With two weeks left in the NFL regular season, the Dallas Cowboys are playing for their playoff lives Sunday when they face the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Dallas currently sits at 8-6 on the season, tied with New York and Washington atop the NFC East. The Cowboys also remain alive for a Wild Card berth should they not win the division, as part of a five-way tie for the final playoff spot. The Saints, which have been decimated by suspensions this season resulting from a bounty system implemented by the team in previous years, are at 6-8 and virtually eliminated from playoff contention.
Meet the Dallas Cowboys
As has been the case for years, the Cowboys live and die on the sometimes fickle arm of quarterback Tony Romo. The veteran signalcaller has put together one of his finest seasons since taking over as Cowboys quarterback in 2007, completing 66.7 percent of his pass attempts for 4,269 yards and 22 touchdowns. Romo needs just 215 yards in his last two games to set a career high for yardage.
On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Morris Claiborne returns after missing last week's win over the Steelers due to injury. Safety Charlie Peprah returns, as well, giving the Cowboys a full complement of defensive backs to combat the Saints' high-octane passing game.
Meet the New Orleans Saints
The Saints need to win their last two games to get to 8-8 and put themselves in playoff contention. They also need four other teams to collapse, meaning eight other games have to break their way if they are to get into a tie for the final playoff spot. While they are not completely eliminated at this point, the Saints can see the writing on the wall.
Quarterback Drew Brees has been his usual phenomenal self this year, leading the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and 4,335 passing yards. Wide receiver Marques Colston is just 51 yards shy of a 1,000-yard campaign, his sixth in seven professional seasons.
It is the Saints defense, decimated by the "Bountygate" controversy, that has been unpredictable this year. Last week, the Saints shut out Tampa Bay at home. The week before, they gave up 52 points to the New York Giants. The New Orleans defense ranks 31st in the league in both rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed, and their 27.1 average points allowed per game is second-worst in the NFC.
Local Takes: Dallas Cowboys
Blogging the Boys, the SB Nation Dallas Cowboys site, is praising defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the Cowboys scouts for finding talent in unlikely spots this season:
Ryan is fielding a defense that still has a lot of talent in players like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, but he has relied on free agents who were signed off the street. Ernie Sims looks like he has finally found a role in the NFL. Eric Frampton was primarily a special teams player for the Vikings, but when he has been on the field he looks like a decent player for the Cowboys. Charlie Peprah could provide Ryan with another safety who can relieve McCray in coverage, and you have to be excited about the future of Sterling Moore.
The Cowboys' scouting department has really done a tremendous job of acquiring talent that nobody else seemed to want. Even their recent acquisition of cornerback Michael Coe looks like a good move. Coe was thrown into the lineup last week against the Steelers and he provided adequate coverage.
Local Takes: New Orleans Saints
SB Nation New Orleans Saints blog Canal Street Chronicles is focused on the slim possibility that the Saints can make the playoffs, and the hearbreak that will come when that flicker of hope is extinguished:
This season is done, and we all know it. But it's not officially done, not technically. There is still room for heartbreak. There is plenty of room in a season that somehow already topped the ultimate weird and miserable that Haslett and Brooks were able to conjure.
In the next two weeks we will either be forced to accept the recent history of non-playoff-bound Saints teams and embrace it to realize how not-so-damn-bad we have it these days, or - as I dread - we will recognize that whatever emotional brutality we face in the next two weeks is truly special, torturously unique - not just because it sets a new mark, but due to the unnatural height of the bar it somehow cleared.
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It's the little things that show just how much the Saints miss Sean Payton this season. Plus some big things. sbn.to/VUav2m— Canal St. Chronicles (@CSCtweet) December 21, 2012
Elliot Harrison of NFL.com sees the offenses dominating Sunday's game:
This has the makings of a shootout. Yes, I know the New Orleans Saints just pitched a shutout against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Get that image out of your head. Now. Tony Romo has been playing at a much higher level than Josh Freeman. Not to mention, this game is not in New Orleans. (Alright, I just mentioned that.) The Saints' pass rush is not a team strength, so they won't be able to capitalize on the Dallas Cowboys' biggest weakness: the offensive line. I do anticipate Drew Brees exposing Dallas' inside linebackers in coverage against backs and tight end Jimmy Graham. Thus, this will be a high-scoring game.
Prediction: Cowboys 38 - Saints 24.
Dallas is a 2-point favorite, according to OddsShark.com.
Dallas closes out its regular season next week at Washington. New Orleans finishes its 2012 season at the Superdome against Carolina.