Thursday, December 29, 2011

One Game to Decide the Season

This is it. The game we have been waiting all season to see. Win and the season will likely be viewed a success. Lose and the sky will be falling. One game to decide it all.

There is no way to predict how this game will play out. The easy thing to do is predict another shoot out just like the first game between the Cowboys and the Giants this season. But how often do two games in a row play out the same way? It just doesn't tend to happen that way.

The Cowboys defense just isn't very good. I have tried to justify their performances throughout the season in different ways. But the reality is that they just don't perform at a high level for long stretches of time. Sometimes they are dominant for a quarter or even a half. But at some point they always seem to go soft. And they never seem to be at their best in the critical moments of the game. So the defense is what concerns me the most heading into the Sunday night showdown.

Demarcus Ware has put up 18 sacks this season. But how many of those sacks have come in game defining moments? Sean Lee has had some big plays. But how many of those big plays have come when the team needed them the most? There just doesn't seem to be a player on the defense that steps up when the moment gets big. I don't think we can expect that to change Sunday night.

So that means that the offense and special teams have to be on top of their game. Tony Romo should be good to go coming back from his hand injury. The Cowboys can't afford many turnovers from their offense in the game. And Romo needs to lead his offense to touchdowns, not field goals. The funny thing heading into the game is that Romo is one of the last guys on the team I am worried about. He has been playing lights out for quite a while and he has stepped up in big games before despite what his critics would have you believe.

Felix Jones and Sammy Morris will be very important as well. The Cowboys don't need to get into another game where the last offense with the ball wins. They need to control the clock and the game with the running game. Felix Jones should be healthy for this one. Derrick Dockery starting for Montrae Holland is a bit of a concern but I don't think there will be a noticeable difference in the running game with Holland out.

Dwayne Harris showed a little spark in the return game last week. Maybe he can finally provide some juice to the kick return game. Dez Bryant will be used on punt returns a lot more this week since there is nothing to save him for at this point. I give the Cowboys a big edge in special teams if Dez Bryant is going to get a lot of work returning punts. Of course that means that the defense actually has to force a few punts for Dez to get his opportunities.

I really could see this game going either way. The Giants could get out to a quick start and then pound the Cowboys into submission with Brandon Jacobs. Or the Cowboys could get out to a quick start and control the clock with the running game. Or it could be another shootout. I could even see Eli Manning and Tony Romo both come out a little shaky and the scoring stay down. Both teams have been so inconsistent this season it has been maddening to the fans of both the Giants and the Cowboys.

I'm going to pick with my heart. My head tells me to flip a coin. My heart tells me that Romo is playing the best football of his career and it is time for him to turn the corner and become respected as a big time quarterback. That means he needs a win Sunday night. I think the Cowboys will get the win. I'm picking the Cowboys to win the game 27-20. Of course, it will come down to the last minute. You can bank on that based on the way the season has gone.

Monday, December 26, 2011

It All Comes Down to This

There were about 15 minutes on Saturday when I thought the season was over. Romo was in the locker room getting his right hand x-rayed and it didn't look good. Watching Stephen McGee operate ineffectively made it painfully obvious that the Cowboys can't beat anyone without Romo.

So when the news came that Romo is ok I was all for sitting him out and giving up the Philadelphia game. There was next to nothing to be gained. Felix Jones was pulled around the same time as the news came that the Giants had defeated the Jets eliminating any chance that the NFC East crown could be sewn up early.

We could sit here and try to analyze the outcome of the Eagle game but I don't know what can be gained. Not having a legitimate offense puts extra pressure on the defense. But the defense only gave up 20 points. On the other side of the coin, the Eagles had a 20 point lead and no real reason to try to extend that lead. It was essentially a preseason game in week 16...weird.

In a season that so many of the Cowboys games have come down to the last few minutes it seems fitting that their playoff life will be determined at the last possible moment. It is entirely possible that with 2 minutes to go on Sunday night we still won't know if the Cowboys will make the playoffs. And, if the game a few weeks ago against the Giants is any indication, it might be a very stressful evening for fans of both teams.

The best news out of the game against the Eagles was that Tony Romo is ok. He should be good to go on Sunday night. And that gives the Cowboys a fighting chance in the winner take all matchup.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cowboys Need a Better Start This Time Around

When the Cowboys and Eagles played earlier this season the game got out of hand very quickly. And that basically took the offense out of their game plan. The defense was scrambling to adjust to the onslaught of the Eagle offense. And by the time things settled down the game was long gone.

Their were obviously some tactical errors in Rob Ryan's game plan defensively. He left the middle of the field exposed and the Eagles attacked the middle with ease. LeSean McCoy ran wild all game long. And what is scary is that I'm not sure that the defense is any better now than they were in that game. But I am sure that the game plan will be different this time around. Ryan was aggressive early in the game with blitzes but the Eagles called the perfect plays every time to burn the blitz and that made Ryan go into a conservative shell defense which the Eagles then shredded to pieces. I expect a better mix from Ryan this time around.

The most important thing to help the Cowboys this time around will be a good start by the offense. Last time they got out of the gate slowly and Martellus Bennett tipped up a well thrown ball by Romo right to the defense for an interception. And by the time the game settled down the Cowboys were so far behind that running the ball was out of the question. The Cowboys will need long, methodical drives in this game to control the ball and the time of possession.

The defense isn't good enough to have to defend Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy over and over and over. The offense can limit the opportunities that any of those players get by keeping the ball away from them. That means that the Cowboys need to be able to run the ball and convert third downs.

I really hope that the Cowboys are being honest when they say that they are just being conservative with Felix Jones and his tight hamstring. Sammy Morris looked good last week but I wouldn't want the Cowboys to depend on him for 20+ carries. Felix Jones needs to be the primary ball carrier because he is more explosive and he is in far better football shape than Morris.

This game can go one of two ways. It is either going to seem like a playoff game if the Giants lose or it will almost be meaningless if the Giants win (unless Atlanta loses out but the have Tampa Bay in their final game). The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a Giants loss and a win on Saturday. It would be awfully nice for some of the banged up players to get some rest in the final game of the week with a playoff game clinched. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the Giants will find a way to beat the Jets and make the season finale essentially a playoff game.

I have no idea what to expect going into this game. I am sure that the Eagles aren't going to steamroll the Cowboys like they did the last time. But I don't see the Cowboys blowing out the Eagles either. I think the game will come down to the fourth quarter as usual. The good news there is the the Eagles have been a horrible 4th quarter team this year in close games. I'm not saying the Cowboys have been great in the 4th quarter but they have certainly been better than the Eagles.

It is hard to predict a score for this game without knowing what happens in the Giants-Jets game earlier on Saturday. But I am going to assume that the Cowboys will be playing everyone for the entire game. I think it will be tight but I think the Cowboys will find a way to get it done. I'm picking the Cowboys to win 27-25. Whether that win actually means anything will be the bigger story.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Step One Complete

The Cowboys completely dominated on Saturday night. Looking at the final score, 31-15, it doesn't look like complete domination. But if you watched the game it was easy to see how much better the Cowboys were than the Bucs.

If the Cowboys hadn't taken the pedal off the gas in the second half they could have easily put another 10-14 points on the board. But after an early strip sack returned for a touchdown by the Bucs in the second half Jason Garrett went a little conservative. But it was the smart move. Winning by 30 points doesn't get you anything extra.

And some might point to the way the Bucs moved the ball in the second half as a sign that the defense went soft again. First of all, Demarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff sat out the entire second half. Take away two pro bowl caliber players from any defense and there will be a drop off. Secondly, most of Josh Freeman's completions were underneath the coverage because the Cowboys were forcing the Bucs to use a lot of clock to get the ball down the field.

What was even more impressive than the play of the defense was the performance of Tony Romo. He is playing the best football of his career. It is too bad that the Cowboys lost in the final minutes to the Cardinals and the Giants because there would be more recognition nationally for just how great Romo is playing. Romo played so good in the first half with three passing TD's and one rushing TD that he didn't need to do much in the second half but manage the game. The blowout score prevented him from having a career game.

The trio of wide receivers for the Cowboys are making the offense very dangerous. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Laurent Robinson all have the ability to make big plays and they are forcing the defenses to stop over-committing to the run. And Jason Witten is finally starting to find a little room to work again.

Felix Jones played pretty well for the second straight game. He was tough between the tackles and was explosive when big play opportunities presented themselves. I just hope he can stay healthy because the more touches he gets the more concerned I become. If he can keep running like he is then the running game will be ok. Especially if Sammy Morris runs with power for the rest of the year like he did against Tampa Bay. Morris might be a good short yardage back for the offense with the power he showed in this game.

It isn't all roses for the Cowboys coming out of this game. It is still worries me that the pass rush seems to disappear whenever Demarcus Ware is out of the game. Ware's health seems like a big concern heading down the stretch. Anthony Spencer and the rest of the pass rushers need to make a bigger impact over the next two games. Sean Lee missed several tackles in the game and it is obvious that he needs to get full use of his left hand to be at his best.

The loss the Giants suffered to the Redskins this week was helpful but doesn't change much if they can beat the Jets next week. But there is at least a chance now that the Cowboys could clinch the NFC East next week with a win over the Eagles and a Giants loss to the Jets. It just feels like that would be too easy. My gut tells me that this season will come down to the final game of the year. The luxury the Cowboys have now is that they can lose to the Eagles and still come away with the NFC East title with a win in the final game.

The great thing about the schedule next week is that the Giants and Jets play in the early slate of games. The Cowboys have a 3:15 CDT kickoff so they will have a good idea at kickoff if the are playing for the NFC East title. I'd love to see the Cowboys clinch next week but things just don't usually play out so nicely for the Cowboys. Either way, bring on the Eagles!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It Is Do or Die Time

I think most of us have come to the realization that the Dallas Cowboys are most likely not destined for the Super Bowl this season. That doesn't make this season a failure. But it would be hard to imagine not viewing the season as a failure after the Cowboys held a two game lead in the division just two weeks ago and seemed to be a lock for the NFC East title.

But a funny thing happened along the way. The team performed with a two game lead just like they have in the 4th quarter of too many games this season. They found a way to screw it up. And it happened so quickly it left everyone wondering what happened. But, just like in the games they lost, there is still time to salvage a playoff spot.

If that is going to happen then the game against Tampa Bay has got to be a win. The Cowboys need to not only win but they need to make a statement. I know it is hard to make a statement in a game that should be an easy win. But a great performance could start the ball rolling in the right direction again for this team.

The Bucs are a mess. They are in an awful downward spiral very similar to what happened with the Cowboys right before Wade Phillips was fired last year. Sure, they will come out fired up for a big game against the Cowboys. But they are also only a few early scores away from quitting completely.

And so a quick start is what they Cowboys will need this week. They can't mess around with taking this game down to the last minute. The Cowboys have no more margin for error on the season. They need three straight wins and this should be the easiest of the three.

I'm not going to spend too much time breaking down who needs to do what in this game. We all know it at this point. Felix Jones needs to play this week like he did last week minus the fumble. Tony Romo needs to continue to play excellent football. And, for the love of God, the defense needs to pull their heads out of their rear ends.

Rob Ryan has promised that many of the communication issues that have plagued the defense have been fixed. I find that hard to believe. If it were so easy why wasn't it fixed months ago? I don't want to hear any excuses from anyone on the defense. They all need to play better. Line up and beat the man across from you. Scheme plays a part in the outcome but there haven't been many guys winning their one-on-one matchups lately.

I think the Cowboys will come out very motivated this week. I think the team will have a chip on their shoulder after the way things went down last week. I expect to see a blowout victory that is clinched in the third quarter. I like nothing more than to see a healthy dose of Sammy Morris and Stephen McGee in the 4th quarter. I'm picking the Cowboys to win 35-20 and it won't be as close as that score sounds. And Jason Witten is dues for a big game. Don't be surprised if he has 10+ catches in this one.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Another 4th Quarter Collapse

I was at the game last night. It was probably the most exciting game I have ever attended. And I have never walked out of a game as angry as I was last night.

I'm not going to blame Tony Romo. All he did was put up 321 yards, 4 touchdowns, and lead his team to a 12 point lead late in the 4th quarter. Miles Austin says he lost the deep ball late in the game in the lights and I'm going to take him at his word. A completion there might have sealed the win but the Cowboys missed it.

I blame the defense. Rob Ryan's crew was flat out awful pretty much from start to finish. It has become painfully obvious that the defense can't run the scheme that Ryan has tried to bring to Dallas. The pre-snap adjustments that are required with Ryan's defense are just too much for the players to handle. It is amazing how often the secondary completely misses assignments. The pass to Mario Manningham that went for a touchdown was a perfect example of that. No one even thought about covering him.

Demarcus Ware really blew it in the game too. The only game I've seen him play that was as bad as this one was last year against Jacksonville. His offsides penalties couldn't have come at a worse time. And he didn't get to Eli Manning all game long and he made no impact, except in a bad way, as the Giants completed their furious comeback.

Terence Newman. Need I say more? He dropped a pick six early in the game. And he appeared to give up on the deep ball that Mario Manningham dropped in the endzone at the end of the game. And Newman was getting burned all game long. He was terrible in this game.

What really hurts coming out of that game besides the huge loss is the fact that so many players were hurt in the game. Phil Costa left the game with a concussion and is questionable for the Bucs game this week. Mike Jenkins is hurt again. Barry Church has a separated shoulder and is probably out this week. Jay Ratliff is hurt. And, the biggest injury of all, DeMarco Murray is out for the season with a broken ankle.

After Romo and Miles Austin made a phenomenal effort to get the Cowboys in position for a game tying field goal the field goal team let the Cowboys down again. It looked like Dan Bailey's kick was headed in the right direction but it was blocked so early that we'll never know if it would have gone in. It doesn't really matter. All that matters is the field goal unit broke down at the worst possible time for the second week in a row. I have lost all faith in the coaching of Joe Decamillis.

I know technically that the Cowboys still control their own fate. Win three straight and they win the NFC East and make the playoffs. But nothing I saw from the defense last night leads me to believe this team deserves a spot in the playoffs. I expect and one and done if the Cowboys do miraculously bounce back from the loss and win out. I realized about 6 or 7 weeks ago that this team was very mediocre. It is a shame because the offense did everything they could to win the game. But you aren't going to win many games when your defense gives up 37 points and over 500 yards of offense.

I'm still hopeful that the Cowboys can pull it together but I have exactly zero faith that it will happen. We just have to hope that this team gets it together like the Cowboys did at the end of the 2009 season and wins out.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Feels Like a Must Win Game

This is it. Finally a big time game to get excited about. The Cowboys head into the game with the NFC East lead but for some reason I get the feeling they need to win this one or the season will end without a playoff appearance.

I know the Giants have lost 4 straight. But they come into the game with a lot of confidence after going toe to toe with the defending Super Bowl champions last week and nearly coming away with a win. Eli Manning is on fire. And the defensive line can be scary good when they are motivated. They will be this week.

I don't want to make it sound like the Cowboys can't win this week. They can and I think they will. But the running game is going to have to be great this week so the Cowboys can keep control of the ball and keep this game from turning into a shootout. Thankfully Tony Fiammetta will be back at fullback after missing the last few games with an inner ear infection. Hopefully his presence will get the running game back on track.

And, just as importantly, Miles Austin will finally be back on the field for the offense. It was painfully obvious last week that the Cowboys missed his speed on the outside last week as the Cardinals put 8 men in the box and dared Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson to beat them deep. They couldn't and they allowed the Cardinals to shut down the running game of the Cowboys all game long. With Austin back the offense gets a deep threat that helps prevent the defense from selling out against the run.

My biggest concern heading into the game is whether the defense can contain the explosive passing game of the Giants. Eli Manning has been playing very good football this season. As usual with a hot quarterback the key is getting pressure in his face. Eli is similar to Tony Romo in that most of his errors happen when there is pressure right in his face. He'll make a few bad passes every game that can be picked off if he is under pressure. Rob Ryan needs to attack and stay aggressive all game long. I'm tired of seeing the three man rush show up in critical situations. The defense needs to dictate the pace of the game to the offense. That means they need to be attacking.

Sean Lee having use of his hand is going to make a big difference. He probably isn't going to be back to picking off passes with a partial cast on his wrist, but at least he'll be able to wrap up with two hands when he tackles. The Cowboys can't afford to let the Giants have success running the ball because they'll have enough trouble stopping the pass without worrying about the run. The defensive line needs to control the line of scrimmage so we don't have to see Brandon Jacobs steamrolling anyone. I don't want to have to watch that idiot running his mouth. If they keep him moving sideways he becomes a terrible running back. That can only happen if the Cowboys are winning at the point of attack.

The secondary needs to have a good game covering Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Jake Ballard and Mario Manningham. But I think they can only be successful if Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Demarcus Ware are keeping Eli Manning from getting comfortable in the pocket. I don't think the Cowboys can win if they are planning to sit back and let Eli Manning survey the field.

Dez Bryant on punt returns could be the X-factor in the game. Of course that can only be the case if there aren't yellow flags flying every time he returns the ball. Dez is a dangerous returner and the blockers need to be smart about avoiding penalties.

I'm fired up for this game. I'll be at the stadium doing my part to help the Cowboys win. A victory in this game would nearly wrap up the NFC East. A loss could spell doom for the season. The stakes are high. And that is what makes this game so exciting to think about. I'm picking the Cowboys to win the game 27-26.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Garrett Is To Blame For the Loss

Jason Garrett blew it. And I don't mean the timeout that he called with 7 seconds left. I mean the timeout he didn't call after Dez Bryant caught the pass for a first down at the 32 yard line with 25 seconds on the clock. He should have called timeout and tried to get another 10-20 yards to make the field goal attempt for his kicker easier.

Garrett claims that he was afraid of a negative play. Playing football afraid to make a mistake usually results in a loss. And Garrett's lack of trust in his offense cost the Cowboys their 5th straight victory.

I'm not saying Jason Garrett is a terrible coach and he needs to be fired. I know some people feel that way. And is was a mistake that shouldn't happen. But we have to hope that Jason Garrett learns from his mistake and plays that situation more aggressively in the future. He will be the coach in Dallas for a long time regardless of the one bad game he called against the Cardinals.

I saw a stat today that said that a field goal from that spot is basically a 50-50 proposition. If the Cowboys could have moved up 15 yards the percentage goes up over 80% that Bailey will make the kick. It was a horrible decision by Garrett no matter how he tries to explain it away.

Lost in the end of game disaster was the stellar 4th quarter play of Tony Romo. He did everything he needed to do to get his team the victory. Let's not forget that he was clutch yet again. And he threw for 299 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions on a day that the offensive line was terrible both pass blocking and run blocking. The line gave up 5 sacks but it could have easily been 8 or 9 had it not been for some Romo magic. And Romo got the Cowboys down the field in the 2 minute offense and gave his team a shot at a win.

Dan Bailey finally had a bad game. But it is hard to fault the kicker for missing a 53 yard field goal and a 49 yard field goal. I didn't understand why the Cowboys chose to kick a 53 yard field goal early in the game on 4th and 1 instead of being aggressive and going for the first down. That was another bad call by Garrett that got lost in the shuffle.

The defense went in the tank in the 2nd half for the second game in a row. I don't understand why Rob Ryan has so much success attacking early in games and then backs off. The three man rushes that he calls in two minute situations drive me crazy. Give any quarterback all day to throw and he'll eventually find an open receiver. I'd like to see aggressive defensive calls on a consistent basis.

I don't want to sound like I am giving up on the Cowboys. But they haven't done anything over the last five games to convince me of what I concluded after the game against the Eagles. Right now the Cowboys are a very average team. The offense is average. The defense is average. And special teams is average at best.

Next week is a make or break moment in the season. If the Cowboys lose at home to the Giants I feel like the season will unravel. But if the Cowboys can find a way to win they will likely end up with the division title. That doesn't mean we should expect much in the postseason. But at least they would be in the tournament which is a huge improvement over last season. I hope the Cowboys find a way to play at a much higher level next week. Another performance like this one next week will result in an embarrassing blow out loss.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Avoiding the Trap

I've already mentioned how this feels like a trap game for the Cowboys. So the key this week will be avoiding the pitfalls that usually result in losing a game like this one. The Cowboys are the better team. I think that is clear. But if they come out lackadaisical or sloppy they can easily lose to the Cardinals. The Cowboys are good enough to play a bad game and win.

So what do the Cowboys need to do to beat the Cardinals? I think the #1 priority needs to be to get out to a fast start. If the Cowboys can put 10 or 14 points on the board on their first few drives and keep the Cardinals off the scoreboard I think this game can be a cake walk. But the longer the Cowboys let the Cardinals hang around the more you can expect a tough battle that won't be won until late in the game.

Tony Romo needs to protect the ball. The Cowboys don't need a banner performance from Romo. It would be nice if he can hit a few big plays but the Cowboys can beat the Cardinals with a relatively conservative game plan if they don't give the Cardinals any easy points off of turnovers. DeMarco Murray will help the Cowboys control the time of possession and prevent 3 and outs. The Cowboys just need to protect the ball on offense.

Patrick Peterson needs to be a non-factor in the return game. Sounds simple enough but certain things have to take place to keep him out of the game. The offense needs to sustain drives. Even drives out to the Cowboys 40 or the 50 yard line allow McBriar to boom the ball inside the 10 yard line and prevent any returns. If the Cowboys do have to punt from deep in their own territory it is vitally important that McBriar gets good hang time and pins Peterson along the sidelines. Again, easier said than done but at least McBriar is getting healthy again.

The defense needs to keep pressure in Kevin Kolb's face. It looks like Kolb will start this game after missing the last few weeks with several injuries to his foot. Kolb doesn't worry me after what I have seen from him this season and against the Cowboys at the end of last season. If the Cowboys can pressure Kolb he will be inaccurate and he'll turn the ball over. The Cardinals have allowed the 3rd most sacks in the league so getting pressure shouldn't be a problem.

The run defense can't let Beanie Wells get going. He is the X-factor that can open everything up for the Cardinal offense. Larry Fitzgerald can be contained by pressuring Kolb but it will take a good performance by the linebackers and defensive line to make sure Wells doesn't force the defense to back off of pressuring the quarterback and focus on stopping the run.

The Cowboys need to play with passion and intensity. There is a good chance that the Cowboys will be playing for the NFC East title next week against the Giants if they can win this game. But they can't get ahead of themselves. I know Garrett has been preaching the one game at a time approach to the season and this is the type of game that will show us if the players have been listening.

I am very nervous heading into this game. The last two times the Cowboys have visited Arizona strange things have happened that have caused the Cowboys to lose. I think this game will be different but it won't be any easy win. I'm picking the Cowboys to win 29-20 but I think the game will be close heading into the 4th quarter.