With a 4-5 record, the Dallas Cowboys will be facing must-win situations for the rest of the season if they are to have any hope of making the playoffs. They cannot afford to overlook any team. And Sunday's opponent, the Cleveland Browns, may be a better team than their 2-7 record would indicate.
The Browns started the season 0-5, but over the last four games they have gone 2-2, notching wins against the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers. Plus they gave the Indianapolis Colts, now 6-3, a good fight, only losing by four points, and the loss to a 7-2 Baltimore Ravens team was only by ten.
This is a team that offensively is relying on three rookies, who are showing signs that they are hitting their stride. Brandon Weeden, the 29 year old former baseball player out of Oklahoma State, had effective if not spectacular performances in the first three games of the recent stretch, only throwing one interception. The loss to the Ravens was partly due to two picks he threw against them. One thing he has working in his favor is that the Browns have a pretty good offensive line, which has only given up 14 sacks this season. His biggest limitation is that he only has one really effective threat in the receiving game, Josh Gordon, who Cleveland picked up in the supplemental draft.
Dallas should be able to handle the passing attack if they can keep Gordon, who has the best average per catch in the league, corralled. A more serious threat to worry about is rookie running back Trent Richardson. After struggling through some early season injury issues, he has emerged as a DeMarco Murray-like weapon, getting 129 and 105 yards in his last two games. The Dallas front seven is going to have their work cut out for them making sure that Richardson does not have too good a day, and the team has to make sure they don't focus so much on him that Weeden joins the long list of players having unexpectedly good performances against the Cowboys.
This is a game where Dallas needs to get out of the offensive doldrums it has been in and put some points on the board. Cleveland is twenty-fourth in the league in yards allowed and twentieth in points given up. Tony Romo needs to continue his recent strong play, and Felix Jones needs to prove that he is feeling better now than he has all season. The Browns' best defensive player, cornerback Joe Haden, is hurt and whether he plays is going to be a game time decision. Romo and the receivers should be able to move the ball on Cleveland, but they need to punch it into the end zone.
But overconfidence would be a big mistake. The Browns are coming off their bye week and certainly will be prepared. The Cowboys have their own warts, and now it looks like Mackenzy Bernadeau is having to slide over to play center for the first time in a regular season game. He is confident that he is up to the challenge, having practiced the position with the Carolina Panthers as their backup center as well as getting preseason reps and work this week with Dallas. But it also means that Derrick Dockery would likely fill in at guard, and he does not exactly inspire confidence. The victory over the Philadelphia Eagles demonstrated how important the running game is to Dallas, and they also cannot depend on Romo to go Houdini every game if the pass protection breaks down. And on defense, the safety situation is still a concern, and the team has to hope the inside-linebacker-by-committee situation continues to work out.
With the Cowboys now seen as at least on the fringes of the playoff hunt after the win over the Eagles, they would be a nice target for the Browns to upset. Being a big favorite is not a position the Cowboys have been in a while, and they need to make sure they handle the small bit of success they have had. Cleveland is a dangerous opponent just because of the situation and deserve some respect as a football team.
I fully believe that. Or I'm doing a little goatmouth.