The Cowboys enter this game on the strength of a five-game stretch that's seen them win four games despite facing tremendous adversity. This is in stark contrast to the Steelers, who come in having lost 3 of 4, the most recent coming at the hands of the listless Chargers despite the return of Ben Roethlisberger to the starting lineup.
The Steelers we face on Sunday will be depleted along the offensive line and defensive secondary, not to mention the absence of Rashard Mendenhall. We know the Cowboys are without key contributors, as well - but the struggles haven't been as pronounced as expected.
This drives me crazy - but many people, on seeing this matchup, will instinctively pick the Steelers. Why? Because the Steelers are the model of consistency, and the Cowboys are the model of mediocrity. Let me restate that the Cowboys have won 4 of the 5 previous games, while the Steelers have lost 3 of the past 4. But, remember, teams are only as good as you perceive them to be.
Then there's this talk about the losing football that the Jason Garret Cowboys have been playing. As KD pointed out in the most recent of the 'Garrett may be fired' thread, [paraphrase] 5-3, 8-8, and 7-6 adds up to a 20-17 record. Jason Garrett hasn't had a 'losing season' as a head coach, and in fact has clinched a non-losing record as a head coach at season's end. [/paraphrase] Is there some argument that this is a losing culture despite the winning record? Or is this a winning culture that may not have yet reached its potential?
Anyway, the NFL has consistently shown that, the further removed an event is from the present, the less relevant that event is to present and future games. Translation: nothing matters except how good you are right now - the recent trend. For Dallas, the trend is up, and for Pittsburgh, the trend is down.
Now, onto arguably the most important matchup of the day: The quarterbacks. (Yes, this is true every single week. The only time other storylines take precedence is when the perceived quarterback skill level is close to identical, and this fact alone proves quarterbacks take precedence.)
Many who watched the game in Cincinnati last week will remember a particular comment, regarding Romo's escape ability. It was described as being reminiscent of Ben Roethlisberger. This likely offended everyone in the country other than Roethlisberger himself. Those familiar with the play of both quarterbacks were offended to have Tony Romo's play belittled, while those content with mass-media breakdowns were appalled that the worst starting quarterback in the league was compared to a first-ballot hall-of-fame-er (it's the rings).
Roethlisberger and Romo both break tackles in the pocket. There are no further similarities. Comparing the 'official' numbers, Roethlisberger stands at 6'5, 241 pounds to Romo's 6'2, 230. Looking at the two of them, I'm inclined to believe that Roethlisberger is about as close to 241 as he is to 300. He sheds tackles by shuffling his feet and watching defenders simply slide off his body. The solid protection he's received until recently meant he only had single defenders to avoid most of the time (his nevertheless high sack totals are largely attributed to him failing to throw the ball within a reasonable time frame).
Romo, on the other hand, isn't quite the physically imposing figure that Roethlisberger is. He shows good strength in staying on his feet while in the grasp, but he isn't someone you expect to toss aside a defensive tackle coming free up the middle. Instead, the not-particularly-speedy Romo avoids rushers with a patented spin-move. That, along with an ability to split defenders reminiscent of Kobe Bryant, leaves even experienced Romo-watchers with our jaws on the floor as plays that start out ugly simply refuse to end. It seems that the only sure sack on Romo is to get 4 rushers free simultaneously.
Avoidance techniques aside, let's say that both of them can avoid rushers at an equal rate (and I don't think this is the case). After avoiding the sack, they will presumably be throwing the football. And, in case this was in question, I like my odds with Romo throwing the ball moreso than with Roethlisberger. I believe he's the faster and better decision maker, and has a more accurate ball. Big Ben might have more range on his deep balls, but he's also managed to overthrow Mike Wallace - power is only useful to the extent that it can be controlled.
Since we're comfortable with quarterbacks being the most important matchup in the game, it should come as no surprise that a very strong correlation exists between passer rating differential and victory. It should then be comforting to know that, while Romo will be passing against a crew of unrecognizable corners, Roethlisberger's wideouts will be covered by Brandon Carr and Mike Jenkins, with the possible addition of Morris Claiborne.
Finally, we'll take a look into the locker room - as many believe that coaching has a profound effect on team performance. The biggest stories in Dallas are Dez Bryant's determination to play despite having a somewhat serious fracture in his left index finger, and the team's emotional effort, coming together as a team after a tragic off-the-field incident. The biggest 'team mentality' information I see about the Steelers is that Rashard Mendenhall, after being benched for poor ball security and told he would sit out against the Chargers, decided not to attend the game at all and has since been suspended a game, this game, for 'conduct detrimental to the team.' Mike Tomlin receives a ton of respect for having his players completely under control, and Rashard Mendenhall gets a lot of respect for not being named Felix Jones, so it's interesting that the two of them have combined to tarnish each other's reputations. Is it possible that team spirit and brotherhood is more at home in the Dallas locker room this week? Shh. Don't tell anyone.
What do you think, BTB? Are we fighting for 1st place in the East, or are we on are way back to .500?