When you see the "Perils of December" stories, and some are already around, know that the quarterback may get the attention, but it's the defense which will either navigate the rocky waters at last, or wreck the Cowboys ship again.
How 'bout that Cowboys' defense? It entered December with an NFC best 16.5 points per game average, but saw three of the league's top 10 offenses on its schedule. Last night, that defense closed December with a 16.7 average, and three strong performances. It held San Diego to a season-low 20, and would have tasted victory had the offense found a way to convert goal-to-go from the one (more on that foible shortly). It brought the high-flying Saints down to earth last week in a 24-17 win.
It shut out the Redskins' pop-gun offense, withstanding a couple fo Santana Moss runs after the catch. The shut out earned Dallas the final NFC playoff berth, after the Giants had returned their playoff aspirations earlier today, in an embarrassing home loss to Carolina. Green Bay claimed one spot with a blowout win over Seattle and Dallas closed the field in D.C.
Dallas is just two points behind the Ravens for 2nd in NFL scoring defense. It is far ahead of the rival defenses in the NFC field, which gives the Cowboys a fighting chance to excel in the post-season. That defense will have to carry the load, as the Cowboys offense again showed it has explosive capability, but lacks the short-yardage oomph which would help it roll deep into January.
The offense put on its usual big play show, with Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Miles Austin again pacing the passing attack. Witten made the play of the game with a 69 yard catch and run past LaRon Landry in the 2nd quarter. The Cowboys converted this play with a Marion Barber draw, but struggled mightily to convert third downs and goal line efforts from that point forward.
Each of Dallas' first two 2nd half drives died on downs when the Cowboys failed to convert short distance runs. The initial drive rolled to Washington's 36, where the Cowboys faced 2nd and two. A direct snap to Tashard Choice in the Razorback set gained a yard and two Marion Barber plunges on 3rd and 4th down failed to gain ground.
The next series rolled from the Cowboys' 12 to Washington's 30 and failed when Barber was dropped for a loss on a 4th-and-1 counter. Dallas was stuffed a third time inside the Washington ten on the subsequent drive. Dallas tried converting a 3rd-and-1 on the Redskins five by running the power-I off-tackle play which worked so effectively against the Saints. Washington stuffed it, and Dallas called on Shaun Suisham, who nailed his first Cowboys field goal attempt to push the lead to the final 17-0.
The short-yardage woes will keep the coaches up late, working on creative new ways to gain touchdowns from red-zone drives. In the meantime, the team will enjoy a return to the post-season.
-- The Cowboys will win the East if they beat the Eagles at home next Sunday. That and a Packers win would give Dallas the 3rd seed. In the mean-time, pull with both hands for the Bears tomorrow. Two Vikings losses (they close against the Giants) and a Cowboys win would hand Dallas the 2nd seed and a first round bye. Hard to believe, but it's true.
-- Wade Phillips kept things simple tonight. He did not call many blitzes, preferring to rush four and send the extra rusher or two when the Redskins began to build momentum. Those blitzes threw Jason Campbell off balance. Little Orlando Scandrick gets the smack of the game for a 3rd quarter blitz off the slot which nearly put Campbell in traction. Campbell's back will no doubt hurt tomorrow after Scandrick slammed it with both forearms.
-- Washington played a lot of two deep zone, so Tony Romo played a lot of short-ball with Miles Austin, who went from being the big play maker to the first down maker. The big catch went to Witten, who ran a deep in on one of the few plays where Washington played man in the secondary. Witten caught a perfectly thrown Romo pass in stride, shook LaRon Landry with an in-an-out cut, picked up a sideline block from a receiver and romped to the Washington three.
-- Best wishes to special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who underwent an emergency appendectomy late Sunday afternoon. The fates keep trying to knock Joe D down and he keeps going.