NFL Preview - Dallas (11-4) at Washington (4-11)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - So much for that December breakdown.
The Dallas Cowboys didn't buy into that theory this season and are NFC East champions for the first time since 2009. The Cowboys will put the finishing touches on the regular season Sunday against the division-rival Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
Dallas cinched up an NFC East crown with Sunday's 42-7 dismantling of Andrew Luck and the AFC South-champion Indianapolis Colts. Tony Romo, who's notorious for collapsing toward the end of the season, tossed four touchdown passes and threw for 218 yards with no interceptions.
"It's great to see the guys go out and play a really good football game when we needed it," said Romo, who passed Troy Aikman for the most passing yards in franchise history and completed 18-of-20 attempts.
Romo finished the game with a 151.7 passer rating, setting an NFL record for six games this season with a rating over 135.0, surpassing Steve Young (1993) and Peyton Manning (2013). He has won seven of past 11 starts against the Redskins and leads the NFL with a 114.4 rating.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is glad to have Romo on his side.
"I'm confident as we go into the tournament that we're going to have as good of quarterback play as any other team in the NFL," Jones said Sunday. "I think Romo is there. I'm going to say it one more time ... somehow, someway he needs to have a Super Bowl by his name. He's that good."
Philadelphia's loss to the Redskins on Saturday set the stage for Romo and Dallas, which has won three in a row and five of its last six games. The Cowboys can still a first-round bye under a few scenarios. A win plus losses by Seattle and Arizona will give the Cowboys an extra week of rest.
Here's an unlikely scenario: If the Cowboys win, Detroit-Green Bay ends in a tie and either Arizona loses or Seattle wins, Dallas will clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Dallas has been outstanding on the road this season as evidenced by a 7-0 record. It is 3-2 against the NFC East and 7-4 in conference action.
It is unknown if head coach Jason Garrett will rest his players in DC.
"Our plan is to practice as well as we can practice and go play our best football game with the guys who are available to us," Garrett said. "We're excited about that opportunity. That's what we do here."
Cowboys running back and NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray played with a broken hand versus the Colts and could take a breather again the Redskins. He has 1,745 yards on 373 carries, so the possibility of reaching 2,000 yards is pretty much out of reach. He is 29 yards shy for the most rushing yards in a season, as Emmitt Smith currently holds the record of 1,773 yards in 1995.
Murray has 11 100-yard rushing games this season, which is tied with Smith for the most in a season for the Cowboys.
The Redskins ended a six-game losing streak with a 27-24 victory over the Eagles and spoiled Philly's chances of making a playoff run.
Defensive back Bashaud Breeland intercepted Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez's pass at the Washington 42-yard line inside the two-minute warning and Pierre Garcon later broke a tackle to set up Kai Forbath's 26-yard field goal with five seconds remaining.
Philadelphia had one last chance and Sanchez's desperation heave was batted down in the end zone.
"Love the way our team battled and competed," said Redskins coach Jay Gruden. "There's been a lot of talk about people quitting and you can see what type of guys we have. Guys didn't quit."
Alfred Morris rushed for 83 yards on 21 carries and joined Stephen Davis (1999-2001) as the only running backs in team history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Robert Griffin III made the start at quarterback and didn't have to do much, completing 16 of his 23 passes for 220 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
DeSean Jackson finished with 126 yards on four catches and will wrap up his first season in Washington this weekend. The former Eagle was asked if the team misses his big-play capability.
"That's a question you have to ask them," Jackson said. "As far as my ex- teammates, I think a lot of the guys miss me. I'm happy to be here in Washington. Things didn't go the way we wanted it go this year, but at the end of the day, we've got a job to do, which is to finish strong."
The Redskins are 4-11 on the season and a win Sunday over the Cowboys would give them the most wins since a 10-6 record and an NFC East title in 2012. The 'Skins were only 3-13 in 2013.
Washington defeated Dallas, 20-17, in overtime on Oct. 27 in Big D, as Forbath booted a 40-yard field goal to win it. Morris had 73 yards and a touchdown, while Murray ran for 141 yards in defeat. Morris has rushed for seven scores in the past five encounters with the rival Cowboys.
Dallas leads the all-time series with a 64-41-2 advantage in the regular season over Washington and has won five of the past eight meetings, including both matchups in 2013. The Redskins haven't swept a season series from the Cowboys since 2012.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Offensive play caller Scott Linehan pulled all the right strings for the Cowboys to this point and is hoping the success continues. It's difficult to fail with a savvy quarterback, a dynamic wide receiver and running back, and a stout offensive line, but it's happened in the past.
This season had a different feel to it and the Cowboys never quit.
Garrett reflected on the Week 1 loss versus San Francisco in which Romo threw three interceptions to just one touchdown. Romo, of course, dealt with a back issue all season.
"I felt like he was making progress physically, almost day by day and week by week since the start of the offseason," Garrett said. "At different times he didn't look quite like himself physically because of the work he'd done in training camp or because of something that happened in a previous game. I think he's had some of those moments throughout the year. But that's every player. Some guys are banged up at different times. Tony's a tough guy. He's a physically tough guy. He's a mentally tough guy. I knew he was going to respond the right way. That's how he's responded throughout his career. I knew he was going to get better physically."
Dallas went on to win six in a row after the loss to the 49ers. Romo has thrown for 18 touchdowns to just two interceptions his last seven games, and is four TD strikes shy of matching a career-high 36 set in 2007. He should come close to that mark if he plays the entire game in Washington because the Redskins secondary is one of the weakest in the league.
"I just feel very comfortable throwing the football," Romo said. "Those are things that come with age and experience and working your butt off to technically perfect your craft. When you're feeling good in that rhythm throwing it, I always felt like I could read it and see it, but you need that fundamental aspect of the game to take it to the next level. I think I've done a better job of that this year.'
Romo has catapulted himself to MVP status. It helps to have Dez Bryant at receiver. Bryant leads the Cowboys in receptions (84), receiving yards (1,221) and receiving touchdowns (14). He needs six receptions to become the first Cowboy with 90 or more catches, 1,000-plus yards and 10 or more receiving TDs in three straight seasons.
The Redskins will try to expose Dallas' defense with the vertical threat of Jackson and Garcon. Garcon had 47 yards on four receptions in the first meeting with Dallas and Jackson caught six passes for 136 yards. Jackson leads the Redskins with 1,083 yards and has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past two seasons and four times in his career.
Jackson has never had fewer than 700 yards in a season.
"He's been great, man," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. "I gained a lot of respect for DeSean. Whatever happened in the past in Philadelphia I don't know, but I know since that he's been a Washington Redskin, he's been solid to be around. He's been a good worker and obviously he's a big-time threat all the time."
In 11 career games against Dallas, Jackson has 810 yards and only one touchdown on 42 catches.
"Anytime the Redskins play the Cowboys, it doesn't matter what your record is, it should be great motivation and that's definitely going to be my No. 1 tool this week for motivation is just beating the Cowboys," Gruden said.
Gruden utilizes Jackson's speed and home run-hitting ability, and it doesn't matter who's throwing him the football. Gruden played musical chairs with his quarterbacks all season and Griffin could be playing his final game with Washington, which drafted him second overall in 2012.
Defensively, Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has recorded a full sack in five straight games and has 13 1/2 on the season. He is currently tied with former linebacker Ken Harvey for the most sacks in a single season by an LB.
If the Redskins had the chance to spoil the season for the Cowboys on Sunday, they would accomplish the task because misery loves company.
Not the case this weekend.
Dallas is in and could probably care less how the season finale unfolds. The Cowboys, though, should take it seriously in order to prepare for a tough NFC opponent in the postseason.
Entering the playoffs on a losing note doesn't breed positivity.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Cowboys 27, Redskins 20
12/28 09:00:00 ET