Well, here we are, on the brink of another week 17 road game against a division rival for all the marbles. That the Cowboys are in this position at all is rather amazing, if you take a moment to ponder the extent of their injuries, the offensive line's early-season putrescence, and the fact that, other than the two Philadelphia contests, there have been precious few games in which Dallas looked like anything approaching a prohibitive favorite going in. So, I suppose it's fitting that, like so many other weeks, we can't say that this is a game the Cowboys should win, but that is certainly one they can win. At Washington, with a rabid, Dallas-hatin' full house, it will be no easy task. If the Cowboys are to win on the road on Sunday, there are a few key areas in which they will have to do well in order to succeed:
Bend but don't break: To illustrate this point, I'd like to look at Dallas' last two games. The 562 yards Dallas gave up against New Orleans were the most since they yielded 583 yards to the Houston Oilers' run-and-shoot back in in 1991. The Saints averaged 8.41 yards per passing attempt. But wait; one week earlier, the Steelers offense passed even more successfully, at an 8.47 clip. The key difference was that the Cowboys couldn't get New Orleans off the field; the Saints converted eleven third downs. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, converted only five third down opportunities. Although they move the ball rather easily, the Steelers had drives of 21, 36 and 37 yards fizzle out when various Cowboys, from DeMarcus Ware to Alex Albright, make key third down plays. If they are to beat Washington, Dallas will need individual players to step up on third downs.
Get at least one turnover: Dallas is 8-3 this season in games in which they have generated at least one turnover (and, obviously, 0-4 in games in which they have failed to notch a TO). As we have seen, this injury-riddled defensive group isn't capable of dominating opponents, limiting their yards, or getting a lot of three-and-outs. In the five games since they lost Bruce Carter - the last in a series of season-ending injuries suffered by Dallas' starters - the Cowboys have given up an average of 429 yards per contest. They are 302 total yards from matching 2010's historically bad defensive totals. Clearly, they are out-manned, so what they need to do to help the team win is to get stops, by any means necessary - ideally in the form of a turnovers, which feeds the offense the ball and keeps the defense off the field. Over the season, the Redskins have been very fortunate in this regard, recovering a very high percentage of their own fumbles. On Sunday, the Cowboys wold benefit from a slight regression to the mean.
Play coverage: According to Jason York, one of ESPN's stats and Info guys, Redskins signal caller RG III has taken advantage of teams trying to generate pressure by sending extra guys - often by effectively throwing deep against them. He writes:
Griffin has a Total QBR of 97.7 against five or more pass-rushers this season, the highest in the NFL. Griffin has completed 68.4 percent of his passes against added pressure, the second-highest percentage in the league, and is one of three quarterbacks that have not thrown an interception this season against five or more pass-rushers.
In recent weeks, Rob Ryan has increasingly opted to play coverage, largely because when he has sent extra blitzers, they haven't been getting home, which has generated a lot of big plays for the opposition. On Sunday, Ryan will have to send more than four on occasion, but he'll need to pick his spots very carefully. More importantly, he'll need to be patient. The desire to get to Griffin will more than likely result in a big play the other direction.
Handle Washington's improving pass rush: Like Rob Ryan, Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has had to overcome some injuries in 2012 (their best defensive player, Brian Orakpo, and Adam Carriker, arguably their best defensive lineman, were lost for the season in mid-September) and it's taken a while to get his charges up to speed. But he's managed quite nicely; over the season's first ten Sundays, the 'Skins accumulated a measly fourteen sacks (which placed them last in the NFC). Over the last six weeks, however, they rank fourth in the NFC with 16 quarterback bags. Last week, they netted a season-high five sacks (admittedly, against a moribund Philadelphia offense), so they are on the come. To match points with Griffin and Co., Romo must have time to throw intermediate and deep routes, because...
Score from outside the red zone: ...Romo has 14 touchdown passes on throws of at least 15 yards downfield this season, tied for the most in the NFL. More impressively, in the season's second half, he has ten such TD tosses, two more than the next closest quarterback. Crucially, this is where the 'Skins have been vulnerable. The hated rivals have allowed a league-high thirteen TD passes on such throw this season (and a total of 18 plays of 30-plus yards). As he has been doing in recent weeks with great success, Romo will have to connect with Dez Bryant, whose six touchdown receptions on throws at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage is tops in the NFL.
This is where I'd normally offer a prediction. This week, I'm not going to offer one - and not because I have been terribly wrong in my prognostication for about six weeks now. No, its because I can see multiple scenarios unfolding, from a Cowboys victory to a Redskins blowout, but none of them are more or less compelling that the others. Frankly, I have no idea what to expect.
For the first time since week two, however, I'm excited. And that's a good sign...