1999 at FedEx Field. Shanahan was 3-1 against the Cowboys during his tenure with the Broncos (1995-2008), including a current streak of three consecutive wins. Despite their collective experience in the league, Phillips and Shanahan have never faced off as head coaches. Shanahan succeeded Phillips as head coach of the Broncos after Phillips was fired following the 1994 season.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas doesn't lack for playmakers on an offense that piled up the second-most yards (399.4 avg.) in the NFL a year ago. Quarterback Tony Romo (26 TD, 9 INT) threw for a team-record 4,483 yards in the best season of his career, in addition to finally getting the playoff monkey off his back, while wide receiver Miles Austin (81 receptions, 1320 yards, 11 TD) came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the league's premier big-play threats. Add in the supremely-gifted Bryant, who was drawing rave reviews prior to getting hurt, to a pass-catching corps that also contains ultra-dependable tight end Jason Witten (94 receptions, 1030 yards, 2 TD) and enigmatic wideout Roy Williams (38 receptions), and the passing game could be scary-good when all the parts are in sync. The Cowboys can run the football as well behind a deep backfield that offers versatility as well as skill. Primary ball-carrier Marion Barber (932 rushing yards, 7 TD, 26 receptions) is a between-the-tackles beast who's now over a nagging thigh injury that hampered his 2009 production, while speedster Felix Jones (685 rushing yards, 3 TD, 19 receptions) has averaged 6.5 yards per carry over his first two pro seasons. The absences of Kosier and Colombo are a cause for concern, though replacements Montrae Holland and Alex Barron each have significant starting experience.
With or without Haynesworth (37 tackles, 4 sacks), a defense that was the shining spot of Washington's 2009 disaster figures to pose a stern challenge to the Cowboys' array of weapons. The Redskins allowed only 24 combined points in their two meetings with Dallas last season and have the personnel to make Romo uncomfortable in the pocket, with the new 3-4 alignment designed to maximize the pass-rushing talents of outside linebackers Brian Orakpo (50 tackles, 11 sacks) and Andre Carter (62 tackles, 11 sacks). Running up the middle could be a tough task as well, as new nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu (ex- Panthers) is an excellent interior stopper when healthy and veteran London Fletcher (142 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) remains an active force at inside linebacker as he enters his 13th NFL season. Washington finished eighth in the league in passing yards allowed (207.3 avg.) and possesses two capable cornerbacks in Carlos Rogers (39 tackles, 12 PD) and DeAngelo Hall (58 tackles, 4 INT), though the unit could stand to improve upon last year's sum of 11 interceptions.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
After averaging a paltry 16.6 points per game in former head coach Jim Zorn's swan song, it was apparent the Redskins were in dire need of an overhaul on this side of the ball. Obtaining McNabb (3553 passing yards, 22 TD, 10 INT) was a good start, and the team did well to upgrade what may have been the league's worst offensive line last year by acquiring veterans Jammal Brown (from Saints) and Artis Hicks (from Vikings) and landing Oklahoma left tackle Trent Williams with the fourth overall pick. Shanahan's trademark zone- blocking system should also breathe some life into a stagnant ground attack that mustered just 94.3 yards per game (27th overall) in 2009, but whether it rejuvenates the declining careers of brittle backs Clinton Portis (494 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 2 total TD) and Larry Johnson (581 rushing yards, 15 receptions with the Chiefs/Bengals) remains to be seen. McNabb has two solid targets to work with in gritty wide receiver Santana Moss (70 receptions, 3 TD) and trusty tight end Chris Cooley (29 receptions, 2 TD), but the remainder of the wideout cast is filled with question marks. Look for Shanahan to utilize plenty of two-tight end sets in order to utilize the receiving skills of third-year man Fred Davis (48 receptions, 6 TD), who played very well after taking over for an injured Cooley midway through last season.
The Redskins' new-look offensive line will immediately be put to the test on Sunday, as the Cowboys have been one of the top pass-rushing teams in the league in recent years. All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (57 tackles, 11 sacks) has notched double-digit sacks in each of the last four seasons and should give young Trent Williams a quick indoctrination, while counterpart Anthony Spencer (67 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) got to the quarterback eight times over Dallas' final eight games, including the playoffs. Rock-solid nose tackle Jay Ratliff (40 tackles, 6 sacks) is also adept at applying pressure in addition to serving as the anchor of a run defense that yielded a scant 90.5 yards per game on the ground (4th overall). The Cowboys are in good hands as well at cornerback, where starters Mike Jenkins (49 tackles, 5 INT, 19 PD) and Terence Newman (57 tackles, 3 INT, 18 PD) were both named Pro Bowl alternates last season, and field a pair of quality inside linebackers in the seasoned tandem of Bradie James (113 tackles, 2 sacks) and 13th-year pro Keith Brooking (106 tackles, 3 sacks).
Just about all the desirable options out of this game come from the Cowboys, with Romo, Austin and Witten the three no-brainer choices for fantasy owners. Throw in the Dallas defense as well, with Washington still a work in progress on the offensive end while breaking in a host of new faces. It's still unclear as to how the Cowboys' running back situation will play itself out, but Barber may carry slightly more upside than Jones due to his track record in goal-line situations. Those who drafted Bryant need to be patient with the tantalizing young prospect, as rookie receivers seldom make a big splash off the bat. Cooley and Moss look like the best plays among the Redskins, and McNabb's a decent alternative as well with his new team likely to take to the air come Sunday. Portis seems to be the best bet for touches in the Washington backfield, but Shanahan's history of mixing and matching ball-carriers still makes him a risky proposition.
The Cowboys have a decided advantage in overall talent on the Redskins, but that alone doesn't ensure a victory here. Dallas often looked out of sync on offense during the exhibition slate, and Washington's good enough defensively to make the reigning NFC East champs pay if they're not sharp again in the opener. The Redskins played the Cowboys tough twice last year and are better equipped to potentially steal a victory this time around with their upgrades at quarterback and on the sideline. Still, Dallas almost always starts off well under Phillips, having won nine of 11 September contests over the past three years, and may catch a break if Shanahan follows through with his curious plan to limit the snaps of Haynesworth, Washington's best game-changer on defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 17, Redskins 13
09/09 16:59:46 ET