It's the final game of the 2012 NFL regular season, and it could be the highest rated game of the year. Last Sunday night, as expected, NBC flexed the Week 17 matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, a game at FedEx Field in Landover that will decide the NFC East champion. It's a winner-take-all situation between the two bitter rivals -- a scenario that seemed remote at the midpoint of the season. While the Redskins still have an outside shot at the playoffs with a loss, the winner will automatically slot into the No. 4 seed in the NFC and host a playoff game next week.
Robert Griffin III lit up the Dallas defense in the teams' first meeting on Thanksgiving Day. It was the highest-rated game of the season to date, and Sunday night's finale should eclipse that mark. The win came just four days after a victory over the Eagles, and that successful week propelled Washington to their current six-game streak to put them in the driver's seat of the NFC East. Until last week, that Thanksgiving loss had been the Cowboys only defeat in the second half of the season. Tony Romo has led Dallas to wins in five of their past seven games for a second-half surge of their own that has put them in prime position to make the postseason. While there will be plenty of meaningless football played on Sunday, the nightcap in DC should more than make up for things in the final week of the regular season.
Meet the Redskins
The Redskins are on the verge of their first postseason appearance since the 2006 season. Robert Griffin III instantly flipped the fortunes of a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity with a boring offense. The dynamic rookie quarterback will be making his first Sunday night appearance in what may be the biggest game in the history of FedEx Field. Even by his own admission, RGIII was limited a bit last week against the Eagles. He stated throughout the week that he should have much better mobility against the Cowboys, a team he torched in a dazzling second quarter on Thanksgiving.
Thanks to Griffin and fellow rookie Alfred Morris, the Redskins have the top rushing attack in the NFL at 162.3 yards per game. The duo's success out of the backfield is also due in large part to the adjustments made by Mike and Kyle Shanahan, who have employed a college-style Pistol system, excellently documented by Chris Brown this week. Morris is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has surpassed all expectations after Washington selected him in the sixth round last April. The rookie rusher bursts through holes opened up by the offensive line and consistently gets into the second level of the defense. He has five touchdowns in the past five games and will be a serious threat against an injured and vulnerable Dallas defense, which gave up 113 yards to Morris in Week 12.
RGIII's passing abilities have been just as impressive as the zone-read looks and production on the ground. Much of the damage against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving came through the air, as Griffin threw for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns. He went deep and over the top of the Dallas secondary on several occasions, and the return of Pierre Garcon has been a huge big-play boost in the second half of the season. Garcon moved with ease through the middle of the field and outside the numbers against Dallas.
The biggest reason for Washington's underwhelming 3-6 start was their weak defense, particularly a porous secondary. The defense has improved in the past month, but Romo and the Cowboys will still have plenty of opportunities for big plays down the field. The Redskins are giving up 287.7 yards per game through the air, 30th in the league. Dallas has the third-best pass game in the NFL, and Dez Bryant has emerged as one of the top receivers in the NFL over the past eight games. London Fletcher and Ryan Kerrigan anchor a front seven which should limit the Dallas run game, but can Jim Haslett's mishmash secondary keep a hot Romo from putting up points in bunches?
Meet the Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys enter the final week of the season facing a win-or-go-home scenario for the second straight season. The Cowboys were blown out by the Giants in a 2011 finale that decided the NFC East, and they'll have chance to make amends on Sunday in DC. It starts with Romo, who bears the burden of a narrative that he repeatedly fails in the biggest games. But the Cowboys QB has thrown just three interceptions over the past eight games while carrying Dallas to the precipice of the postseason.
Last week, Dallas had a three-game win streak snapped against the Saints, but the outcome had no effect on the winner-take-all showdown against the Skins. In that game, Romo and the offense continued their impressive play, as the Dallas quarterback threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns in a comeback effort that forced overtime. Romo has established an excellent connection with the freakishly talented Bryant, who's exploded for 10 touchdowns in the last seven games. Bryant is playing with a broken finger that will require surgery, and was initially reported as ending his season early in December, but he has adjusted to the limitation and registered 224 yards receiving last week. With Washington's poor defensive backfield, a big night from the Romo-Byrant duo is Dallas' likeliest path to victory.
The pass game has been forced to carry a one-dimensional offense that averages just 77.7 yards per game on the ground -- second-worst in the league. The injury-prone DeMarco Murray started the season strong, but his year was promptly derailed by a six-game absence because of injury. He's an athletic back that, when healthy, is a serious threat to break 100 yards every game. But Murray is still not 100 percent and Jason Garrett's offense will continue to emphasize the pass on Sunday night.
Rob Ryan's defense will have the unenviable task of trying to contain Griffin. DeMarcus Ware is one of the NFL's elite defenders, but he's nursing a shoulder injury this week. Both Ware and Anthony Spencer are the primary rushers off the edge, and they will be crucial to containing RG3 and the zone-reads the Redskins employ frequently. The Shanahans set up the Dallas defense with play-action in their first meeting, and Griffin ripped through the Cowboys secondary deep down the field. Brandon Carr, Mike Jenkins and Morris Claiborne will have to limit RG3's work outside the numbers and try to force turnovers on the road. If the Dallas defense can keep things close, Romo will certainly have the opportunities against the Redskins secondary to pull off the upset and put Dallas in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.
Local Takes: Redskins
Hogs Haven has the game covered from all angles, including an excellent breakdown of what the Redskins will need to do on defense:
One counter to playing Bryant would be to play zone coverage. But the Cowboys have a certain tight end named Jason Witten who has ten years of experience finding holes in zone coverage. The moment the Redskins call zone coverage, Romo's eyes will go straight to his favorite tight end. Witten had nine receptions for 74 yards first time around and was a constant thorn in the Redskins side as he kept the chains moving on important drives. Like Bryant, he will need to be accounted for.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Jim Haslett and his Redskins defense plays this one out. They've kept themselves alive by causing turnovers. The Cowboys have a minus ten turnover differential, so there is hope that the Redskins can continue to creating turnovers, but its never a guaranteed thing.
Local Takes: Cowboys
The folks over at Blogging the Boys highlighted some of the keys to victory for Dallas, one of which is the all-important turnover margin:
Dallas is 8-3 this season in games in which they have generated at least one turnover (and, obviously, 0-4 in games in which they have failed to notch a TO). As we have seen, this injury-riddled defensive group isn't capable of dominating opponents, limiting their yards, or getting a lot of three-and-outs. In the five games since they lost Bruce Carter - the last in a series of season-ending injuries suffered by Dallas' starters - the Cowboys have given up an average of 429 yards per contest. They are 302 total yards from matching 2010's historically bad defensive totals. Clearly, they are out-manned, so what they need to do to help the team win is to get stops, by any means necessary - ideally in the form of a turnovers, which feeds the offense the ball and keeps the defense off the field. Over the season, the Redskins have been very fortunate in this regard, recovering a very high percentage of their own fumbles. On Sunday, the Cowboys wold benefit from a slight regression to the mean.
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DRUMROLL.................................Redskins - Cowboys Media Predictions: wtim.es/TK15fp— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) December 28, 2012
Watkins: DeMarco Murray excited for shot at Redskins: IRVING, Texas -- The last time the Cowboys were faced wi... es.pn/10y4PT8— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 29, 2012
A belated Christmas present for football fans. This game is on Sunday night, and it should be a beauty. The Redskins have now won six-straight games. Incredibly, they were 3-6 at one point. The dream season will continue and everyone will get the gift they wanted -- RGIII in the playoffs.
The pick: 24-20, Redskins
Playing at home, the Redskins are favored by 3.5 points in most places, according to OddsShark.
The winner will play next week in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, likely hosting the Seattle Seahawks. While the Cowboys season automatically ends with a loss, the Redskins could still claim the final Wild Card spot if they lose. They'll need both the Bears and Vikings to lose earlier on Sunday in order for that to happen.