The Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints are both hoping to stay alive in the NFC hunt. The Saints are all but out of the playoff hunt and would be eliminated with a loss, and while the Cowboys could still make the post-season with a loss this week and a win over the Washington Redskins, that would require they get some help. Dallas is looking to finish out the season strong, with a five game winning streak, but that means they have to get by New Orleans and their always dangerous offense.
It is going to be a cold, nasty day . . . oh, wait, this is in North Texas, not Green Bay or Kansas City. Silly me. The third day of winter (and the second day of the post-Mayan-apocalypse new era) in Dallas looks to be gorgeous, with a high near 72 under mostly sunny skies. The roof is scheduled to be open again at Cowboys stadium, so fans will get to enjoy both great conditions for tailgating and for the game.
(Oh, and for those who sneer and say that it just won't feel like Christmas with all that warm weather, the forecast is for a high of 44 for Christmas Day. And if a cold front coming in on Christmas Eve creeps a little bit further south, there is even a chance for a white Christmas in North Texas. We do get all four seasons here - just more like 15 or 20 times a year, it seems.)
Our own Archie Barberio has already praised Rob Ryan for the work he has done in overcoming the long list of injuries by cobbling together a defense with spare parts and pure chutzpah, and he is not the only one to notice.
One of the few surviving stars also credits the spirit that this motley crew has developed.
"This is the closest team I've been on in any year I've been here, and I've been here eight years," linebacker DeMarcus Ware told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It's really not about the name on the back of the jersey. It's about how all 11 guys get together, play together with that passion and intensity, and do the right things.
"That's what we've been doing, and this December, it's a whole different team."
There are also a lot of players who have been with the team for a bit who have stepped up their game during the stretch run, like wide receiver and return man Dwayne Harris.
"Whatever they need me to do, I think I can be a great player for this team and in this league. The sky's the limit," Harris said Friday. "I've always got... that chip on your shoulder to go out there and play your best. I let my game speak for itself. The doubters, they'll go away."
The Saints have been having their own woes on defense, so the game may become a shootout between Drew Brees and his offense and Tony Romo's crew. Jason Garrett knows he can support Rob Ryan with his own offensive play calling.
"The best way to help the defense is to execute ball plays and drive the ball and score points," Garrett said.
It's not just the backups who are stepping up. The determination of Dez Bryant in dealing with his broken finger has not only kept him on the field as a weapon, but has made him a bit of an example for his teammates.
"This finger (it's about) just mental toughness, that's all," Bryant said after Friday's practice as the Cowboys prepare for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. "If I felt like it was going to bring me down, I probably couldn't be out here doing what I'm doing. I don't think about it as much. I don't feel the pain. I just go out and play football."
The Cowboys were determined that Ron Leary would not go to another team, indicating that they have a good opinion of his potential. But the decision to cut Anthony Armstrong to make room for him caught some off guard.
The decision to cut him is somewhat surprising, considering he has a speed element the Cowboys don't have with any other player. Plus, with Leary now in the mix, the Cowboys have an abundance of backup linemen, along with
David Arkin, Derrick Dockery, Kevin Kowalski, Jermey Parnelland Darrion Weems.
The struggles Danny McCray has had in replacing the injured Barry Church has been a source of pain for Cowboys fans, and it does not look to get a lot better this week.
McCray will be tested this Sunday by New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, whose athletic ability makes him such a threat. This season, Graham has accumulated 69 catches, 779 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He is one of quarterback Drew Brees' favorite options, especially in the red zone.
Basically, this game could go just about any way imaginable.
Rowan Kavner: If the Saints were in your weekly pick ‘em contest, you'd want to avoid them at all costs. Predicting which Saints team shows up every week is nearly impossible. Two weeks ago, the Saints allowed 52 points to a Giants team that was held scoreless a week later. Then the Saints played Tampa Bay and held the Bucs scoreless.
OK, I admit it, I picked that quote to pull because of the lovely correlation between "Giants" and "held scoreless".
Rainer Sabin sees Dallas having the advantage in five out of six areas, including one that we have started taking a bit for granted.
In less than two seasons, Dan Bailey has emerged as one of the NFL's most consistent kickers and a key contributor for the Cowboys. In an overtime victory over Pittsburgh last Sunday, Bailey made his seventh game-winning field goal, tying a franchise record. This season, he has connected on 27 of 29 attempts and every kick inside of 50 yards.
I fully endorse this point.
DeMarco Murray is a difference-maker. Even when he is not accumulating rushing yards in bulk, Murray is able to affect a defense that must account for him at all times. Murray helps open up the passing game, making quarterback Tony Romo's play-action maneuvers more effective. And he is able to batter the opponent with his physical running style.
Ryan follows the time-honored tradition of making your opponent out to be Superman. Unfortunately, sometimes Brees pretty much is.
"I think the guy is unbelievably accurate and he has been his whole life," Ryan said. "He's a great leader, all that stuff you see. But the accuracy is uncanny. Throwing the deep ball is also ridiculous. He's a great player. There's no question he's one of the tops in the league every year. It's tough."
Morris Claiborne being back is definitely a good thing.
During his rookie campaign, Claiborne has been solid. Targeted 50 times, he's surrendered 30 catches for 405 yards and four touchdowns. He's also made one interception.
While everyone has been talking about the job Dez Bryant has done in playing through his injury, DeMarcus Ware has quietly been dealing with even more problems.
Ware told NFL.com's Ian Rapoport this week that the rash of shoulder and elbow injuries he's had in 2012 are more than he's ever had to deal with in any individual season during his eight-year pro career.
Two things going on that make me wish we could watch what happens at the stadium instead of going back to the network studio updates at halftime.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders holiday dance spectacular will occur at halftime, when tight end
Jason Wittenwill be awarded the Bob Lilly Award for demonstrating the highest level of achievement, sportsmanship, dedication and leadership.
Some praise for our head coach.
Garrett still has his team at 8-6, charging down the home stretch for a playoff spot. How has he done it? Garrett is even-keeled. And he goes to great pains to keep the team that way, often delivering the same messages over and over about the mentality the team must maintain.
And on this, I could not disagree more.
If Dallas does not make the playoffs, Garrett could get fired. This would then mean that Dallas owner Jerry Jones may $et his $ites on suspended Saints coach Sean Payton, whose divorced wife and family live in Dallas.
Somebody kill this whole idea.
Thank you for your support.
Jason Garrett's insistence on "hammering" his guiding principles into the Cowboys helped them survive a 3-5 start, the loss of six defensive regulars to injury and a tragedy that threatened to bring the players and coaches to their knees. With two games left, Dallas (8-6) controls its playoff destiny and is being held up as an example of a franchise that overcame adversity thanks to great leadership from its coach.
High praise from the original 88.
"The best way to win right now is to ‘Dial 88,''' former Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson said with a laugh. "It worked for Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach and now, for whatever the reason may be, it's starting to work for Tony Romo."
Well, I like the prediction at the end, but . . .
The Saints will get their yards and points against Ryan's makeshift defense, but DeMarco Murray going up against one of the league's worst run defenses will limit Brees' possessions, and red-hot Anthony Spencer will again come up big at the end with a sack or two.
New Orleans, though, can take solace in knowing the loss decreases the chances of Jerry Jones going after Sean Payton.
Grrrr . . .
Just to make it perfectly clear. The odds are very long against the Cowboys getting in as a wildcard, so the focus is on winning the NFC East.
No matter the outcome of the game, the Cowboys (8-6) can neither clinch a playoff spot nor be eliminated before next weekend's regular-season finale against the Washington Redskins.
Dallas is in a three-way tie for first in the NFC East with the New York Giants and Redskins. The Cowboys can claim their first division title since 2009 if they win their final two games or if they beat the Redskins on Dec. 30 in Landover, Md., and the Giants suffer at least one loss in the final two weeks.
This part was something I didn't know.
Eight months ago, Opal Claiborne had 31 destinations in mind for her son Morris, who was expected to be a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft.
"As long as he doesn't go to the (Dallas) Cowboys," she said a week before the festivities in New York.
Well, we like having him. Sorry, Mom.