A nationally televised game. Sunday night coverage. Playing at MetLife Stadium with what is anticipated to be a huge audience.
Sound familiar? That first trip to MetLife started out so promisingly, and wound up turning into a harbinger of how the Dallas Cowboys would repeatedly build leads and then watch them slip away. Had the Cowboys managed to hang on in just a couple of those games that were so close, this coming game would be as meaningless as the game last Saturday turned out to be.
Instead, thanks in part to the failure of the same team that snatched the win away from us on September 11th of this year, we go into the last game of the season against the New York Giants with the NFC East title on the line. Win the game, and go on to the playoffs. Lose it, and the team can find a comfortable place on the couch for the postseason.
Fifteen games ago, I looked at the Dallas Cowboys, and wondered just what kind of a team they were. Now, with the season and the year winding down, I look at the Dallas Cowboys - and wonder just what kind of a team they are.
I don't know that we will really find out on New Year's Day. The Cowboys come in at 8-7, and obviously a loss would put them at .500, which is pretty much where a lot of people thought they would be. It is just that they team has at times seemed so close to being more. I think what I dread more than anything else is a last minute fail, a repeat of those other five games when Dallas came so close to the victory, only to break our hearts. A bad loss would make it clear that the team has not made as much progress as we thought. A victory would show some character, some resilience at last. And it would give us a chance to make some noise in the playoffs - although that is not going to be easy, since either the Cowboys or the Giants are going to be facing a team with a better record in the first round (if I understand the seeding process correctly).
But everything depends on the game this Sunday night. I think it is obvious that the Cowboys have some issues they will have to overcome to win this. Here is my look at where I think those issues are, and how bad they are.
My forecast percentages show confidence in the team if they are low, and lack of same if they are high.
Hint: Some high numbers ahead.
Quarterback For several weeks, I have been talking about how the only issue at the quarterback spot was that the team is in trouble if Tony Romo has to go out of the game. That finally happened. Tony has stated that he will be able to play this week. If he can't, I look at Stephen McGee's performance against the Philadelphia Eagles - and I become very, very sad. The Cowboys will likely have to score a bunch of points in a game where both teams have shown some weakness stopping the pass. McGee did not look like a guy who could match Eli Manning score for score. Tony, on the other hand, is more than able. So it all comes down to the hand, and, as I'll mention later, those guys up front.
CHANCE OF QB BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 20%
Running Back Again, the issue is how brittle is the starter? I think that Felix Jones is more likely to go down at some point during the game than Romo is. And as much as I admire Sammy Morris for coming in and doing his best, neither he nor Chauncey Washington look like a viable solution. Dallas is going to need an effective running game to give Tony a chance to get to his receivers. This frankly worries the snot out of me.
CHANCE OF RB BEING A PROBLEM (at some time during the game): 50% Last time: 30%
Tight End/Fullback Jason Witten was quiet. Martellus Bennett continues to provide solid if unspectacular play. Tony Fiammetta was in the game, but did not have much impact. I still feel this is one of the strengths of the team, but I am a little concerned at how the Senator has not been as effective the past couple of games. I don't know if this is the game plan or just the way the defenses are playing him. I still like this unit, just have a little concern.
CHANCE OF TE/FB BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 10%
Wide Receivers The best news for the Cowboys, outside of Tony most likely being able to play, is that the top three wide receivers are still all healthy. Hopefully there is a plan to stretch the field and open up the rest of the offense. If the Cowboys can do that, they should be able to score a bunch of points.
CHANCE OF WR BEING A PROBLEM: 20% (Like QB, this is largely dependent on injury during the game.) Last time: 20%
Offensive Line Montrae Holland is out for the season, which is to say this game. The hopes of the offense now rely heavily on Kevin Kowalski. I have mentioned before that I am curious about whether the coaches have considered if putting Killer at center and Phil Costa at guard would be a more effective lineup. Just based on what I have read in other places, Costa may be better at guard, and Kowalski seems about equally suited to either. However, there is not much of a sample size involved there, so the wise choice may be to roll with the same alignment they ended the Philly game with. For now.
One way or another, how this crew handles Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Michael Boley and the rest of the Giants' front seven will likely determine how this game goes. If they can give Tony a bit of time and open some holes up for Felix, then Dallas has an excellence chance. If Tony is getting knocked around the way Stephen McGee was against the Eagles, then we will be talking potential draft picks and roster cuts first thing Monday morning.
After some serious rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, of course.
CHANCE OF OL BEING A PROBLEM: 50% Last time: 30%
Defensive Line Given the fact that the Eagles game was meaningless, and both teams were aware of that about halfway through the first quarter, it is hard to be sure how much credence you can put on the stats from that game. But LeSean McCoy only had 35 yards rushing. The best rusher for the Eagles was DeSean Jackson, who got a total of 27 yards on back-to-back reverses. And Michael Vick was not able to get loose and use his legs as he so often does. These guys actually had a pretty good game, with Kenyon Coleman and Sean Lissemore having the best stats. Even the often-abused Marcus Spears seemed to be playing hard and chalked up three tackles, one for a loss.
CHANCE OF DL BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 40%
Linebacker DeMarcus Ware had two sacks, proving he is one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL. Unfortunately, once again, he was the only Dallas players to get a sack, and he accounted for three of the seven hits on Vick as well. However, Anthony Spencer was the leading tackler on the team, adding more fuel to the controversy of just how valuable he is.
Inside, the team still suffers when Sean Lee is not on the field. Keith Brooking and Bradie James are just not able to handle the job when he is on the bench, and Bruce Carter is apparently not ready, despite his obvious physical ability. I am very worried about the ability to stop the running game, Brandon Jacobs in particular.
It isn't how often there is a breakdown with the linebackers. It's that when it happens, it's really bad. And I am very worried about Eli Manning tearing it up with passes into the middle of the field. The only reason my number actually goes down here is that I don't think New York's receivers are quite as dangerous, and Eli is not the runner Vick is (duh).
CHANCE OF LB BEING A PROBLEM: 50% Last time: 60%
Defensive Backs The general opinion is that this is the weakest part of the team. Well, yeah. I believe it is. It is going to take a strong pass rush to keep Eli from finding receivers and picking the secondary apart. And I am not sure the Cowboys can get that pass rush. I just think this game is going to be decided by how many points Dallas can put up, because I am fairly certain the Giants will put up a lot.
CHANCE OF DB BEING A PROBLEM: 70% Last time: 70%
Special Teams Two good things happened during the game with the special teams. Dwayne Harris had two kick returns, one for 51 and one for 34. And Bruce Carter had the blocked punt that let Dallas avoid the shutout. Given how closely the last game with the Giants went, there is a chance that a big special teams play may make the difference. And lately, they are starting to look like they may be able to deliver.
CHANCE OF ST BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 30%
Coaching To tell you the truth, I think it is to a large degree out of the coaches' hands by now. They made the decision last Saturday, based on brutal logic, that the season is all down to this game. It is going to come down to execution on the field. Big pep talks and razzle-dazzle plays aren't going to determine whether this team makes the playoffs. Blocking, tackling, running, passing, kicking, catching, and coverage will. The coaches have done all they can. Now it is up to the eleven guys on the field for each play. They know what they need to do. It just remains to be seen if they can.
CHANCE OF COACHING BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 60%
Jerry Jones He said he was scared of Philadelphia. Well, was he wrong?
CHANCE OF JJ BEING A PROBLEM: Ask me when the draft gets closer.
I would feel a lot better about this game if the Cowboys had won last week. But they didn't. I am pulling for the Cowboys, but I am in a bit of an "I'll believe it when I see it" mood. However, for every problem the Cowboys have, I think that the Giants have a similar one. Both these teams have some flaws, and the ability to sometimes get everything clicking. I still have no idea what kind of team this really is. I hope they show me that they are better than the Giants. I'd like to write at least one more of these forecasts before the off season.