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NFL Preview - Dallas (8-7) at Washington (9-6)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - What do the debut of "The Sopranos", the death of New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio and former President Bill Clinton have in common?
Not much really, but they were all relevant the last time the Washington Redskins won the NFC East Division back in 1999.
The Redskins can end their prolonged drought of not winning one of the toughest divisions in football with a victory over the rival Dallas Cowboys Sunday night from FedEx Field. With so much on the line for both teams, the game was flexed to the primetime slot and will surely garner high ratings.
Whether the game itself will have its own style points remains to be seen, but the Redskins will be ready to face their longtime nemesis.
"We wish we could have clinched the division earlier. It is what it is. We have to play the game, we have to win the game, and that's all we play for," Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon said. "Every time I play, I play as if it's a rivalry game no matter who's out there; if it's the Eagles, the Cowboys, the Giants I go hard no matter who it is. No matter who's playing I'm giving it my all."
Since a 3-6 start to the season, the Redskins have mirrored Garcon's words in winning a season-best six straight games to be where they're at today. They are riding the longest winning streak since a seven-game run back in 1996, when quarterback Robert Griffin III attended grade school and could only dream of where he is today. Griffin is one of the top rookies in the league and just earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. But he knows he didn't do it alone, giving praise to fellow rookie and rising running back Alfred Morris.
Griffin also acknowledged the important of having first-year Redskin Garcon as a teammate, saying "Pierre's been awesome." RG3 added it's good to have him here in Washington and that he brings a fearless attitude and depth to the wide receiver position. But the one who gets Garcon the ball is also a difference maker on the field.
RG3 spoke with the media this week and said that nobody wants to be embarrassed on national television and the Redskins have to make sure they're sharper than Dallas. He admitted the 'Skins want to control their own destiny and avoid playing the game up too much. Approaching this week like any other week is imperative.
"I plan on going out and getting this win," Griffin said about playing on the big stage. "It's another game we have to go out and win. That's the way we look at it. We look forward to having many more of these, but we gotta make sure we take care of this one. We just gotta go out and win a football game."
Griffin missed a Dec. 16 win at Cleveland because of a knee sprain and returned in Sunday's 27-20 victory at Philadelphia, passing for 198 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He was limited at what he does best and that's running out of the pocket. RG3 was held to four yards on two scrambles, and said that he will be able to do more this week than in Philly. Creativity and balance is what Griffin enjoys most about this offense as evidenced by his 3,100 passing yards, 20 TD strikes, 752 rushing yards and six rushing scores.
Dallas had trouble slowing down the New Orleans Saints in last week's 34-31 overtime loss and must play tighter on defense Sunday night if it intends on winning the NFC East for the first time since 2009 -- the year in which quarterback Tony Romo won his only postseason game.
Sunday will have a playoff atmosphere and it's unknown which Romo will show up. There's no doubt the Washington crowd will play a role in how Romo performs, but if last week's loss to the Saints is any indication the Cowboys could be in good hands. Romo completed 26-of-43 attempts for 416 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, helping the Cowboys rack up 446 yards of offense and reach at least 400 yards eight times this season.
One player in particular who has helped Dallas' offense lately has been wide receiver Dez Bryant. The mercurial Bryant caught nine passes for a career-high 224 yards and two touchdowns versus the Saints and now has a TD catch in seven straight games to tie the longest streak in club history. Bryant, who is playing with a broken finger, is even with Frank Clarke (1961-62), Bob Hayes (1965-66) and Terrell Owens (2007).
"He's done an amazing job with that finger," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It doesn't seem to faze him in any way, shape or form. He made a couple of really big plays in the ballgame early for us, running the nine route, making the play over his head and then catching a slant and breaking a couple of tackles to score ... I think he's grown."
Bryant will have to continue the maturation process on the road in D.C. this week and owns 1,311 yards (4th in NFC) and 12 scores (2nd in NFL) on 88 catches this season. The Cowboys are close to having three players with at least 1,000 yards receiving as leading receiver Jason Witten is second on the team with 983 yards on 103 catches and Miles Austin has quietly compiled 943 yards on 66 receptions. Witten is only one of two Cowboys selected to the Pro Bowl, joining stalwart defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
Ware has been limited in practice with elbow and shoulder issues, but Garrett said he expects his top defender on the field Sunday night.
"Regardless of where you're playing, who you're playing, you have to be your best, so we'll try to do that and we'll try to do our best in our preparation," Garrett said.
In a 38-31 loss to the Redskins at home on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys watched RG3 throw for four touchdowns and Romo get picked off twice with three TD passes. Dallas' ground game was a non-factor to the tune of just 35 yards, while Morris ran for 113 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Dallas is still 6-2 in the last eight meetings between the NFC East foes and has won three of the previous four matchups in the nation's capital.
Dallas is 9-6 in games played at FedEx Field.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The key to Washington's success this season has been Griffin and Morris. The rookie tandem has accumulated more than 5,000 yards of offense, which is why the Redskins are first in rushing yards (162.3 ypg) and fifth in total yards (384.7 ypg). Dallas is allowing 115.3 rushing yards per game and 355.1 total yards per game.
Because of RG3 and Morris, who leads all rookies with 1,413 rushing yards and owns 544 yards and five TDs in the last five games, the Redskins are 484 yards shy of establishing a team record for total net offensive yardage in a season (6,253 in 1989). Morris needs 104 rushing yards to break Clinton Portis' team record for rushing yards in a season (1,516 yards in 2005). He and Griffin have combined for 2,165 rushing yards, the most by a pair of teammates in a season in team history.
Washington hopes Griffin can do a bit more with his feet this week after rushing just twice against the Eagles. Without Griffin's ability to keep the defense honest, it makes the read option philosophy harder to execute.
Can Romo prove all doubters wrong in this matchup? That's still a mystery, but the gunslinger still enjoyed an admirable regular season with a franchise-best 4,685 passing yards. The oft-criticized Romo, who owns just one postseason victory in his tenure with the Cowboys, hopes to pick apart one of the worst pass defenses in the league Sunday as Washington sits near the bottom with 287.7 passing yards allowed this season.
That's not hard to imagine when a secondary has just one proven playmaker in cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Romo has the weaponry at his disposal this week and could also use some extra help from running back DeMarco Murray, who did not dress in the first meeting with the Redskins because of a nagging foot issue. Romo was forced to throw 62 times in that one, completing 37 passes for a career high 441 yards, three scores and a pair of interceptions.
Romo has thrown three or more TDs in consecutive meetings with Washington and is 6-5 as a starter in this series. The former Walter Payton Award winner has thrown for 2,875 yards with 19 TDs and 10 picks lifetime against the 'Skins.
On a defensive note in this series, Ware has recorded 80 tackles, 22 pressures and 11.0 sacks against the Redskins in his storied career. Much like former Giants star linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Ware must be accounted for at all times.
Sunday's game is for all the marbles in the NFC East. A win for the Redskins would give them their first playoff berth since 2007, while a victory for Dallas would be the franchise's 18th NFC East crown. In order for the Redskins to sweep a season series against the Cowboys for the first time since 2005, play-calling has to be aggressive and timed to perfection. Just because Washington is playing in its own backyard doesn't mean it will be smooth sailing. However, this is RG3's time to shine on the biggest stage of his young and promising NFL career.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 24, Cowboys 17
12/27 15:28:02 ET