November 20, 2017

Cowboys 24, Lions 20

The fourth and final game of wildcard weekend featured the Detroit Lions heading south to Dallas, Texas to take on the Cowboys.  The Cowboys started at their 20-yard line and had a quick three and out.  Punter Chris Jones hit a 41-yard punt that was downed at the Detroit 38-yard line.  On second and ten from the 49, quarterback Matt Stafford went deep for wide receiver Golden Tate and he hauled in the pass for a 51-yard touchdown.  Kicker Matt Prater made the point after and the Lions jumped out to an early 7-0 lead with 11:22 to go in the first quarter.

The Cowboys managed to get a first down on their next possession, but the drive came to a halt when quarterback Tony Romo couldn’t complete a pass on fourth and seven to wide receiver Cole Beasley.  Jones punted and the ball was downed at the Detroit one-yard line.  Three plays netted five yards and the Lions were forced to punt.  Punter Sam Martin’s punt went out of bounds at the Detroit 44-yard line.  Wait a minute.  There’s a flag on the play.  The Cowboys were flagged for running into the kicker and that gave the Lions a first down at the 12-yard line.  A short pass to Tate and a scramble by Stafford netted a first down at the 23-yard line.  An 11-yard carry by running back Joique Bell, a nine-yard pass to wide receiver Calvin Johnson and an 18-yard pass to Bell moved the Lions into Dallas territory.  Two more carries by Bell put them at the 18.  From the 18, running back Reggie Bush ran up the left side for a touchdown to cap a 99-yard drive.  Prater made the point after and the Lions were up 14-0 with two minutes to go in the first quarter.

The Cowboys still couldn’t get the ball rolling and ended up punting again.  As a matter of fact, there was a lot of punting going on until the 2:15 mark.  That’s when the Cowboys finally got on the board.  On third and 12 from the 24, Romo let one fly and the pass was caught for a 76-yard touchdown by wide receiver Terrance Williams.  Kicker Dan Bailey made the point after and the Lions led 14-7 with 1:37 to go in the first half.

The Lions started at their 20 and two passes to running back Theo Riddick gained 20 yards.  From the 40, Stafford completed a 19-yard pass to Johnson.  That was followed by an incomplete pass and a five-yard pass to wide receiver Corey Fuller.  That set up a third and five from the Dallas 36.  Stafford completed a pass to Tate that was ruled short of the first down marker.  But replay showed that the yardage gained was good enough for a first down.  Stafford completed a nine-yard pass to Bush as time was running short.  With three seconds to go in the half, Prater made his 39-yard field goal attempt and the Lions led 17-7 at halftime.

Things got off to a great start for the Cowboys in the second half.  Stafford looked for Tate over the middle and the pass was picked off by linebacker Kyle Wilber.  That gave the Cowboys the ball at the Detroit 19-yard line.  But on third and one from the ten, Romo was sacked for a loss of 13 yards by defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.  Well, Bailey is a good kicker.  He shouldn’t have much trouble with a 41-yard field goal.  Wrong.  The kick sailed wide right and the Cowboys failed to cash in on a golden opportunity.

The Lions took over at their 31 and on second and six, Stafford found tight end Brandon Pettigrew for a gain of 11 yards.  After a short carry by Bush, Stafford looked for Johnson again and found him for a gain of 28 yards and a first down at the Dallas 26-yard line.  But the drive would stall at the 19-yard line.  Prater came on again and his 37-yard field goal attempt was good.  That gave the Lions a 20-7 lead with 8:41 to go in the third quarter.

The Cowboys took over at their 20 and moved the ball with running back DeMarco Murray.  Murray had three carries and a seven-yard reception.  That gave them a first down at the 50-yard line.  On third and ten from the 50, Romo threw a short pass to his left that was caught by wide receiver Dez Bryant.  Bryant turned on the speed and weaved his way through several defenders.  He was finally dragged down at the seven-yard line.  Murray took it the rest of the way on the next play, but the play was called back due to a holding penalty on the Cowboys.  From the 17, Romo found Beasley across the middle for a gain of 15 yards.  From the two, Romo completed a short pass to tight end Jason Witten, but he was stopped short of the end zone.  On third and goal from the one, Murray ran up the middle and was stuffed for no gain.  That brought up a crucial fourth and goal from the one.  The Cowboys decided to go for it and Murray ran off left tackle for a touchdown.  Bailey made the point after and the Lions lead was now 20-14 with 2:54 to go in the third quarter.

The Lions had a quick three and out on their next possession and the Cowboys took over at their 31.  They quickly moved to mid-field as Romo found Beasley for a gain of 19 yards.  Murray ran for five more yards and on second and five from the Detroit 45, Romo completed another pass to Beasley.  This one was good for 12 yards.  Then another flag was thrown.  Unnecessary roughness was called on the Lions and the Cowboys now had a first down at the 18.  That’s when the Lion defense stepped up.  Murray was stuffed for no gain and Romo was sacked on back to back plays.  That was meant it was time for Bailey to try another field goal.  His 51-yard attempt was good and the Lions led 20-17 with 12:16 to go in the game.

The Lions got the ball back at their five-yard line.  On second and 12 from the three, Stafford completed a 21-yard pass to Fuller for a first down at the 24.  A short run by Bush and a 19-yard pass to Johnson moved the Lions to the Dallas 45-yard line.  From the 45, Bush ran for a gain of four yards.  Bell got the call on the next play and ran for five yards.  That made it third and one from the 46.  Instead of running it again, Stafford threw to the left side for Pettigrew.  The pass was incomplete due to the fact that Pettigrew was interfered with by linebacker Anthony Hitchens.  The flags flew and it looked like the Lions would have another first down.  All of a sudden, the flag was picked up and the zebras reversed the call.  You’ve GOT to be kidding.  Actually, when it comes to the NFL, hardly anything I see the zebras do shocks me.  Still, that was definitely pass interference.  That made it fourth and one from the 46.  All the Lions needed to do was get one yard to keep the drive alive.  Instead, Stafford tried to draw the Cowboys offside.  In other words, he didn’t snap the ball and took a delay of game penalty.  Lions, you baffle me.  You really do.  To make things really incredible, Martin shanked the punt.  It went TEN freaking yards.

Starting at the 41, the Cowboys went to work.  A 13-yard pass to Murray got them into Detroit territory.  That was followed by a few short runs by Murray and Romo completed a 21-yard pass to Witten on fourth and six.  The pass to Witten gave the Cowboys a first down at the 21.  A defensive holding on the Lions netted another first down at the 16.  The next two plays gained three yards and on third and seven, Romo completed a short pass to running back Lance Dunbar, but he was thrown for a loss of two yards.  Wait a minute.  There’s another flag on the ground.  This time, it was defensive holding on linebacker DeAndre Levy.  That gave the Cowboys a first down at the eight-yard line.  An incomplete pass on first down was followed by a five-yard run by Murray.  That moved the ball to the three-yard line.  A false start on the Cowboys moved them back to the eight.  From the eight, Romo took the snap, had time and fired a pass across the middle that was caught by Williams for a touchdown.  Bailey made the point after and the Cowboys led 24-20 with 2:32 to go in the game.

The Lions took over at their 20 and on second and four, Stafford was sacked by defensive end Anthony Spencer.  The ball came loose and it was recovered by defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.  All he had to do was fall on it and that would pretty much seal a win for the Cowboys.  Instead, he tried to advance it and the ball was loose once again.  It was recovered by offensive tackle Riley Reiff and the Lions retained possession at their 23-yard line.  With two minutes to go, Stafford spread the ball around to three different receivers and moved into Dallas territory.  On fourth and three from the Dallas 42, Stafford was sacked for a loss of nine.  The ball came loose again and Lawrence fell on it.  That was the nail in the coffin.  The Cowboys came from behind and won 24-20.

For the Lions, Matthew Stafford completed 28 of 42 for 323 yards, one touchdown and one interception.  Golden Tate led the team in receptions with six and receiving yards with 89.  On the ground, the Lions rushed for 90 yards on 22 carries.  Joique Bell was the leading rusher with 43 yards on 12 carries.  Defensively, linebacker James Ihedigbo led the team in solo tackles with seven.  Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh led the team in sacks with two.

For the Cowboys, Tony Romo completed 19 of 31 for 293 yards and two touchdowns.  Jason Witten led the team in receptions with five and Terrance Williams had the most receiving yards with 92 and two touchdowns.  DeMarco Murray carried the ball 19 times for 75 yards and a touchdown.  The only other player with any rushing stats is Romo.  He had two carries for minus two yards.  Defensively, safety J.J. Wilcox led the team in solo tackles with seven.

Up next for the Cowboys is a trip to Green Bay to take on the Packers.  That game will be on Sunday at 1:05 eastern time.

 

Cowboys 41, Bears 28: Thursday Night Badness

Offense. Defense. Special Teams. Coaching. Actuary.  You name the category and the Dallas Cowboys were better in it than the Chicago Bears on Thursday night, as the Bears fell 41-28 at Chicago’s frigid Soldier Field.

Dallas dominated from kickoff to kneel-down in this one, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, making better adjustments, sticking with a solid game plan, (having a solid game plan) and performing better in all pertinent areas.

The Cowboys came in with a poor run defense and the Bears responded by running the ball just 15 times.

On the other side of the ball, Dallas entered with one of the league’s top running games and the Bears got gouged for 194 yards, including 179 on 32 carries for DeMarco Murray who routinely was provided with holes wider than the Eisenhower Expressway to run through.

The Bears made a superstar of a man named Cole Beasley.

The whole evening was ugly, sad, and, worst of all; typical of one of the most abrasive seasons in Chicago sports history.

This was the second straight Thursday nationally televised game for the Mopers of the Midway and once again an entire nation saw a Bears team that has talent but lacks focus, has ammunition but no fire, and possesses potential but no pass rush.

The Bears must be given some credit, though. They trailed 35-7 in the fourth quarter and even the most loyal Bears fans were either headed for the exits or flipping the channel to see just what particular brand of hot water Gilligan was getting into, but the Bears did not give up, putting up 21 points in the final frame to make the score at least look respectable when in fact the game was not.

Did a few of us think when Jay Cutler was throwing into the endzone with two minutes to play that the Bears might score and recover the onside kick and throw a bomb into the endzone and pull out a miracle of miracles? Yes, a few of us did. We’re hopeful, holiday people, so forgive us.

Cutler was intercepted.

The Bears did not surrender when the chips were down and all appeared lost and that’s a bit heartening. But there’s not much else to build on as we approach the season’s final three games starting with, mercilessly we must add, a third straight national game, on Monday, December 15 when they host the New Orleans Saints.

The Bears are 5-8 and their fans want blood. They want answers. They want Butkus, Sayers, Payton and McMahon.

The Christmas season is a time for remembering, certainly. It’s also a time for looking ahead. And hoping. And huddling against the winter cold and wondering if it’s all worth it. –TK

Lions 34, Bears 17: Hell With Extra Gravy and Thanks For Nothing

The Chicago Bears got off to a blazing start in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, we’re talking hotter than a rear-ended Pinto, and led 14-3 after the first quarter.

Then, the tryptophan kicked in, the Lions awoke and, in the end, the Bears looked like an Edsel with the tires slashed and lost 34-17 to fall to 5-7 and the playoffs now appear more remote, distant and delusional than ever.

The Bears knew running against the Lions would be difficult so they instead tried running from the running game, compiling just seven carries for a mere 14 yards. If you only run seven times you had better be able to throw well and the result there for Chicago was like sitting in an out-of-gas Gremlin during a snowstorm. You know, kinda cool, but ultimately very cold and pointless.

Unless you’re with a girl or have a bunch of brownies.

Neither of these were the case for our beloved Bears as Jay Cutler hoisted it an eye-popping 48 times with 31 completions, two touchdowns and two interceptions and a lot of vexation.

Was the Bears defense any better? Other than a Jared Allen strip sack of Matthew Stafford in the first quarter that set up the Bears’ second touchdown, no.

We’re saddened to be at 5-7 but not terribly surprised, at least not anymore. And, we wish we could go and hide, or at least stay out of the spotlight for a bit. The tough thing is another Thursday night awaits, and it’s bringing Cowboys with it.

The Bears don’t do well in the bright lights of primetime. Lately, the Bears don’t do well under the glow of a flashlight in a tent in the backyard with your friend Timmy, a six pack of Orange Crush and the ladies underwear section of an old Sears catalog.

The Cowboys lost on Thanksgiving, too. It’s a pity. If Dallas and Chicago had both won then this Thursday’s contest would have been a tense, chilly showdown of playoff aspirants. Instead, the Cowboys still have, at 8-4, a solid chance at playing in January but the Bears, unless some impossible math and acrobatics occur, can only be spoilers.

Sometimes the best thing for a bad mood is to spread it. The Bears will try. A win over the Cowboys would be an early Christmas gift. It would be nice because we’ll be home in January and probably next Thanksgiving, too. –TK

Leatherheads Midseason Awards

We are halfway through the 2014 NFL season and there have been surprises, disappointments, slumps, sacks, breakaways and meltdowns.

And so far we’re only talking about Jon Gruden.

We kid because we care. According to the Bible of Gruden every player in the NFL is the greatest player/person/life form ever, at least at some particular moment and we applaud such positivity because if football is about nothing else shouldn’t it be about love, appreciation and the Raiderettes?

Mr. Gruden was unable to join us for our midseason awards banquet but we Leatherheads still managed.

Midseason MVP: Peyton Manning

Manning is the runaway unanimous choice among all Leatherheads who took part in this report card. Joe Williams issues apologies to Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck noting that Manning is still the best player in the game and that’s difficult to protest. Manning is tied for first with Luck with an NFL-best 22 touchdown passes but has been intercepted just three times, whereas Luck has gotten picked nine times. Peyton’s QB rating of 119.0 leaves Luck, Rodgers, Philip Rivers and everyone else in the dust.

Manning is also leading what is probably the best team in the NFL. The Denver Broncos are 6-1 with their lone defeat coming in overtime to the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. If Peyton Manning stays healthy he seems likely to win his (gulp) sixth NFL MVP. No one else has ever won more than three.

We have to take a brief timeout here, however, to point out that Manning is now playing in an era when quarterbacks are like pinball players. They are allowed to just sit there and bang those flippers, racking up the stats and the points. Yes, #18 still does it as well if not better than anyone but we can only wonder what great QBs of yesteryear would have accomplished in today’s increasingly hands-off-the-star NFL.

And another thing, Peyton will not be considered the greatest quarterback ever until he wins another Super Bowl. That’s not fair, maybe. But it’s true. But for now, he must be satisfied with the official Mike Lynch Statue for winning the Leatherheads half-season MVP. I hope someone ordered that statue.

Midseason Offensive Player of the Year: DeMarco Murray

Some Leatherheads chose Manning for this and that’s perfectly logical. If a guy plays offense and is the league MVP then shouldn’t he automatically be the Offensive Player of the Year as well? After some discussion and a few cocktails our official answer is “no.” Manning is the most valuable because he’s awesome and has the unfair advantage over Murray of playing the most important position. But DeMarco Murray deserves the Offensive accolade for several reasons.

Murray, the fourth year Dallas Cowboys running back, leads the NFL in carries with 206. That’s 60 more than his next closest competitor, Arian Foster. Murray also tops the NFL in rushing yards with 1,054, easily outdistancing Foster by nearly 300 yards.   And Murray is not just a bull who bashes his way to real estate. He’s averaging 5.1 yards a carry. That’s fantastic.

Murray is also tied with Foster for the NFL lead with seven rushing scores and has caught 26 passes for a nearly nine-yard average. All this and his Cowboys are making Jerry Jones look young again without surgical help as Dallas is 6-2 and in great position to make its first playoff appearance since 2009.

Our concern is that DeMarco may not be alive and well come playoff time. He’s on pace to carry the ball more than 400 times and, come January, could be moving slower than lava but with implications just as critical.

Midseason Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt

Another unanimous choice. Mr. Watt, the Houston Texans defensive end, is so good some might say he deserves consideration for league MVP. Perhaps. Just as with DeMarco Murray, Watt pays the price for not being a quarterback which is a shame (whoops! We almost wrote “sham”) because he’s probably the best overall player in the league.

Watt has seven sacks which puts him significantly behind league-leader Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs who has ten. But sacks are like Mariah Carey songs. They’re fun and make the person who sings them a lot of money but they’re not really music, and not really the best barometer of a great defensive player. If a guy gets one sack a game he’s anointed a star. But what does he do the rest of the game? Watt does a lot.

J.J. has eight pass deflections, tied with Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata for most among defensive lineman.  Every other guy in the top ten is a defensive back.

Watt has 22 solo tackles, tied for fourth among NFL defensive linemen. He has one forced fumble and one interception; which he returned 80 yards for a touchdown against Buffalo. Watt also recovered a fumble and rambled 45 yards for a score against the Colts. Justin James Watt has also caught one pass this year, yes on offense, for a TD. This dude has three touchdowns. And he plays defense. And he does all this on a team that’s 4-4 and alive and ponderous in the playoff race. (And, as Joe Williams observes, J.J. is also a “decent dancer.”)

Midseason Rookie of the Year: Sammy Watkins

We’re impressed with several first years including Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, Arizona Cardinals receiver John Brown and Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack. But in the end, it’s Sammy.

Watkins, the first year wideout for the Buffalos Bills, is described by our Joe Williams as “pure talent” and the numbers back that up. Watkins has 590 yards receiving, which is tops among rookies, and he is also tied for the lead in the NFL’s freshman class with five TD catches including a last-second game winner against the Vikings on October 19.

Watkins is electric and should be a stud for years to come. The problem is he plays in Buffalo and the Bills are so awful and so off the radar that no matter how good Watkins is he’ll never…oh dear. Wait a second. The Bills are 5-3, aren’t they? If Watkins and QB Kyle Orton (He’s alive! He’s good!) lead the Bills to their first playoff appearance since 1999 (who do they think they are, the Kansas City Royals?) then Sammy won’t just be Rookie of the Year, he’ll also never have to shovel his driveway again.

Biggest Midseason Surprise: Dallas Cowboys

It would have been a smooth and cool transition to go from raving about Sammy Watkins to christening his Bills as the league’s biggest surprise so far and that’s the vote from Leatherhead Joe Williams. But Leatherhead David Boyce says that honor is actually an ignominious one that belongs to the 4-3 Super Bowl champion Seahawks who are good but not looking at all like the juggernaut many thought they’d be.

Then there’s the offering of Leatherhead Daniel Durany who votes for the Cowboys and that selection is our winner. The Bills are a great story, so are the Cardinals but, as Joe Williams points, not really a surprising one as they were great in the second half of last year. We choose Dallas because the Cowboys are not only unexpectedly winning games but playing really well, if that makes sense. All the drama in Dallas is finally taking a backseat to really good, sound, fundamental football and the ‘Boys are playing it despite some big injuries.

Will Dallas continue to surprise in the second half? We have already voiced our concerns about DeMarco Murray’s durability and that drama that we don’t miss did return a bit in Monday’s loss to the Washington Redskins with questions about quarterback Tony Romo’s health both short and long term. And as long as Jerry Jones is there will Jason Garrett, or any coach, really get to do their own thing?

We knoweth not. But for the first eight games the 6-2 Dallas Cowboys are not just a pleasant surprise but the league’s biggest one.

Biggest Midseason Disappointment: Chicago Bears

This category is another contentious one. Joe Williams chooses the Seahawks. David Boyce votes for his beloved but 0-7 Oakland Raiders (will Jim Harbaugh cross the Bay and coach the Silver and Black next year? Or maybe travel with them to L.A.?) But Daniel Durany and the rest of us vote for, sigh, cigarette puff, sigh, head scratch, sigh, the Chicago Bears.

Oh it hurts. Maybe the Bears shouldn’t be considered a disappointment when remembering they were 8-8 last year. But most preseason prognosticators chose the Monsters of the Maddening to be a playoff team and some felt they could even have dreams of football in February. Instead, the Bears’ vaunted offense has been stuck in neutral, injuries are mounting for an already aged and bedraggled defense and the Bears are a very murky 3-5 with zero wins at home.

What in the Ditka has gone wrong in Chicago? Too much. The second half could see a turnaround but it’s going to be tougher than the Soldier Field turf to do so.

So, what are you thoughts about our midseason honors? Will they hold up? And what of the prediction of a certain Leatherhead back in August that we’d see a Cardinals-Chargers Super Bowl? It’s still crazy but maybe not as crazy as it sounded back then.

We’ll stand by that pick for now but won’t cry if we’re proven wrong. We hope the second half continues to see excellent football on the field and fewer distracting stories off the field. This has been a very challenging season for the league to put it mildly. Hopefully the NFL will continue pushing to make its service to the community as impactful as its product on Sundays.

Turkeys Can’t Tackle

Thanksgiving Day saw the Oakland Raiders travel to the great state of Texas to take on the Dallas Cowboys.  The Raiders were coming off a horrible 23-19 loss to the Tennessee Titans and the Cowboys were coming off a 24-21 win over the New York Giants.  Kicker Sebastian Janikowski booted the ball nine yards deep into the end zone and Dallas return man Terrance Williams ran it out.  When he reached the 23-yard line, he was hit and the ball came loose.  Rookie wide receiver Greg Jenkins alertly picked it up and returned it for a Raider touchdown.  The play was reviewed and the call was upheld.  Janikowski made the point after and just like that, the Raiders had a 7-0 lead with 14:48 to go in the first quarter.

That play was followed by two punts from the Raiders and three from the Cowboys.  Both defenses were playing very well.  With a little under a minute to go in the first quarter, Dallas punter Chris Jones sent a punt high in the air that was fair caught at the Oakland six-yard line by Jenkins.  I was hoping he would let it go through the end zone, but that wasn’t the case.  So, on first down from the six, quarterback Matt McGloin fumbled the snap.  It bounced to the right and rolled to the left.  Running back Rashad Jennings tried to pick it up and run with it, but the ball bounced off his hands and was recovered by defensive end Kyle Wilber at the Oakland two-yard line.  That great field position was taken advantage of on the first play as running back DeMarco Murray ran off left tackle for a two-yard touchdown.  Kicker Dan Bailey made the point after and the score was now knotted at seven with 43 seconds to go in the first quarter.

The Raiders got the ball back at their 21 and on third and seven, McGloin completed a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Rod Streater for a first down at the 44.  A short run by running back Darren McFadden and a completion to tight end Mychal Rivera moved the Raiders down to the Dallas 29.  Two more plays gained one yard and on third and nine from the 28, McGloin hooked up with rookie wide receiver Andre Holmes for a gain of 20.  A false start moved them back five yards, and on first down from the 13, Jennings was thrown for a loss of three.  On second and goal from the 16, McGloin completed another pass to Holmes for a touchdown.  But the ruling was reversed because he did not break the plane.  That put them on the one-yard line and Jennings took it in from there for a touchdown.  Janikowksi made the point after and the Raiders led 14-7 with 10:13 to go in the second quarter.

The Raider defense continued to play well and quarterback Tony Romo threw three straight incomplete passes.  Jones punted and Jenkins fielded the punt at the Oakland 36.  He returned it 14 yards to set the Raiders up with good field position at the 50.  On first down, Jennings took a direct snap out of the wildcat formation and was stopped for no gain.  McGloin found Jennings up the left side for a gain of 16, but that play was brought back due to offsetting penalties.  A short run by McFadden and a completion to Rivera gave the Raiders a first down at the 40.  Three straight runs by Jennings moved them down to the 22.  From the 22, McGloin hooked up with Holmes again for a gain of 11 and a first down at the 11.  Two short runs by Jennings and a seven-yard pass to wide receiver Jacoby Ford gave them a first and goal at the one-yard line.  Jennings got the call on first down and took it into the end zone.  Janikowski made the point after and the Raiders led 21-7 with 1:56 to go in the first half.

Surely they could stop Romo and the Cowboys again, right?  No problem.  The defense had been playing very well throughout the half and I saw no reason why they couldn’t take a 21-7 lead into the locker room.  Well, defensive coordinator Jason Tarver had other ideas.  The pressure from the defense was nonexistent.  Romo had time to find his receivers and two passes to tight end Jason Witten and one to Murray moved them quickly from their 27 to the Oakland 32-yard line.  From the 32, Romo dumped a short pass to wide receiver Dez Bryant.  He was hit by cornerback Mike Jenkins and the ball came loose.  This was a golden opportunity for the Raiders to bring this drive to an end, but the ball was recovered by the Cowboys.  On third and seven from the 29, Romo found Bryant again for a gain of 25.  Two plays later, Murray took it into the end zone for a Cowboy touchdown.  Bailey made the point after and the Cowboys now trailed 21-14 at halftime.  It was truly amazing how they hadn’t been able to go anywhere throughout the first half and then they suddenly went 70 yards in under two minutes.  Gee, I wonder why that happened.  Actually, I know why it happened.  All the blitzing and pressure was gone.  The Raiders went soft and the Cowboys took full advantage of it.

Still, the Raiders were winning.  But I’m pretty sure the Cowboys made adjustments at halftime.  It looked like the Raiders devoured a couple of turkeys at halftime and didn’t make any adjustments.  Maybe Jerry Jones snuck a couple of turkeys into their locker room during the second quarter.  The Raiders got the ball first and aside from a 21-yard pass to Holmes, they went nowhere.  Also, guard Andre Gurode was flagged for his THIRD false start penalty.  Gurode, you USED to be a Cowboy.  You don’t play for them anymore.  I’d appreciate it if you’d wait for the ball to be snapped before you start moving.  Stop doing favors for your former team!

Punter Marquette King punted the ball away and the Cowboys took over at their 13.  On third and 13 from the ten, Romo avoided the pressure and completed a 14-yard pass to Williams.  Running back Lance Dunbar was brought into the game and on second and four from the 30, he broke off a 45-yard run right up the middle.  He was finally dragged down at the Oakland 25 by cornerback Phillip Adams.  A completion to Murray and another run by Dunbar had the Cowboys knocking at the door again.  A touchdown run by Murray was called back due to holding on the Cowboys.  But that didn’t seem to bother them too much and three plays later, Romo found Bryant in the end zone.  Bailey made the point after and the score was knotted at 21 with 5:11 to go in the third quarter.

The Raiders went three and out and punted again.  The Cowboys started at their 35 and on third and six from the 39, Romo dumped off a short pass to Witten.  Both linebacker Kevin Burnett and safety Brandian Ross were there to stop Witten short.  However, they could not bring him down.  Witten powered his way to the 42 for a first down.  A couple of runs by Dunbar and a seven-yard pass to Murray had the Cowboys in Oakland territory again.  Another run by Murray and an unnecessary roughness penalty on linebacker Sio Moore gave the Cowboys a first and goal at the seven-yard line.  From the seven, Murray took the ball up the right side and the gassed Raider defense let him score his third touchdown of the day.  Bailey made the point after and the Cowboys now led 28-21 with 14:20 to go in the game.

Both teams punted on their next possessions and the Raiders got the ball at their 44.  On first down, McGloin hit Holmes in stride for a nice 35-yard gain.  Then, he looked for fullback Marcel Reece across the middle and the pass was broken up and almost picked off.  On third and nine from the 20, McGloin made a costly mistake.  He threw a high pass for Ford in the corner of the end zone.  Ford is the shortest receiver on the team and although he does possess some good leaping ability, he was no match for cornerback Brandon Carr.  Carr picked the pass off in the end zone and that brought the drive to an end.  Standing in the middle of the end zone uncovered was Rivera.  How McGloin didn’t see him is beyond me.

The Cowboys took over at their 20 and proceeded to roll over the Raiders.  Dunbar and Murray grinded out some tough yards and the Raiders simply couldn’t stop them.  Granted, they had players in position to stop them, but they didn’t wrap them up.  A 14-yard pass to Murray and a short run by Dunbar netted a first down at the Oakland 27.  Several more carries by Murray set up a first and goal at the ten.  Murray ran off left tackle for three, Bryant caught a short pass and on third and goal from the three, Murray ran up the middle looking for his fourth touchdown of the day.  It wasn’t meant to be as he was stopped short by defensive tackle Vance Walker.  But that didn’t matter.  If Bailey made his 19-yard field goal attempt, the game was pretty much over and done with.  The kick was good and the Cowboys now led 31-21 with 1:56 to go in the game.  The Raiders managed to get a 45-yard field goal on their final possession, but the onside kick was recovered by the Cowboys.  Game over.  Final score: Cowboys 31 Raiders 24.  The loss dropped the Raiders to 4-8 and the Cowboys improved to 7-5.

For the Raiders, Matt McGloin completed 18 of 30 for 255 yards, no touchdowns and one very costly interception.  Andre Holmes had a great day and led the team in receptions with seven and yards with 136.  The normally effective running game was held in check by the Cowboys.  All totaled, the Raiders rushed for just 50 yards on 25 carries.  Jennings led the team with 35 yards on 17 carries and two short touchdown runs.  Defensively, Nick Roach led the Raiders in solo tackles with ten and had two sacks and one tackle for a loss.

For the Cowboys, Tony Romo completed 23 of 32 for 225 yards and one touchdown.  Dez Bryant led the team in receptions with seven and yards with 61 and a touchdown.  On the ground, Lance Dunbar led the way with 82 yards on 12 carries and DeMarco Murray added 63 yards on 17 carries and three touchdowns.  As a team, the Cowboys rushed for a total of 144 yards on 30 carries.  Defensively, safety Barry Church led the Cowboys in solo tackles with six.

Well, once again, the Raiders got off to a good start and blew a 14-point lead.  They just can’t seem to finish games.  It has become highly annoying.  If they had been able to win every close game they’ve been in, they’d be 9-3 instead of 4-8.  Up next is another trip across the country to play the New York Jets.  The Jets have not been putting many points on the board in recent weeks, so they’re due for a big game.  If the Raiders keep playing soft and don’t pressure the quarterback, the Jets just may come away with a win.  Until then, take it easy.

The Raider Guy

 

Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys

It certainly has been an interesting off-season for the Cowboys.  We have already discussed the coaching changes and wondered how those changes will affect the defense.  The Cowboys have done little to upgrade the defense but are counting on the injuries that ravaged the D last year not to happen again.  Not the best plan in the world but one that could bear fruit if it comes to fruition.  Franchising LB/DE Anthony Spencer looks to have been a mistake.  First you have the issue of having no idea how he will perform as a DE in a 4-3 defense.  Second, the Cowboys misread the market and grossly overpaid Spencer, even if it is for one year.  This may make signing Spencer to a long term deal problematic.  He has 10+ million guaranteed this season, seems unlikely to take less annually.

 

The offense however seems to be a revolving storyline.  First there was QB Tony Romo’s contract extension.  Yeah, he has $55 million coming to him in guaranteed money and could make as much as $108 million over the life of the contract.  Not sure where all the hatred is coming from.  Is he worth that contract?  No, of course not, but almost no quarterback is, but that is what the market will pay, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think anyone of a dozen other organizations would be watering at the mouth to sign Romo had the Cowboys let him play out his deal.  Plus, Romo had all the leverage, the Cowboys were up against the cap and needed to sign him to a long term deal in order to not only get under the cap, but sign a free agent or two.  Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones didn’t help matters any by stating that because of the amount of the contract that Romo will need to spend more time helping with the game plan.  Problem is Jones made it sound like Romo wasn’t studying enough, wasn’t helping the team enough before the contract.  Of course this isn’t true but the media ran with it, there looking for any story at this time of year and Jones should’ve known better.  Romo is a lightning rod for criticism and Jones pretty much served him up on a silver platter.  Would be nice if he just kept his mouth shut for once.

 

The other headache has been what to do with RT Doug Free.  Any way you slice it Free has been terrible the past two seasons.  Now maybe you can give him a pass because he switched from LT to RT but that should have helped him as theoretically he is facing a lesser player.  Didn’t really seem to work out that way last year as Free was pushed around like he was a blocking sled.  Just like Jones however, he didn’t want to admit he made a huge mistake when he signed Free to a four-year $32 million contract.  Listen, Jones can’t be criticized for that contract, Free once again had leverage, came off a good year, and played that into a good contract.  He just went belly up, that happens, time to move on.  Problem is they let the saga of whether to cut him or re-negotiate his contract go on for months.  This cost them any chance at signing an upgrade at RT.  Someone who won’t get Romo killed, and let’s face it, without a good OL, it doesn’t matter how potent your skill players are.  Free agreed to a cut his salary in half, that may save room against the cap, but it won’t protect Romo any better or open up holes in the running game.  They should have cut him and moved on to Tyson Clabo or Eric Winston, either one of which would be an upgrade and would’ve cost the same.

 

As for the draft.  Plenty of controversy there as well.  Everything went the wrong way for the Cowboys in the first round.  Every player they really wanted at #18 was taken before they were on the clock.  They decided to trade down, no shock, Jones loves to do this.  They passed up on taking DT Sharrif Floyd, someone who could’ve given them immediate help at DT.  Floyd was a consensus top 10 pick by most pundits and fell to #23 so Dallas was far from the only team that seemed to have their doubts.  The trade they made with San Francisco netted them an extra third-round pick.  Depending upon which chart you go by, Dallas probably didn’t get enough in return, and the trade looked even worse later when Minnesota gave up a boatload to get back into the first-round.  As for their picks, they chose to surround Romo with even more talent but probably needed to pick another OL to make sure he stays upright this season.  Here is a look at the Cowboys draft.

 

Round 1 (31)  C  Travis Frederick:  The worst kept secret was that Dallas would take an offensive lineman in the first round.  Frederick may have been a reach to be taken here, but he was the consensus top C in the draft.  Should be a day one starter.

 

Round 2 (47)  TE  Gavin Escobar:  Seems to be a luxury pick as Dallas already has a possible future Hall of Famer in Jason Witten and James Hanna also looked promising last season.  Dallas seems to want to copycat the New England offense and go with at two TE formation the majority of the time.

 

Round 3 (74)  WR Terrance Williams:  Could be a steal and if he can pick up the offense right away, yet another day one starter.  He will more than likely start on the outside, allowing Miles Austin to line up in the slot.

 

Round 3 (80)  S  J.J. Wilcox:  They do like to gamble on safeties in the middle of the draft.  Jury is still out on Matt Johnson who missed all of last season.  Wilcox is as raw as they come, but does have upside.  Best case scenario is he can watch and learn for most of this season.

 

Round 4 (114)  CB  B.W. Webb:  With this being a passing league you can never have enough cover corners and Webb looks like he could be a replacement for Orlando Scandrick at some point this year.

 

Round 5 (151)  RB  Joseph Randle:  Insurance in case DeMarco Murray gets hurt again.  Also a good back in his own right that could carve out some playing time for himself.

 

Round 6 (185)  OLB  Devonte Holloman:  Depth signing who could provide help on special teams.

 

The last bit of news would be the schedule.  Finally looks like Dallas received a favorable one and I’m not talking about who they play.  There really is no way to determine how good or bad a team will be until sometime in August.  The reason the schedule is good, they both open and close the season at home.  Critics love to point out that Dallas has lost make or break games in Week 17 in three of past four seasons, but what they don’t say is that all of those games came on the round (at Philadelphia, at Giants, at Washington).  So this is good news.  There bye week is also after Week 10.  Teams generally prefer a bye later in the season because this is when injuries build up.  They also only play two road games in a row, once, the bad news however is that they may have to play in three cold weather games, at Giants 11/24, at Chicago 12/9, and at Washington 12/22.  All in all not bad though.

 

 

Feel free to follow me on twitter, @georgeKurtz

 

Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys

I wasn’t really planning on writing another column about the Cowboys until after free agency had started in March and before the draft in April, but with all of the changes on the coaching staff in the last three weeks I just couldn’t wait to add in my two cents.

 

Really didn’t believe they needed to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.  Sure his defense hasn’t performed up to standards the last two seasons but you really can’t penalize someone when half of his starting unit was on IR before Week 8.  Think about the injuries Dallas had on defense.  Middle linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were both lost to toe and elbow injuries respectively. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff was never placed on IR but missed approximately half the season.  Free safety Barry Church missed just about all of the season with an Achilles tear.  Slot Cornerback Orlando Scandrick broke his hand forcing him on IR.  Defensive tackle Josh Brent was of course arrested for manslaughter in the deal of teammate Jerry Brown.  Even the best player on defense this season, linebacker Anthony Spencer, missed two games due to injury.  This doesn’t even take into account that future Hall of Fame linebacker DeMarcus Ware played all season with elbow and shoulder injuries that probably should have landed him on IR also.  I’m not getting on Jerry Jones for firing Ryan, but don’t place the blame at Ryan’s feet either.  Just one of those years where the injury bug reached up and took a big bite.

 

So who do the Cowboys hire to replace Ryan?  Monte Kiffin, 72 year old, Monte Kiffin.  Really don’t think this hiring makes much sense at all.  Kiffin runs a 4-3/Tampa 2 defense.  Dallas currently has a 3-4 defense.  Obvious problems exist.  Does Dallas have enough lineman to run a 4-3.  Answer, no.  How will Ware do lining up with his hand in the dirt, directly taking on a tackle?  His body is already breaking down.  This can’t be a good thing for him at this point in his career.  Does this mean that Spencer, who has had back to back big seasons, will be let go to free agency?  An even bigger question is how the secondary responds.  Tampa 2 is designed to have two ball hawking safeties play well off the line of scrimmage and take half the field  each.  The idea is to prevent the big play, force teams to dink and dunk.  Why you ask?  It’s hard to have 10+ play drives without making a mistake that short circuits the possession.  Sacks, penalties, or turnovers would theoretically get the ball back to the offense.  Once again the problem is the Cowboys don’t have the correct personnel to run this defense.  Everyone knows the safeties are subpar.  Have been since Darren Woodson retired.  The cornerbacks in this defense are also asked to play more zone than man.  This directly contradicts what Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne do best, play man to man defense.  Doesn’t make much sense when you just paid Carr a boatload of money and traded up in the 2012 draft to get Claiborne.  all of this may not matter if Dallas didn’t have other needs to fill on the team or if they had a ton of cap room, but Dallas also needs to address the offensive line in a big way, and they will be approximately $18-$20 million over the cap heading into free agency.  By the time Dallas is successful in the defense, Kiffin could easily be in his mid 70s.  Once again it looks like Jones wanted a name coach, wanted to make a splash instead of doing what was best for the team.

 

The good news about the hiring of Kiffin was that Dallas was able to hire Rod Marinelli to coach the defensive line.  Marinelli should instantly make the line better and could also take over the defense if/when Kiffin retires.

 

On offense Jerry Jones has basically neutered head coach Jason Garrett.  When Jones hired Garrett he stated that he wanted someone who would call their own plays, not wanting a stand around coach.  Well that didn’t work out now did it.  Although Garrett did seem to get better this season in that department it seemed pretty clear that he couldn’t call the plays and run a game at the same time, so those duties will now fall to offensive line coach Bill Callahan.  So let me get this straight.  Jones just gave a promotion to a coach, whose unit was the worst on the team.  So much for accountability.  Jones also forced the ouster of tight ends coach John Garrett, yeah, Jason’s brother.  To recap, he takes away the play calling responsibilities from his head coach, forces the head coaches brother to find employment elsewhere, changes the defense completely, and hires a coach (Marinelli) that could easily be the next head coach of the team.  You can write this in stone, Garrett is as good as gone if the Cowboys don’t win 10+ games or make the playoffs next season.

 

Special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is also no longer with the team, accepting a similar position with the Bears.  Running backs coach Skip Peete and kicking coach Chris Boniol are gone as well.  Didn’t kicker Dan Bailey just finish off the best two seasons any Cowboy kicker has ever had?  Oh well, maybe this is reverse accountability.  Do your job poorly, Marinelli, you get a promotion, do it well, Boniol, and you are let go.  This seems to be how things go in big D.

Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys

Happy New Year everyone.  It won’t be for the Dallas Cowboys as their loss to the Redskins on Sunday officially ended their season.  Certainly wasn’t the way the Cowboys wanted to go out.  Losing 28-18, allowing well over 200 yards rushing, more questionable decisions from Jason Garrett, and three more interceptions by QB Tony Romo.

 

We’ll start with Romo and beat the dead horse.  Romo had a terrible game, no ifs ands or buts about it.  All three of those picks seem to be on him.  Sure WR Kevin Ogletree might not have run as hard as Romo expected on the first pick and WR Miles Austin once again let a cornerback win a jump ball, but both throw were pretty horrible.  It might be nice if Cowboy receivers could break up a pass every now and again, but in the end, Romo has to make better throws.  For the sake of honesty, I’ll let it be known that I’m a believer in Tony Romo.  I believe he is a top eight quarterback in the NFL, but his numbers in games in win or go home games are terrible.  I can make excuses for most of those games.  Against Philly when they lost 44-6, the whole team was pathetic.  Same against the Vikings in the playoffs.  Last year versus the Giants he was playing with a banged up thumb that certainly looked to hinder his abilities.  Now we do know that Romo cracked a rib during the game Sunday, if it occurred early in the game, than perhaps he has another excuse, but after a while, it just doesn’t matter, you have to win the game.

 

As for Jason Garrett, he deserves props for how he handled a season that began with a 3-5 start, the death of LB Jerry Brown, the indictment of DT Josh Brent in that death, and the loss of over 100 man games due to injury on defense, but in the end, he still has problems with game management and makes to many questionable decisions.  Not going for a 51-yard field goal with under a minute left in the first half with a slight wind at your back made no sense.  Kicker Dan Bailey had only missed one FG all season, granted, it was a 52-yarder against Baltimore, but still, you have to trust him there.

 

As for the defense, it wasn’t a shock that Washington was able to run the ball down the throat of the Cowboys.  They were missing their top three defense tackles, top two inside linebackers, and top safety, not to mention OLB DeMarcus Ware was basically playing with one arm and probably shouldn’t have been playing at all.  The defense did the best they could and in the end it wasn’t enough.  A turnover or two would be nice but this defense hasn’t been able to do accomplish that feat all season.  They did a great job early on of holding the Redskins in check after two early turnovers by the offense and were in position to give the ball back to the offense only down six points (assuming the Skins kicked the field goal) before a roughing the passer call against DE Jason Hatcher.

 

I took some heat on twitter for questioning the call on the Hatcher penalty.  Sometimes it’s hard to explain in 140 characters or less what you’re talking about.  Technically the call was correct.  Hatcher did hit Washington QB Robert Griffin III in the head when he came down after jumping to try and knock the pass down.  The hit was not malicious, didn’t even knock RGIII down.  What really bothered me however was that the officials had decided to let both teams play throughout the entire game, basically throwing the flags away, keeping them in their pocket.  Then to call that penalty, thus for all intensive purposes, ending the game, just really bothered me.  Once again, I’m not blaming the referee for the Cowboys’ loss, that squarely falls on Romo, but when you don’t call penalties all game, then you can’t call that penalty in that situation either.

 

As for Romo, he had a terrible game.  Perhaps the cracked rib played a part of it, perhaps not.  That being said, this is who Dallas will ride with for the next 3-4 seasons.  Is he going to get better at this point in his career.  Unlikely, he is 32 years of age.  He does need however to make smarter throws.  He also needs receivers however that will be where they are supposed to be.  Ogletree needs to go.  Dwayne Harris deserves the number three role.  Austin needs to stay healthy for the entire season and live up to the big contract that he signed a few years back.  Running back DeMarco Murray also needs to stay healthy.  Murray is a quality back, but you can’t keep missing half the season.  Would also be nice if Murray would use his vision to avoid defenders rather than just run them over.

 

One final thought on the Skins game.  Even if Dallas had won, they would be playing Seattle on Sunday either without Miles Austin (ankle), Dez Bryant (back, finger), and Romo (rib), or they would be severely hindered.  Their execution would’ve just been delayed a week.

 

As for the off-season.  Dallas is approximately $20 million over the projected 2013 salary cap.  So they have decisions to make.  NT Jay Ratliff, RB Felix Jones, and DB Mike Jenkins are probably gone.  Romo will need to be re-signed.  Is Austin asked to take a pay cut, possibly even released (unlikely) because of the cap issue?  Any chance they hire an offensive coordinator or at least a top QB coach for Romo?  The team needs players on both lines, a pass rusher, and a safety.  If they would’ve stayed healthy (many teams could say this) they would’ve had a 10+ win season.  Problem is, injuries are part of the game, you need to have depth, and the Cowboys don’t have much, and with their salary cap situation, it’s hard to see that changing next year.  Keep in mind Dallas also will be penalized $5 million for trying to circumvent the cap during the uncapped season.  Might be hard to see this team doing much better next season.

 

See you in the spring.

 

Feel free to follow me on twitter, @georgeKurtz

Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys should send a big thank you note to the Baltimore Ravens.  Once Dallas lost to the Saints in the early game last Sunday, their playoff chances certainly looked bleak and they lost control of their own destiny, but then the Ravens completely wrecked the Giants, thus putting destiny back in Dallas’ control.  Beat the Redskins Sunday night in Washington and you win the NFC East and will more than likely host the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs.  So yeah, that was a tough loss versus the Saints, but in the end, it pretty much didn’t mean anything.  Even with a victory over New Orleans, Dallas would not have clinched a playoff spot, they just would’ve had a better chance at getting a wildcard spot if they lost this week.  So in the end, no harm, no foul, beat the Redskins in Washington and all is well in the world.

 

As for the Saints game, it turned out pretty much the way most pundits thought it would.  Lots of offense with very little defense.  The Cowboys came out playing mostly a two deep zone coverage, and Saints QB Drew Brees picked them apart.  Dallas once again had little to no pass rush allowing Brees plenty of time to find receivers wide open underneath the coverage.  Defensive coordinator was trying to protect his secondary from the deep ball, force the Saints to drive the length of the field, problem is Brees isn’t greedy, he had no problem doing that.  On offense the Cowboys scored 31 points so it would seem to be cruel to knock them but they had one huge problem, time of possession.  The Saints thoroughly dominated TOP, holding the ball almost twice as much as the Cowboys.  Why you ask?  First, they went on long drives.  The Dallas defense could not get off the field on third down.  Brees constantly converted over and over, keeping drives alive.  Dallas on the other hand seemed to strike quickly when they scored as WR Dez Bryant had two 58 yard touchdown receptions.  The scores are great, but the quick strikes along with the lack of a running game kept the Cowboy defense on the field.  Eventually this caught up to the Cowboys.  The other problem, turnovers.  For the second straight week RB DeMarco Murray fumbled the ball away in the red zone, this time his own RZ, giving the Saints an easy six points.  Dallas needs to re-establish their running game, not so much to score points, they can do that in the passing game, but because they need to keep their defense off the field as much as possible.

 

Now onto Sunday night’s game.  This is pretty simple for Dallas.  Win, and you claim the NFC East title.  Lose, and it’s yet another long off-season.  Washington played Dallas on Thanksgiving and pretty much had their way with the Cowboys, eventually winning 38-31.  Game wasn’t really as close as the final score would indicate.  Washington was up 28-3 at halftime before a furious second half comeback by the Cowboys.  Dallas actually did come within one score of tying the game, but the defense couldn’t come up with a key stop late in the fourth quarter to get the ball back to the offense for a chance to tie the game.  There is a chance the Redskins could have a playoff spot locked up before the game if a couple of earlier games go their way, but even so, they will still want a win here so that they can play at home on Wildcard Weekend.

 

The big question for the Redskins will be the health of QB Robert Griffin III.  RGIII played last week after missing a week with a sprained knee.  Now he beat the Eagles but he did so with his arm, not his legs, only rushing for four yards.  This would seem to tell you that the knee is still bothering him.  If he is forced to stay in the pocket against Dallas and not be a running threat on the outside, this would certainly play into the Cowboys favor.  Even as a pocket passer though, RGIII shouldn’t have much problem avoiding a Dallas pass rush that has been absent for most of the season.  Linebacker DeMarcus Ware is pretty much playing with one arm as he has elbow and shoulder problems.  It’s unlikely he makes it through the entire game.  His partner Anthony Spencer has had a better all around year, but has always played the run better than the pass.  The Dallas cornerbacks match up well against the Skins receivers, but the safeties don’t match up with anyone when it comes to the deep ball.  There is a reason DC Rob Ryan played a two deep zone last week versus Brees and the Saints.  He was afraid of getting beat deep down the middle.  RGIII can also take advantage of this.  Much has been made of what the weather might be like Sunday night in D. C.  As of this writing it looks like it will be cold, around freezing, but with no precipitation.  Could be windy at times though.  This is more than likely good news for Dallas because if this game turned into one that had to be won on the ground, I like the Skins and Alfred Morris more than I like the Cowboys and DeMarco Murray.  Not that I don’t like Murray, I do, but Morris has had an All-Pro year, and it’s hard to trust the Dallas defense to stop him.

 

In the end this game will more than likely come down to who plays better, Tony Romo or RGIII.  Romo is as hot as they come and is more than capable of putting up 30+ points, but in the end, as we saw at home last week against New Orleans, that just may not be enough.  Washington 31  Dallas 27

 

Happy Holidays

Behind The Star: The Latest on the Dallas Cowboys

Big win for the Cowboys last week versus the Steelers.  Cornerback Brandon Carr may have justified his contract with that interception in overtime.  What exactly does the win mean?  Well, it means Dallas actually controls their own destiny.  Win their last two games versus New Orleans and at Washington and they win the division and would in all likelihood host Seattle in the first round of the playoffs.  There are also scenarios in which Dallas could win the division with a loss to the Saints, but that would require the Giants to lose one of their last two games and still requires a win versus Washington.  Dallas can also secure a wildcard berth but that means they would need to see quite a few losses by the Giants, Bears, and Vikings.  What this comes down to is that when Dallas was 3-5, they would’ve been overjoyed to be in this position.  Now let’s see if they can take advantage of it.

 

As for the game against Pittsburgh.  The good news was once again that RB DeMarco Murray looked good.  It’s pretty amazing how much more confidence the offensive line seems to have when they realize that there is a legitimate threat in the backfield.  They block better and the play action pass now has to be respected by the opposing defense.  The defense didn’t play great.  Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger did throw for over 300 yards, but they came up big when they had to.  Stopping the Steelers from driving for the winning score late in the game, and coming up with the interception in overtime to setup the game winning field goal by Dan Bailey.  The pass rush is still inconsistent at best.  Linebacker DeMarcus Ware is pretty much playing with one arm but LB Anthony Spencer is having a career season, one that will see him get paid handsomely in the off-season.  He is providing the pass rush opposite Ware that the Cowboys have been waiting for since they traded up to grab him in the 2007 draft.  The secondary was pretty thin in this game as CB Morris Claiborne missed the game with a concussion (Orlando Scandrick is already on IR).  Claiborne should return for this week’s game versus New Orleans.  Sterling Moore who was claimed off the practice squad of the Patriots a few weeks ago has provided the team with much needed depth in the secondary and could fight for a role in the nickel or dime defense next season.  Secondary isn’t the only area of concern as the Cowboys are also without their top two inside linebackers in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter (both on IR).  Things didn’t look any better Sunday when Ernie Sims went out early with a concussion, but Alex Albright came in to take his place played well enough where he could keep the job for the remainder of the season regardless of Sims’ health.  Still, if you count as Scandrick as a starter (covers the slot in passing situations), that’s six of 12 defensive starters that are on the IR for Dallas.  When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is doing with this defense.  They are held together with duct tape.

 

Things certainly won’t get any easier this week as the Saints come to town.  New Orleans boasts one of the best passing games in the NFL, led by QB Drew Brees.  They may not have the best running game on the planet but it’s respectable enough where you can’t just forget about it either.  That being said, it’s Brees that is most dangerous.  He played back to back subpar games versus the Giants and Falcons, but picked it up again versus Tampa Bay last week.  He will look to attack the Dallas secondary, especially the safeties (Danny McCray and Gerald Sensabaugh), who can be had in the deep game.  This game has shootout written all over it as the Saints, with the exception of last week, have pretty much been a sieve on defense.  Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense shouldn’t have any problems moving the ball up and down the field.  Wide receiver Dez Bryant will play in this game as he did versus the Steelers.  He did drop three passes last week, so the finger is giving him problems, but hopefully another week will allow to get more acclimated with it.  Miles Austin also had a solid game versus the Steelers.  Pittsburgh’s game plan last week was to double Dez, even with the bad finger, and play off of Austin.  This allowed Austin to run plenty of underneath routes.  New Orleans could try a similar tactic.  This game could come down to turnovers.  Which team will make the least amount of mistakes should go on to post the W.  Have to think Dallas wins this game.  They are at home, playing well, and it means everything to them, nothing to the Saints.  They seemed to have exercised their December woes from the past posting a 3-0 record this month.  They more than likely will need to make it 5-0 to get into the playoffs.  Dallas 34 Saints 27.

 

As for the Josh Brent situation.  Those who don’t know, Brent was on the sidelines for the game last week even though he has been charged with vehicular manslaughter in the death of his teammate Jerry Brown.  This started a controversy as people wondered whether or not he should be there.  Apparently the Dallas brass didn’t realize he was there until the game started.  His teammates were trying to show support by asking him to attend the game (he left at halftime when he realized his presence was becoming a distraction).  The Cowboys and the NFL issued a statement that Brent will not be allowed on the sidelines for the remainder of the season.  I applaud the sentiment from his teammates, his mother also wanted him to be there, but in the end, this was a bad decision.  I wasn’t all that thrilled with how the Chiefs handled the Jovan Belcher situation either.  Memorializing a player who just murdered someone seem quite a bit over the top even if he was a teammate.  Let’s hope this is the last time we need to talk about this.

 

I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the unspeakable tragedy at the Sandy Hooks Elementary School in Newtown CT.  As a father of two young girls, one in kindergarten, I can’t imagine what the parents of those slain children are feeling and hope I never have to.  My heartfelt condolences go out to those families and to the school staff that gave up their lives so that more children weren’t murdered.

 

Happy Holidays.

 

 

Feel free to follow me on twitter, @georgeKurtz