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NFL Preview - Dallas (5-9) at Arizona (4-10)
By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Dallas Cowboys try to continue their resurgence under interim head coach Jason Garrett when they match up against the woeful Arizona Cardinals in a Christmas Day affair Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium . While neither team will be returning to the playoffs this season, both are finishing the year in extremely different fashion. Dallas has won four of its past six games, while the Cardinals have dropped eight of their nine most recent tests.
Dallas' solid play has coincided with the promotion of Garrett, who took over from Wade Phillips following an embarrassing 45-7 loss to Green Bay in Week 9. The Cowboys continued to make progress under the elevated offensive coordinator this past Sunday against the Washington Redskins, when David Buehler's 39-yard field goal in the final minute helped Dallas to a 33-30 home win.
Jon Kitna had two touchdown passes and finished the game with 305 yards while completing 25-of-37 attempts for the Cowboys, whose two losses under Garrett have both been three-point heartbreakers at home to NFC contenders New Orleans and Philadelphia.
"It's nice to win these games, play competitively, but we don't have to keep making them like this," said Kitna of the tight finish. "We want to control all three phases of the game and get to it early. That's where we want to get to. But they are what they are and it was a good win."
Jason Witten had 10 catches for 140 yards and a score for Dallas, Miles Austin caught a touchdown pass and Buehler went 4-for-5 on field goal attempts with three extra points.
"The nature of the National Football League it's going to be a challenge every time you go out there," said Garrett. "No one's going to go away. Every time you break that huddle you need to be ready to play offensively, defensively and in the kicking game as well. The Redskins battled back, they made some plays on offense, they made some stops on defense, and they did a good job. They cashed in on some opportunities and we had our backs to the wall and we had to respond to it and ultimately we were able to do that."
The Cowboys had once thought that regular quarterback Tony Romo would return from his broken collarbone this week, but owner Jerry Jones squashed any talk of a comeback shortly after the Washington game. Dallas then placed Romo on injured reserve Tuesday, making him unavailable for the team's final contest of the year in Philadelphia.
Kitna, though, has done an admirable job in his place. Although their numbers have been similar, Kitna is 4-4 after taking over following Romo's injury, while the latter guided the Cowboys to just one win in his six starts.
Arizona, meanwhile, may have hit rock bottom this past Sunday, falling to the previously one-win Carolina Panthers, 19-12.
"We saw them on tape and knew they were going to play hard," said safety Kerry Rhodes of Carolina. "They were 1-12 and we aren't that much better. You can't really talk about that."
Rookie quarterback John Skelton threw for 196 yards on 17-of-33 passing with an interception as the Cardinals failed to build on a 43-13 dismantling of Denver in Week 14 and fell to 4-10 on the season. Steve Breaston scored the lone Arizona touchdown when he recovered a Tim Hightower fumble in the end zone late in the game.
"It was a disappointing loss for us," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "We didn't play well early and made too many mistakes to dig ourselves back from. We didn't make plays out there."
Dallas has a 55-28-1 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Arizona, but the Cardinals snapped a three-game losing streak against the Cowboys with a 30-24 home triumph during their Super Bowl run in 2008. Dallas' last victory in the set occurred at University of Phoenix Stadium during Week 10 of the 2006 campaign, a 27-10 decision.
The Cardinals did come out on top in the only postseason meeting between the one-time NFC East foes, who shared residence in the same division from 1970-2001. Arizona snapped a 34-year winless drought in the playoffs with a 20-7 verdict at Texas Stadium in an NFC First Round game in 1998.
Whisenhunt won his only previous matchup with the Cowboys, while Garrett will be opposing both Whisenhunt and the Cardinals for the first time in charge.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
With or without Romo, Dallas has been primarily a pass-first offense this season but has shown better balance lately, averaging over 150 rushing yards over the past four games and racking up 217 yards on the ground in an overtime win at Indianapolis in Week 13. The renewed emphasis on running the ball could be partly due to depletions among the receiving corps, with the Cowboys losing one of their best big-play threats for the rest of the year when rookie sensation Dez Bryant broke his fibula against the Colts. Kitna (2250 passing yards, 15 TD, 10 INT) still has Austin (61 receptions, 864 yards, 6 TD) as a deep threat, but the signal-caller has overcome the loss of Bryant by incorporating tight end Witten (82 receptions, 7 TD) more in the game plan. That was certainly the case this past week against Washington, when the perennial Pro Bowler had 10 catches for 140 yards and a score. Third-year running back Felix Jones (642 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 2 TD) has also been involved as a receiver and has supplanted plodder Marion Barber (313 rushing yards, 3 TD, 11 receptions) as the club's lead ball carrier, though he hasn't been the dynamic playmaker the Cowboys had been hoping for. Barber could return from a calf strain that has sidelined him the last three weeks, but will likely be utilized in a supporting role and primarily in short-yardage situations.
Dallas could continue to make headway running the ball this week, as defending the run has been an issue all season for an Arizona squad that's permitting a poor 145.7 rushing yards per game (30th overall) and has surrendered over 150 yards on the ground six times this year, including this past week when Carolina went for 177 yards. Look for the Cardinals to employ hard-hitting strong safety Adrian Wilson (77 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) closer to the line of scrimmage and help leading tackler Paris Lenon (112 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and rookie and fellow inside linebacker Daryl Washington (66 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) attempt to neutralize Dallas' balanced attack. The secondary is the strength of an overall disappointing crew, as Wilson, playmaking free safety Kerry Rhodes (80 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie (38 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD) have all been to the Pro Bowl at some point in their careers, and the Cardinals lead the NFL with seven defensive touchdowns in 2010. Veteran outside linebackers Joey Porter (44 tackles, 5 sacks) and Clark Haggans (40 tackles, 4 sacks) head up a pass rush that'll be out to make life tough on the grizzled Kitna.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Despite Skelton's (387 passing yards) rather unimpressive numbers, Whisenhunt has liked what he seen out of the strong-armed 22-year-old from a leadership and decision-making standpoint. The rookie, who will be making his third career start on Saturday, does have two excellent targets to work with when he drops back to pass, as wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (78 receptions, 986 yards, 5 TD) is a four-time Pro Bowl honoree and counterpart Breaston (43 receptions, 1 TD) averages 16 yards per catch. The passing game, though, has been hampered by an almost non-existent rushing attack, save for a 211-yard outburst against Denver two weeks ago. After getting a career-best 148 rushing yards and two scores out of top back Hightower (683 rushing yards, 5 TD, 18 receptions) in Week 14, the Cardinals reverted back to their ground woes last Sunday, managing just 43 yards against the Panthers with only 16 coming from Hightower. Arizona sits 30th in the league in yards gained on the ground (86.9 ypg). The Cardinals continued their season-long struggles on third downs in the Carolina game as well, converting only 4-of-15 chances on the day. Arizona is last in the NFL in that aspect, having been successful just 26 percent of the time.
If Skelton gets ample time to survey the field, there should be opportunities to pick apart a vulnerable Dallas secondary that's allowed 256.6 passing yards per game (28th overall) and has permitted 31 touchdown passes, tied with Houston for the highest total in the league. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they've got one of the game's premier pass rushers in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (57 tackles, 12 sacks), who has recorded his fifth straight season of double-digit sacks, while 2009 All-Pro Jay Ratliff (29 tackles, 4 sacks) is a proven pressure-producer as well from his nose tackle spot. Twelve of Dallas' 17 interceptions in 2010 have come in the last six games, with safety Gerald Sensabaugh (66 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT) coming up with three over that span, so Skelton will have to choose his spots wisely. A front seven headed by Ratliff and inside linebackers Bradie James (106 tackles, 1 INT) and Keith Brooking (87 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had been doing a credible job containing the run in recent weeks, and held the Redskins to just 55 rushing yards last Sunday.
Outside of Fitzgerald, there are no must-starts on the Arizona offense. You can even make the argument that Fitzgerald is a risky play at best with the neophyte Skelton delivering him the ball. Hightower has been too inconsistent, but could warrant a start in deeper leagues. Witten and Austin are the two definite starts from the Dallas offense, while Kitna's a serviceable option at quarterback but likely not one you'd feel comfortable using in for what most leagues is a championship game. Felix Jones is the best bet for points out of the Cowboys' backfield, but his upside may be compromised a bit if Barber returns, as the latter often gets goal-line work. Avoid either defense here and proceed with caution with the somewhat inconsistent Buehler at kicker. Arizona's Jay Feely is always one of the more reliable kickers in the league, however.
Dallas has clearly done a better job on both sides of the ball since Garrett took over the reins from Phillips. The Cardinals, on the other hand, look like a team that has packed it in. That trend should probably continue this week, as Dallas should be able to run the ball at will on a porous Cardinals defense. The Cowboys defense may not be anything special, but Ware should make life miserable for the young Skelton this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dallas 28, Arizona 13
12/22 09:48:13 ET