The Dallas Cowboys lost the first matchup with the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day 38-31. Now, in order to go to the playoffs they have to win the rematch, which is also the final game of the 2012 NFL regular season played on Sunday Night Football. A win would validate Jason Garrett and his process, Rob Ryan's efforts to piece together an effective NFL defense with volunteers picked up in the Home Depot parking lot, Tony Romo's incredible skill in pulling this team to victory in multiple games this year, and much more. A loss will restart the predictable chorus of calls to hire a new coach and endless litany of how Dallas is just a soft, unfocused excuse of a team.
So there is just a tad riding on this. Dallas has several things it needs to do to win this game.
The biggie that stands out from the first go-round is the turnover battle. Dallas coughed up the ball three times, including two that were converted to touchdowns in the disastrous 28-point second quarter for the Redskins. That was the last game the Cowboys gave the ball away more than once, so this may be an area where the team has already fixed the problem. It would be nice to get the ball from Washington a few times, but that has just not been Dallas' forte this season. The main concern has to be taking care of the football on offense and any miscues by the other side will just be gravy.
Washington's Pro Bowl quarterback Robert Griffin III comes into the game with a ridiculous 104.1 passer rating, tied for second behind Aaron Rodgers. This is a bit deceiving, however, because the Redskins are not beating teams through the air. They are a running team. The best in the NFL, with 162.3 yards a game. This is exactly what you expect from Mike Shanahan, who seems to be able to turn anyone into a successful NFL running back. Make no mistake, the read option has been key to their success this year, and Alfred Morris and his 94.2 yards a game on the ground are almost as important to the team as Bob 3.
For the Cowboys this may be the biggest issue, since it is Morris who is the threat to exploit that injury ravaged middle of the Dallas D. Bob 3 is the big threat on the outside, and he gets over 50 yards running a game to go with his 221 passing yards. In a statistical quirk, he comes into the game ranked twenty-first in both passing and rushing. With his somewhat gimpy knee, he may not be quite as effective in the run game. He only had four yards against the Philadelphia Eagles last week while wearing a brace on his injured knee. He does not overwhelm teams through the air, but he kills them with efficiency. He doesn't give the ball away. His five interceptions are tied with Alex Smith for fewest by any starting quarterback in the league, and the secret to his sky-high passer rating. (It is also no coincidence that Smith, despite being benched, is tied with Bob for second best passer rating in the league - which means that is not the most important thing to have.)
If Griffin is indeed limited in mobility then the Cowboys will have to play to stop the more conventional aspects of the running attack and contain Griffin through the air. The receivers are not going to scare many teams out there, but then most teams are not facing the issue Dallas has, relying on defenders that were not even with Dallas when they lost the first game to the Redskins. Coming up with a game plan to limit the Washington offense is not hard. Having the players that are available execute it is going to be the challenge. Dallas has ongoing issues at safety, inside linebacker, nose tackle, and a distinct lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If they can at least partially fix these issues, they can slow down the Redskins. If not, then it becomes a shootout.
At first glance, this would seem to be something that the Cowboys could handle. Shanahan pointed out that the Redskins have their own injury problems, and that includes some pretty significant names on defense (Adam Carriker, Brandon Meriweather, Chase Minnifield, and Brian Orakpo on IR among others, plus London Fletcher day to day). But they have been pretty good against the run which is something you might expect with a team that does such a good job on the ground themselves. Dallas has not been effective with the run, and if Washington shuts DeMarco Murray down, then the offense becomes one-dimensional again. It is a good news/bad news kind of thing, since Tony Romo has been playing some of the best football of his career the past few weeks and the Redskins are near the bottom of the league in defending the pass. This gives the Cowboys two objectives. First, they would like to establish the ground game, since a few effective runs early will set up the play-action pass. Second, they have to protect Romo and give him time to work the passing game, they will certainly have to have that working. This is likely to be a matter of matching the other team's score since neither team is looking like it will be able to shut down their opponent.
Dallas obviously does not want to get into a hole early no matter how much confidence there is by Romo about their ability to come back. They need to avoid early game issues and stretches of ineffective offensive play. It is almost a given that the defense will give up points so the offense has to match any Washington scores, and quickly. Getting ahead and forcing the Redskins to catch up would be even better. It just is not the way Dallas has done things of late.
To a certain degree, both teams are bringing strength against weakness. Washington looks to exploit the softest part of the Cowboys defense with their outstanding running game and Dallas will be trying to carve up their vulnerable secondary with the pass. Both teams have been playing much better of late, although the perception is that Washington is the hotter team in light of Dallas' stumble against the New Orleans Saints. In the NFL regular season finale, the question is not really who is the hotter team, but who is tougher. Dallas has shown it can be very tough this year. It needs to carry that through to have a chance to win the NFC East.