Coming off of a strong performance against the Saints on Thanksgiving day the Dallas Cowboys are actually being given a good shot to pull off the upset this week against the Colts. We've seen this team beat the Peyton Manning led Colts before but it seems like a lifetime ago that the Cowboys beat the undefeated Colts 21-14 in 2006. The Cowboys won't have Romo to run the offense this time around but the roster still has many of the same key components in place.
So what will it take to beat the Colts? The Colts aren't 9-0 like they were the last time the Cowboys faced them in 2006. But they still have Peyton Manning even if their record has slipped to 6-5. And the Colts have backed themselves into a corner by dropping two straight games to fall into a first place tie with the Jacksonville Jaguars. It is hard to imaging Manning having a third straight poor performance. The Cowboys will have to find a way to limit Manning's impact on the game. Here is what I think the Cowboys will need to do to beat the Colts.
1. Get off to a good start. Last week might have been a moral victory because the Cowboys refused to give up after quickly falling behind 17-0 against the Saints. Coming from behind is never easy and the Cowboys don't need to get in the habit of starting off slow.
2. Run the ball effectively. It looks like Marion Barber will be out with a calf injury so Tashard Choice should finally see the playing time he has been hoping for. And getting Choice on the field might help the running game considering how ineffective Barber has been all season. Felix Jones and Tashard Choice need to grind out first downs so the Cowboys can control the clock and keep Manning off the field.
3. Pressure Peyton Manning. The struggles that Manning has had over the last few games have primarily been due to pass rushers getting in his face early and often. Just like last week Anthony Spencer could be the difference maker in the game if he can finally break out of his season long slump.
4. Don't turn the ball over. It is cliche to say it but just look back to last week for evidence of what happens when you turn the ball over. Jon Kitna's early interception put the Cowboys in a hole that they had to spend nearly the entire game digging out of. And do I really need to mention how costly Roy Williams' fumble was?
5. Keep Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis away from Kitna. Part of this can be accomplished by keeping the defense honest with an effective run game. But Doug Free and Marc Colombo need to be at the top of their game this week to neutralize the pass rush of Freeney and Mathis.
6. Exploit the Colts cover 2 defense. This should be a big game for Jason Witten since the middle of the field is usually open against the cover 2. Kitna needs to work the middle of the field to force the Colts' safeties to come closer to the line of scrimmage to help stop Witten. That would open up the offense by freeing up Dez Bryant or Miles Austin on a deep route.
7. Be patient and consistent on offense. The Colts will force the Cowboys to march down the field on short and intermediate length plays. The Cowboys need to avoid penalties and negative plays to move the ball. If the Cowboys can move the ball early the Colts will be forced to adjust their defensive game plan which, again, will open up the field for the big play.
8. Don't allow Manning to beat you on big plays. The Cowboys did a good job for the most part last week against Drew Brees by forcing him to keep his throws underneath. But they gave up a huge play late in the game which turned out to be the difference in the game. Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh need to be aggressive but smart against the pass. They can't let Reggie Wayne run free on the deep ball.
9. Stifle the Colts' running game. If the Cowboys can stuff the run early in the game the Indy offense will become one-dimensional. The Colts don't mind passing on every down if the run isn't working. If Ware and Spencer are free to get after Manning on every play they are sure to make some game changing plays during the game.
10. Make plays on special teams. The fumble that Reggie Bush gave up last week against the Saints was nearly the game winner for the Cowboys. The Cowboys need a big turnover or a big return at some point in the game to help out the offense.
If the Cowboys can achieve even half of these goals I believe they can win the game and actually win the game comfortably. I think Jason Garrett is just getting the momentum started and his resume will continue to grow with this game. I predict a 30-20 victory for the Cowboys.