The Dallas Cowboys can close the gap in the NFC East to just one game on Sunday with a win over the Browns. The Giants, who held a once-commanding lead in the division, will be idle while Dallas will host a Cleveland team that has not won on the road since Week 2 of the 2011 season. Dallas had lost four of five games before their trip to Philadelphia in Week 10, and it was the Cowboys who came away with the victory with both scuffling teams in a must-win situation.
Now the Cowboys have a chance to put themselves right back in the discussion over the final six weeks of the season. They'll just need to take care of a young, inexperienced Browns team that's almost certainly playing for a lame duck coach. Cleveland should enter the game at Cowboys Stadium in relatively good health, particularly along the defensive line. No. 3 pick Trent Richardson has also emphasized how much the bye week has benefitted him, stating that he has yet to play a game at 100 percent this season.
Meet the Cowboys
It's likely the Cowboys salvaged their season last week in Philadelphia, avoiding their fifth loss in six games. But can they now carry that success over against a lesser opponent at home? A win would pull them even to .500 for the first time in over a month.
Tony Romo leads a passing game that, statistically, is one of the top ten attacks in the league. But Romo and his receivers have often been on a different page this season. That, combined with some careless decisions, has Romo leading all NFL quarterbacks with 13 interceptions this season. The Browns secondary has some glaring holes, particularly opposite Joe Haden. Haden's status is also in doubt, after he sustained an oblique injury in practice on Wednesday -- a potentially critical blow to the Browns already slim chances. Romo should definitely find room to work with his pass-catching corps of Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, and Kevin Ogletree. But the turnovers are certainly one thing that could keep an improved Browns team in it on the road
While Dallas has the sixth-best passing attack in the league, the run-pass balance is certainly lacking. It's a pass-first league, but the Cowboys are 29th in the NFL with an average of 85.3 yards per game on the ground. A promising run game was stunted by the injury to DeMarco Murray, who still leads the team in rushing yards despite not playing since the first half of Week 6. Murray is getting closer to returning, and he's eager to get back out on the field but his status for Week 11 is doubtful.
Rob Ryan gets plenty of camera time for his flowing mane, spastic behavior, and foul mouth on the sidelines. But Ryan's defensive unit has emerged as one of the most consistent in the league, falling in the top 13 in the league against both the pass and the run. DeMarcus Ware continues to be a terror rushing off the edge, and he'll give perennial Pro-Bowler Joe Thomas and rookie Mitchell Schwartz plenty of problems. Thomas has been dealing with a knee issue this season, and while he hasn't sat out, he has committed an uncharacteristic amount of penalties. In the Dallas secondary, rookie Morris Claiborne looked less than impressive last week against the Eagles. The Browns are developing a deep threat in rookie Josh Gordon, but the Dallas defensive backfield should still have the advantage.
Meet the Browns
While the Browns talented young core seems to have improved this season, their record has them once again languishing at the bottom of the NFL standings. Cleveland has a rookie at starting quarterback, running back, and as their No. 1 threat at wide receiver. Despite their competitiveness, Pat Shurmur is under intense scrutiny in his second season with the club. Fans, and new owner Jimmy Haslam, have been frustrated with a slew of close losses and mismanaged fourth quarter situations.
In the Browns last game, Brandon Weeden probably had his worst showing since the disastrous opener against the Eagles. Weeden struggled the week before that in a win over the Chargers, but the brutal weather conditions were a major impediment to any sort of active passing game. In Week 9 against the Ravens, he was simply tentative and off-target. The Browns will have to at least present a threat through the air to avoid the Dallas defense from keying on Richardson and the run. Weeden is not shy when it comes to winging it down the field, and he'll need to take some shots with Gordon.
Richardson's health has steadily improved since he took a blow to the ribs against the Bengals in Week 6. He's had back-to-back 100-yard games, and the extra week of rest should have him near 100 percent for the first time this season. He missed the entire preseason after a minor knee procedure at the start of training camp. Shurmur has been criticized for being too pass-happy and neglecting Richardson this season. But the rookie has carried the ball at least 24 times in his past two games, and it yielded results. With better health, expect the Browns to try and establish the run against Ryan's stout rush defense.
Statistically, Cleveland's defense is in the bottom-third of the league against both the pass and the run. But Dick Jauron's unit has kept the Browns in almost all of their games this season. For the first time this year, the Browns will have both of their impressive defensive tackles on the inside -- Phil Taylor and Ahyba Rubin. Taylor, a 1st round pick in 2011, has just one game under his belt after coming off the PUP list in Week 9. Rubin should finally be back after a nagging calf injury limited him for the past month. The Browns defensive front should contain the Dallas rushing attack, but their secondary has been a weakness all season. Romo and his receiving corps could be in for a big day.
Local Takes: Cowboys
The Cowboys got back in the win column last week, and KD Drummond of Blogging the Boys called it a "stress relief" victory that could pay off going forward:
So for the team to come out and earn a comfortable victory in which a running back, wide receiver, punt returner, cornerback and defensive linemen all reached the end zone in the same game? That can be a watershed moment. I think we outsiders can underestimate the rhythm of the NFL. Working all week towards a game on Sunday is a stark contrast to working all week at a standard 9-5. When things don't go well on Sunday, it is a gigantic letdown to all the work that had been put in that week. Make no mistake about it, the wins against Tampa and Carolina were nice, but far from decisive victories where the team lived up to expectations.
In other words, it has been two months of preparing week in and week out and being dissatisfied with the final result. Until this past Sunday. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this lifted the spirits of the team and put them on a great role.
Local Takes: Browns
Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature provided his Dallas scouting report, and he thinks the former Cleveland defensive coordinator is eager to face the Browns:
Ryan also noted that for seven straight weeks as a member of the Browns' coaching staff, he slept at the facility due to his dedication to getting things turned around. Ryan had a lot of supporters among Cleveland fans, but knowing his personality, you know the guy is going to be really fired up at beating the Browns, even if it's not a national story or anything like that. If he has a chance to rub it in, he will. The Cowboys' defense has done pretty well this year, ranking 13th against the run and 8th against the pass. The big improvement has been against the pass, where they ranked 23rd a year ago. Dallas beefed up their secondary in the offseason by adding CB Chris Carr in free agency and drafting CB Morris Claiborne (a guy the Browns had their eye on).
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
@CalvinWatkins - Cowboys beat writer
Watkins: Lawrence Vickers on Browns: 'It's personal': IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys face the Cleveland Bro... es.pn/WbAbNh— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) November 15, 2012
@TonyGrossi - Browns beat writer
Everyone's had this game circled on their calendars all year long. The game of the week between two perennial powers.
Wait, what? This actually isn't a big game? Then why are the Cowboys selling commemorative t-shirts for it?
The pick: 24-20, Cowboys
The Cowboys opened as touchdown favorites, and according to OddsShark, that's gone up to nine points at most books.
The Cowboys will play their traditional Thanksgiving game against their traditional rival, the Washington Redskins. The Browns will host the Steelers in this season's first meeting between the neighboring rivals.