As every game becomes crucial for teams still battling for a spot in the postseason, the Dallas Cowboys play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15 on Sunday in a contest with plenty on the line, playoff-wise, for both squads.
Pittsburgh, after an ugly 34-24 loss at home to the San Diego Chargers last week, currently sits in the sixth spot in the AFC. At 7-6 overall, they are tied, record-wise, with the Cincinnati Bengals, whom they will face in Week 16. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are also 7-6 and in eighth place in the NFC. They are stuck in a logjam outside of the playoffs with the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, who share the same record.
Meet the Dallas Cowboys
Dallas, after learning of defensive lineman Josh Brent's tragic accident that killed linebacker Jerry Brown Jr. and led authorities to charge Brent with an intoxication manslaughter charge last weekend, won a hard-fought contest over the Bengals, 20-19, thanks to a game-winning field goal from Dan Bailey as time expired.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant, nursing a fractured finger, intends to play on Sunday though he is still awaiting medical clearance. Bryant, with nine receiving touchdowns and 1,028 yards, plays a huge role in the Cowboys' 292.2 passing yards per game, an average that ranks third in the league.
Meet the Pittsburgh Steelers
A week after going on the road with Charlie Batch under center and defeating their arch-rival Baltimore Ravens, 23-20, the Steelers got quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back but fell to a previously scuffling San Diego Chargers team. Defensively, Pittsburgh isn't at full strength, and though they will likely get linebacker LaMarr Woodley back this week, cornerback Ike Taylor has been ruled out and fellow corner Cortez Allen is questionable with a hip flexor.
Despite the injuries to Roethlisberger throughout the season, the Steelers still have the NFL's 11th-best passing attack, averaging 243.2 yards through the air per game. Their running game, however, ranks 25th with an average of 98.6 yards on the ground per game. They'll also be without running back Rashard Mendenhall, who is suspended for Sunday's contest.
Local Takes: Cowboys
KD Drummond from Blogging The Boys says statistically-speaking, Romo isn't having his best year, but he's still a valuable leader and signal-caller for the Cowboys:
"Of course, nobody is saying that Romo is a quarterback without deficiencies. He's posting the worst passer rating, net yards per attempt average and touchdown percentages of his seven-year starting career. It's been a tough 2012, but his rebounding from an awful start is paramount proof that he is a quarterback worth leading your troops. His numerous second half comebacks this year only further illustrate that point."
Local Takes: Steelers
Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain says Pittsburgh might be wise in trying to win this game on the ground:
"Running the ball has been a huge problem since Week 10, only averaging 93.5 yards a game in Pittsburgh's last four games - 3.2 yards per carry. Injuries have largely contributed to that, but with Dallas's mediocre run defense (118.8 yards per game), it could be the time the Steelers get back on track running the ball.
Perhaps that's because passing isn't a great option against Dallas. Even with cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) missing practice early in the week, Dallas's defensive strength is against the pass. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is having another outstanding season (11 sacks, four forced fumbles) and will create a problem off the edge."
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The Steelers have beaten teams like the Giants and Ravens. They've also lost to teams like the Raiders, Titans, Browns and, last week, the Chargers. The Steelers are a better team than the Cowboys but Pittsburgh will undoubtedly play down to their level. Big Ben will win this one late.
The pick: 23-20, Steelers.
The Steelers and Cowboys opened with even odds this week, according to OddsShark, and the line currently remains even, although other various outlets have Pittsburgh favored on the road by anywhere between one and two points. The over/under point total for the game began the week at 44½ and has since dipped slightly, sitting at 44 now.
In Week 16, the Cowboys stay at home when they host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon, as their tough stretch run continues. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, faces their division rival Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23 at home.