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NFL Preview - Washington (5-8) at Dallas (4-9)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A season-opening loss to the Washington Redskins started the Dallas Cowboys on a downward spiral that took two months and a coaching change to turn around.
But when these longtime NFC East rivals renew acquaintances at Cowboys Stadium in a Week 15 clash for nothing other than bragging rights, it's the Redskins that find themselves fighting to reverse a negative trend amidst a whirlwind of chaos.
Dallas entered this 2010 campaign with sky-high expectations that were quickly shot down by a devastating 1-7 start that began with a 13-7 defeat at Washington in September and led to the ousting of head coach Wade Phillips at midseason. While the Cowboys have been able to right the ship somewhat under interim replacement Jason Garrett, they'll still be sitting home come playoff time after being officially eliminated from the race with last weekend's 30-27 loss to NFC East co-leader Philadelphia.
The Redskins also won't be invited to the postseason party after going 5-8 through the first 13 games of the so-far rocky Mike Shanahan era and dropping five of their last six contests, most of them in embarrassing fashion.
The latest setback may have been the toughest to take. After rallying for a potential game-tying touchdown drive in the final seconds of this past Sunday's matchup with Tampa Bay, Washington botched the extra-point attempt that would have forced overtime when since-released punter Hunter Smith mishandled the snap as the holder and the Buccaneers hung on for a 17-16 victory.
Smith's gaffe was the most glaring of a series of costly special teams miscues for the Redskins on the day. Kicker Graham Gano missed two field goal tries from under 35 yards in the soggy FedEx Field conditions, while reserve linebacker Chris Wilson fumbled a squib kickoff that Tampa Bay turned into an important field goal.
The frustrating loss culminated a tumultuous week at Redskins Park that began with the organization's decision to suspended troublesome defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth without pay for the remainder of the season for his divisive locker-room presence.
The mood has been considerably more serene around the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters as of late, and it's shown up in the team's play. Dallas has gone 3-2 since owner Jerry Jones ended rampant speculation about Phillips' future and promoted Garrett from his offensive coordinator's post, while posting notable wins over playoff hopefuls Indianapolis and the New York Giants over that stretch. The Cowboys' two losses have each come by three points to a pair of current division leaders in the Eagles and New Orleans.
Dallas' offense has also come to life following Garrett's elevation, even with journeyman Jon Kitna having been pressed into duty after starter Tony Romo fractured his collarbone at midseason. The Cowboys have averaged 32 points and over 370 yards per game since the coaching switch.
The Cowboys will try to build upon those strong numbers this week against a disappointing Washington defense that's last in the NFL in yards allowed and ranks 28th and 29th, respectively, against the run and the pass.
The Cowboys have a 59-38-2 advantage in the all-time regular-season series between the divisional foes, but Washington snapped a three-game losing streak in the set with the previously-noted 13-7 win at FedEx Field in Week 1. The Redskins came out on the short end of a 7-6 decision on the road against the Cowboys last year and have lost in three of their four visits to Dallas, with the lone triumph a 26-24 verdict in 2008.
Washington is 2-0 against Dallas in the postseason, winning in the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship games.
Shanahan owns a 4-1 lifetime record against Dallas, including a 3-1 mark during his 14-year tenure with the Denver Broncos from 2005-08, and has defeated the Cowboys four straight times. Garrett will be taking on both Shanahan and Washington for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
One bright spot that did come out of last week's stinging loss was the performance of Washington running back Ryan Torain (563 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 4 total TD), with the ex-Bronco and Shanahan draftee returning from a four-game absence due to a hamstring injury to amass a career-high 172 yards on 24 carries. He'll be used extensively on Sunday to help ease the burden on struggling quarterback Donovan McNabb (3337 passing yards, 14 TD, 15 INT), who's actually coming off one of the best outings of a rough first season as a Redskin. The six-time Pro Bowler, who completed 22-of-35 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover against Tampa Bay, will be looking in the direction of leading receiver Santana Moss (71 receptions, 4 TD) and trusty tight end Chris Cooley (62 receptions, 2 TD), a duo which combined for 157 yards on 12 catches in the Week 1 win over Dallas. A vertical presence to the passing game has been provided by previously-unknown wideout Anthony Armstrong (35 receptions, 2 TD), a former Arena League player who's averaging 19.2 yards per grab. Protecting McNabb has often been an issue, as the 12th-year veteran has been sacked 37 times on the year.
If McNabb gets ample time to survey the field, there should be opportunities to pick apart a vulnerable Dallas secondary that's allowed 254.4 passing yards per game (27th overall) and has permitted 27 touchdown passes, the second- 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 (51 tackles, 9.5 sacks), closing in on a fifth straight season of double-digit sacks, while 2009 All Pro Jay Ratliff (28 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is a proven pressure-producer as well from his nose tackle spot. Ten of Dallas' 15 interceptions in 2010 have come in the last five games, with safeties Gerald Sensabaugh (63 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) and Alan Ball (41 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT) each coming up with two over that span, so McNabb will have to choose his spots wisely. A front seven headed by Ratliff and inside linebackers Bradie James (100 tackles, 1 INT) and Keith Brooking (86 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had been doing a credible job containing the run in recent weeks, though the group was creased for 171 rushing yards by the speed-laden Eagles last Sunday.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas has been primarily a pass-first offense this season but shown better balance lately, averaging slightly over 150 rushing yards over the past four games and racking up 217 yards on the ground in an overtime win at Indianapolis two Sundays back. 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. That's caused teams to pay extra attention to No. 1 wideout Miles Austin (58 receptions, 826 yards, 5 TD), who burned the Redskins for 146 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches in the opener but was held to two grabs totaling 22 yards by the Eagles last week. Kitna (1945 passing yards, 13 TD, 10 INT) compensated by incorporating tight ends Jason Witten (72 receptions, 6 TD) and Martellus Bennett (27 receptions) more in the game plan, with the duo combining for 11 receptions and Witten scoring a pair of touchdowns. Third-year pro Felix Jones (572 rushing yards, 44 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 back, though he hasn't been the dynamic playmaker the Cowboys had been hoping. Barber is on track to return from a calf strain that sidelined him the last two weeks and will be utilized in a supporting role and primarily in short-yardage situations.
The Cowboys shouldn't have too much of a problem moving the ball on a Washington defense that's permitted a league-worst 394.8 yards per game on the season and over 260 per week through the air, though the team did do an excellent job of preventing their divisional foe from lighting up the scoreboard in the first meeting. The secondary's been hit hard by recent injuries to cornerback Carlos Rogers (46 tackles, 1 INT, 9 PD) and safety LaRon Landry (85 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), but Rogers appears ready to make it back from a two-game absence caused by a hamstring strain and resume his spot alongside interception leader DeAngelo Hall (83 tackles, 6 INT, 14 PD) this week. The backfield would benefit from a pass-rushing complement to standout outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (50 tackles, 8.5 sacks), something the Redskins have had trouble finding throughout the year, and if an aging front seven could hold up better against the run. Washington is allowing 4.9 yards per rush attempt, the highest number in the NFL, and was bullied for 197 rushing yards by the New York Giants in a blowout loss in Week 13. Inside linebackers London Fletcher (113 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Rocky McIntosh (91 tackles, 2 sacks), who teamed up for 21 tackles against Dallas in Week 1, will be in charge of keeping the Cowboy backs under control.
Torain proved he's back at full strength with last Sunday's prolific effort and is safe to insert in weekly lineups, while Moss has been probably the most consistent fantasy asset among an overall ordinary group of Washington players. Cooley's a decent choice at the tight end spot, though keep in mind he's only scored two touchdowns this year, but McNabb's too erratic to justify a starting position at quarterback nowadays. Witten and Austin are the two must-plays from the Dallas offense, while Kitna's a serviceable option at quarterback but likely not one you'd feel comfortable using in a playoff week. Felix Jones is the best bet for points out of the Cowboys' backfield, but his upside may be compromised a bit by Barber's return, as the latter often gets goal-line work. Avoid either defense here and steer clear of both Gano and Dallas kicker David Buehler, both of whom have unpredictable when it comes to field goals.
With both teams out of the playoff mix, it's going to boil down to which one has the greater motivation and is able to execute better. The results of the past few weeks indicate that team should be the Cowboys, who have displayed a renewed energy under Garrett's direction and have been competitive in every game they've played since the coaching switch. On the other hand, Washington has looked either lifeless or just plain inept too many times during its second-half swoon, and there's little evidence to suggest a turnaround is in store this week. The Redskins haven't won at all this season when they've allowed more than 16 points in a game, and they'll be hard-pressed to hold a solid Dallas offense to that magic number on Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 34, Redskins 20
12/16 12:21:57 ET