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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (3-4) at Dallas (1-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A week ago, the Dallas Cowboys were a longshot to become the first team in NFL history to host a Super Bowl. Their chances at accomplishing that feat are all but gone now, thanks to a shoulder injury to Tony Romo.
Still looking for its first victory at Cowboys Stadium this season, Dallas plays host this Sunday to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are expected to have their No. 1 quarterback back under center for this contest.
The 2010 season was one filled with high expectations for Dallas, which was hoping to be playing on its home turf when Super Bowl XLV rolled around come February. Loses in five of their first six games, though, has the Cowboys last in the NFC East and fading fast.
Dallas' season took another hit, figuratively and literally, on Monday after Romo suffered a fractured left clavicle in a 41-35 loss to the New York Giants. With their signal-caller on the sidelines, the Cowboys blew a 13-point lead against their NFC East rivals to drop a third straight game and fall to 0-3 at home this season.
Though he won't need surgery, Romo is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks, so the Cowboys will now turn to Jon Kitna in an effort to right the ship. In making his first start since Oct. 5, 2008 while then with the Detroit Lions, all Kitna will be looking to do is help Dallas avoid its first four-game losing streak since the 2002 season and join the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals as just the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 1-5.
Dallas' last four-game losing streak came over the final four weeks of the 2002 season, and the club is off to its worst start since dropping the first eight games of the 1989 campaign en route to a 1-15 finish.
Kitna was 16-of-33 passing in relief of Romo on Monday night, getting sacked three times while completing a pair of touchdown passes. He didn't throw an interception, but did lose a fumble and figures to be better prepared this weekend.
"I thought Kitna was rusty," Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips said. "It just took him a while to get going. I thought when he did it gave us a chance."
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have lost two straight since back-to-back victories, but are expected to have quarterback David Garrard back at the controls in this game. Garrard did not travel with the club to Kansas City last week due to a concussion, but was cleared to practice on Tuesday and is expected to return to the starting role.
Without Garrard and backup Trent Edwards (right thumb) last Sunday, the Jaguars gave Todd Bouman his first start since Jan. 1, 2006. The 38-year-old threw for 222 yards with a pair of touchdowns, but was also picked off twice. One of those came with Jacksonville down by just a point and it was returned for a touchdown, the first of three straight scored by the Chiefs.
Jacksonville never recovered, was outscored by three touchdowns in the second half and dropped a 42-20 decision.
"If you go back and look at it, it really is simply a matter of executing at a higher level," said Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, "Things like ball security, it's about things like taking the football away, things like blocking and tackling, finishing your drives and stopping the others'. Basic execution must be much better and as I said [Sunday], I'm disappointed in what we did and I know that I must find a way for us to be better."
The Jaguars, who occupy last place in the AFC South, are trying to avoid losing three straight for the first time since they lost the last three tests of the 2009 season.
Jacksonville has scored 56 points over its last two road games, but has been beaten by a 72-23 margin over its current skid. The club is 10-5 in games before the bye, which the Jags will enjoy next weekend.
The all-time series between Dallas and Jacksonville is knotted, 2-2, with the Jaguars evening the series by virtue of a 24-17 home win in he 2006 regular season opener. The Cowboys won the previous meeting, a 21-19 affair at Texas Stadium in 2002. The Jags' lone win in Dallas all-time came in 2000, a 23-17 overtime victory and all four meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
Phillips is 2-0 in his career against the Jaguars, including a win while serving with the Bills (1998) and again as interim head man of the Falcons (2003). Del Rio, who played linebacker for the Cowboys from 1989 through 1991, is 1-0 against Dallas as a head coach, but is 0-1 against Phillips head-to- head, with the loss coming to Phillips' Falcons in 2003.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville has had little success no matter who is under center, ranking 25th in total offense (301.0 yards per game) and 28th in passing with an average of 173.3 yards per game. Garrard (838 passing yards, 9 TD, 7 INT) completed just seven passes for 49 yards before suffering his injury versus Tennessee on Oct. 18 and has yet to throw for more than 178 yards in his any of his six games so far this season. The Jaguars' subpar passing game has limited the production of wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker (21 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Marcedes Lewis (23 receptions, 5 TD), who combined for six catches and 82 yards a week ago. Sims-Walker did haul in a touchdown pass against Kansas City, as did running back Maurice Jones-Drew (510 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 3 total TD), who led the team with five catches for 74 yards after being limited to 47 rushing yards on 16 carries. Still, Jacksonville does own the league's 10th-best running game (127.7 ypg). Garrard has been sacked 12 times this year and the Jags will be without second-year right tackle Eben Britton after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last weekend. Jordan Black is expected to take Britton's place for his first start since Jan. 6, 2007.
There were some bright spots in the defensive side of the ball for the Cowboys, who rank 10th in the NFL in total defense (317.3 ypg). The unit came into the game with just four takeaways, but managed a season-high five versus the Giants. However, Dallas still gave up 41 points and 497 yards of offense, including 200 on the ground. That isn't shocking, given that Dallas ranks 21st in defending the run (117.3 ypg). Three of the five turnovers the Cowboys forced on Monday were interceptions, with cornerback Terence Newman (26 tackles, 1 INT), linebacker Keith Brooking (32 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and safety Gerald Sensabaugh (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) posting one each. Linebackers Bradie James (46 tackles) and DeMarcus Ware (27 tackles, 8 sacks) both notched a forced and recovered fumble, while James led the way with nine tackles. Ware also got the quarterback for the team's lone sack on the night. He has one in four straight games, posting seven over that span. Dallas' linebacking group, as well as ends Marcus Spears (14 tackles) and Igor Olshansky (13 tackles), will need to keep an eye on the speedy Jones-Drew and prevent him from breaking off big gains to the outside.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Kitna takes over the reigns of Dallas' fourth-ranked passing attack (289.7 ypg). The 38-year-old, who threw for 187 yards versus the Giants and completed a pair of touchdown passes to rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant, was part of Detroit's 0-16 season in 2008 and hasn't won a start since Dec. 23, 2007. Dallas could take some of the pressure off its veteran quarterback, who does own a pair of 4,000 yard passing seasons in his career, if it gets its 30th- ranked ground game (86.0 ypg) going. The club ran for just 41 yards versus New York, with Felix Jones (264 rushing yards) leading the way with nine carries for 35 yards. Bryant (22 receptions, 3 TD) had an excellent game versus the Giants, as he also took a punt return 93 yards for a score, the second-longest in team history. He also made four catches for 54 yards, though tight end Jason Witten (32 receptions, 2 TD) led the way with nine catches, 95 yards and a touchdown. Witten and wide receiver Miles Austin (36 receptions, 2 TD) form a dangerous 1-2 punch that the Jaguars will look to contain. Wide receiver Roy Williams (21 receptions, 5 TD) came into Monday's game with 14 catches and five touchdowns in his previous three games, but was held without a reception by the Giants. The Cowboys could be forced to start undrafted rookie Phil Costa at left guard if both Kyle Kosier (Achilles) and Montrae Holland can't play. Costa made his NFL debut on Monday after Holland hurt his groin.
If Dallas is ever going to get its running game going, this would be the week. Jacksonville ranks 30th in total defense (382.1 ypg) and 25th versus the rush (129.0 ypg), and allowed the Chiefs to post 236 yards on the ground last weekend. Three of Kansas City's touchdowns also came on the ground and from three different backs. Defensive end Aaron Kampman (21 tackles, 4 sacks) will try to keep Jones away from the outside, while tackles Tyson Alualu (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and Terrance Knighton (17 tackles, 3 sacks) will try to clog the center. Kampman has 2 1/2 sacks in his last three games and will have a new starter on the opposite side, as former first-round pick Derrick Harvey (6 tackles, 1 sack) has been benched in favor of Jeremy Mincey. Harvey was drafted eighth overall in 2008, but has just six sacks in 39 career games. Safety Courtney Greene (32 tackles, 1 INT) led the Jags with 12 tackles last weekend, while linebacker Justin Durant (19 tackles) had eight. Jacksonville failed to record a takeaway versus the Chiefs and the club is minus-10 in turnover differential. Cornerback Rashean Mathis (28 tackles) had an interception the only other time he faced the Cowboys, but is still looking for his first of this season. Jacksonville ranks 31st in the NFL in scoring defense as well, as it is allowing 29.9 points per game.
The Jaguars don't score a lot of points, and that obviously hurts in the fantasy department. Jones-Drew is about the only must-play here, because of his ability to catch the ball as well as run it. Garrard is a risk, even during this quarterback-thin Week 8, and his inconsistency hurts Sims-Walker and fellow wideout Mike Thomas. Lewis is a great red zone target, but Jacksonville has to get there first. Avoid the defense. Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee is a perfect 13-for-13 on field goal tries, with nine of those coming from longer than 40 yards.
Romo owners are left scrambling for help this weekend, but Kitna isn't an awful replacement. He has had success in the past and has some good options around him. Witten figures to be his safety net and is a great play this week. Bryant is starting to become more involved in the offense and his value is rising. Austin is always a decent play as well, but does draw top coverage. Dallas' defense should have success versus Jacksonville, and kicker David Buehler is 8-for-11 on field goal tries this year.
The Cowboys are at a crossroads as they look to save their season without Romo. Dallas is looking at a pretty tough schedule the rest of the way, and the seat is getting hot for Phillips. The same could be said for the Jaguars, and though expectations were probably lower in Jacksonville, both Del Rio and Garrard are aiming to save their jobs as well. Good luck in this matchup. We've probably said this before, but we just can't see Dallas losing a must- win game at home against a lesser opponent like the Jaguars.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 24, Jaguars 17
10/28 16:28:40 ET