Week 17 Preview: Do or Die for Cowboys, Redskins in the NFC East

December 29, 2012
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It all comes down to this.

Sunday night, the Cowboys and Redskins face off for the NFC East title and the last remaining NFC playoff spot.  Winner moves on to play in January, loser leaves empty-handed and full of regret.

To steal a line from the NBA Playoffs, Win or Go Home.

It’s now or never for Cowboys fans, who expect nothing less than at least a playoff appearance every year.  However, after another mediocre season plagued with injuries and full of blown chances, that opportunity has dwindled, and now the Cowboys face a must-win situation Sunday night to make the playoffs for the third time in the last five years.  Typical Cowboys.

The Redskins, on the other hand, with the help of rookie QB sensation Robert Griffin III, have done a complete turnaround from last season’s dismal 5-11 record and now sit atop the NFC East at 9-6.  If RG3 can work his magic again Sunday night, he may not only be able to deliver a playoff berth, but also be able to give the team its first winning season since 2007-2008 (when Jason Campbell was at the helm).

The quarterback matchup will be the one to watch throughout the game, as both Robert Griffin III and Tony Romo are dangerous in the pocket and present many challenges for opposing defenses.  In a sense, RG3 is simply a younger Tony Romo.  He employs many of the same qualities, such as the ability to scramble and create a play out of nothing with his legs when the pocket is collapsing.  Even after sitting out two games with an injured knee, he has rushed for over 750 yards on the season, beyond impressive for a QB.  This unique skill paired with a strong, accurate arm is why RG3 has the second highest QB rating of 2012 at 104.1, behind only Aaron Rogers at 106.2.  Romo, on the other hand, rounds out the top 10 quarterbacks with a passer rating of 92.5, but averages about 40 yds more per game through the air per game than RG3.  While he has thrown more interceptions on the year (16 as opposed to RG3’s 5), that can be partially attributed to his weak offensive line play throughout the season.  Although he is one of the most decorated QBs in Cowboys history, his dismal 1-3 playoff record often leads to questions of Romo’s ability as to whether or not he can lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl.  Essentially a playoff game Sunday night, Romo can help silence his critics if he can step up and make big plays when they count to help his team win, but Robert Griffin III and co would like to thwart that chance again this year.

Opposite these all-star quarterbacks are two very formidable foes in the defensive packages created by Rob Ryan and Jim Haslett.  The play of the defensive line will be a huge factor throughout the game, as both teams need to get pressure on the quarterback to force errors and turnovers.  The play of DeMarcus Ware will be especially notable for the Cowboys, as he is dealing with multiple injuries and his effectiveness may be limited.  Even so, he forces the Redskins O-line to worry about him, opening up opportunities for Anthony Spencer and other players to step up and make big plays.  The Cowboys’ secondary must play better as well, for they have been suspicious throughout the season, allowing the most yards per game in the league at 409.9; however, they have been playing without 5 of their defensive starters.  If new stars like Brandon Carr and first round pick CB Morris Claiborne can lock down receivers like Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss, they will take away a big downfield threat; unfortunately, this means RG3 will be forced to use his legs and likely still make some sort of play.  For the Cowboys to have a chance to win the game, the defense must be near perfect Sunday night.

The run game is another aspect to watch in Sunday’s matchup, as both teams have emerging stars at running back in the Redskins’ Alfred Morris and the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray.  While Murray is still working back from a foot injury, he has been effective in certain packages in recent weeks, and is capable of breaking open a big run or churning his legs to fight for every yard on 4th & 1.  Morris, on the other hand, is having a breakout first season, averaging nearly 5 yards a carry and rushing for 10 TDs for the Redskins.  Keep an eye on both of these players to have big moments on key drives down the stretch for their teams.

Do or Die.  Both teams have a lot on the line Sunday night, and although they face elimination from playoff contention, they both control their own destiny.  To win the game, the Cowboys must limit their turnovers, decrease their penalties (one of the most penalized teams in the league all season), and avoid another slow start in the first half, especially when playing on the road at Washington.  The Redskins will look to exploit the Cowboys’ defensive weaknesses with pass plays over the middle and RG3’s arm, but they too must contain a Cowboys offense that has won 5 of their last 7 and seemed to click in recent weeks.  Ultimately, the game will come down to turnovers and the defense that can best contain the opposing QB.  Special teams will play a part, and field-goal kickers Dan Bailey and Kai Forbath should have their legs ready.  I predict a close game that comes down to the final 5 minutes, and whichever team has the ball last will have a chance to win the game.  Strap on your seat belts folks, this is going to be a wild ride…

My pick: Can’t give up on my ‘Boys just yet… Cowboys with a late game-winning drive in the 4th quarter (as has become customary this season) and win by 3.  Not that it matters, because whoever wins is going to get crushed by Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll, and the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs…

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