This season was supposed to be the year the Dallas Cowboys finally pushed through their December struggles and broke back into the playoffs. It was the year that Tony Romo was supposed to shake the label of choke artist. As you may have heard, that hasn't gone very well in recent weeks. There's still time to accomplish those goals -- beginning with a road trip to the lowly Washington Redskins this Sunday -- but the margin for error is gone.
Dallas's epic collapse against Green Bay last week was capped by a pair of late Tony Romo interceptions, epitomizing and reinforcing all the criticisms of the Cowboys of the last half-decade. Romo threw two picks in the game's final five minutes, allowing the Packers to storm back from a 23-point halftime deficit and put the Cowboys once-promising playoff chances in serious danger. At 7-7, they trail the Eagles by one game in the NFC East with a showdown in Philadelphia looming in Week 17.
The Redskins, of course, have their own problems. The final month of their nightmare 3-11 season has turned ugly as a media circus over Mike Shanahan's strained relationship with Robert Griffin III and team owner Dan Snyder has continued unabated. It doesn't seem as though Shanahan expects to be brought back next season, and he flaunted his nothing-to-lose attitude last Sunday by going for a two-point conversion instead of the tie late in the Skins' one-point loss to Atlanta.
Meet the Redskins
Lost in the controversy surrounding RGIII's benching is the fact that Kirk Cousins looked pretty good against the Falcons. In what could amount to his audition heading into the trade market, Cousins threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns, including a score to pull the Skins within a PAT of a tie with just 18 seconds left (although he also had three costly turnovers). The change under center didn't affect the production of the reliable Pierre Garcon, who needs just 11 receptions over the final two games to break Art Monk's franchise single-season receiving record. While running back Alfred Morris is well behind his yardage and touchdown paces from last season, he's also received considerably fewer touches and is averaging the same 4.8 yards per carry he did as a rookie.
While media coverage in the nation's capitol has focused on the quarterback position, the Redskins have major questions to answer about their linebacking corps in the coming months. Both Brian Orakpo and Perry Riley Jr. are scheduled to become free agents, and 16-year vet London Fletcher announced earlier this week that he is "99 percent certain" this will be his final season.
Meet the Cowboys
Outside of inopportune turnovers and perceived lack of clutch, the Cowboys offense is rather loaded for a deep playoff run. Romo is on pace for his highest touchdown total since 2007 and has had one of his best seasons as a pro, the last five minutes against the Packers excluded. He's been helped by the emergence of Dez Bryant, who made an absurd catch over a pair of defenders late against the Packers for his 11th score of the season. DeMarco Murray has gone over 130 yards on the ground in each of his last two games and can earn his first career 1,000 yard rushing season with 33 yards against the Redskins.
The defense, on the other hand, has been atrocious. They rank dead last in total yardage allowed and, with two particularly bad games to close the season, could potentially pass last year's Saints as the worst statistical defense in league history. Compounding an already weak unit has been a seemingly unending list of injuries, and a slew of key defenders have missed practice this week: DeMarcus Ware, George Selvie, Ernie Sims, Sean Lee and Morris Claiborne. Lee and Claiborne are not expected to play on Sunday.
Local Takes: Redskins
Before anybody gets big ideas about Cousins sparking a quarterback battle in DC, Ken Meringolo at Hogs Haven has some preemptive words:
First of all, no matter how well Cousins plays, a quarterback controversy is not a likely outcome. Luckily for those of us who think that a quarterback controversy would be just what this town needs to descend into the next level of hell, our offensive line is prepared to ensure that no quarterback plays well enough to make that happen.
Local Takes: Cowboys
The Redskins have used the blitz particularly well against the Cowboys in recent years, but Dawn Macelli at Blogging the Boys thinks Murray could be the key to preventing that this time around:
[Washington defensive coordinator] Jim Haslett has killed Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys with his array of blitzes over the past few meetings. Now, with the offensive line finally figuring out the zone blocking scheme and Murray running like the ball carrier that the Dallas Cowboys feel that he can be, Jason Garrett has a weapon that can make the Skins pay for Haslett's aggressiveness. If they team can force the Washington defense to respect the run, they will have to protect against being gashed on the ground and will not be able to resort to overloading the pass rush.
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Cowboys Injury Report: Morris Claiborne Out, Terrance Williams Added To Injury List http://t.co/VELD7Tlvf6— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) December 18, 2013
Five of SB Nation's six NFL experts picked Dallas with only Jason Chilton picking the Redskins.
The oddsmakers are clearly factoring in Dallas's propensity for late-season meltdowns and have them favored by just 2.5 points, according to Oddsshark.com. The over/under has been set at 53½.
Assuming they beat the Redskins, the Cowboys will get one last shot at the playoffs when they square off against the Eagles to close the season. Washington travels to New York to take on the Giants in a battle of division bottom-feeders.