On Sunday night, the Cowboys and Redskins will tangle for the NFC East title. One team will go home, and the other will head to the playoffs for a chance to win the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys have fought like dogs over the past couple of months to give themselves a chance at a playoff berth. Their impressive run, one that started way back in Week 10, includes a sweep of the Philadelphia Eagles, two last-second victories against the Bengals and Steelers, and a seven-point loss to the Redskins.
In that game against Washington, the Cowboys were down by 25 points by halftime, and clawed their way back to within 10 points by the fourth quarter.
But during that game, the Cowboys were without running back DeMarco Murray and center Ryan Cook.
Murray’s presence should bring an extra spark to Dallas’ offensive attack, something they missed in their first matchup with Washington.
In addition to Murray’s return, there are a few more things fans should look for while watching the un-official NFC championship game.
DeMarcus Ware’s Shoulder
According to reports, Ware may need offseason surgery to repair his injured shoulder. He is being coy about whether he will have it or not, but when it was reported that Ware’s shoulder popped out of place during the Saints game, I believe the team officially got nervous.
Ware has promised to play on Sunday night, going so far as to say that the pain may be all mental.
“You have to be mentally sharp, knowing what’s going on. They throw a lot of stuff at you. The Washington Redskins do, and you've got to figure out: How can I get an edge? I feel like physically I'm there, but mentally I can get better."
Keep an eye on his progress Sunday night. In addition to the shoulder, Ware has a hyperextended elbow and will wear a brace to protect it.
Ware was just named to his seventh straight Pro Bowl, so a half-healthy Ware is better than no Ware at all on Sunday.
Dez Bryant vs. DeAngelo Hall
Hall is one of the most overrated cornerbacks in the NFL, but that’s just my opinion. He is a decent starter, but is often beat, and uses his mouth to talk up what he lacks in coverage skills.
Hall is also one of the best trash talkers in the NFL. He is known to get under the skin of many a receiver, which helps to throw his opponent off of his game.
In preparation for his go again with Hall, Bryant told Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News that he will not let the mouthy defensive back sneak his way into his mind.
“Back then, it probably would have worked. But not now. I understand the game, I understand what other players want to do to benefit their game, but I am very confident about it.”
Not saying that Bryant will lapse, but he jawed back and forth with Hall during their Thanksgiving Day throwdown. Bryant jumped at Hall, even going so far as to look out for a referee so that he wouldn’t be seen trying to hit Hall.
Bryant also has a broken finger, something Hall will try to target. When the Redskins visited Cowboys stadium in September of 2011, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was playing with a pair of injured ribs.
Before the game, Hall said that he would aim for Romo’s ribs, and running back Felix Jones’ bum shoulder.
Hopefully, the maturity that we’ve seen from Bryant over the past month holds up on Sunday when Hall says whatever he can to get the receiver to make a dumb mistake.
The Cowboys haven’t been a scoring machine this season, but they are a respectable 14th in the league in points scored.
That is due in part to the Cowboys inability to score in the first quarter. Dallas ranks a lowly 30th in first quarter points with just 2.4 point average in the first 15 minutes of the game.
Not to keep piling on, but the Cowboys are 29th in first half points average with 7.8. Simply put, Dallas cannot afford to fall behind the Redskins early again.
But there is good news.
When the last two quarters of the game start, Dallas averages almost 20 points in the second half, good enough for third in the NFL.
The Cowboys do a magnificent job of finding their offense in the second half, but they will have to find it faster than that if they want to beat the Redskins and Robert Griffin III.
Watch for how fast the Cowboys start, and if Dallas head coach Jason Garrett tries different looks and plays to kick-start their lethargic offensive engine.
How Rob Ryan Plays RGIII
Bobby Three Sticks torched the Cowboys in his first game against Dallas. Griffin had over 300 yards passing and four touchdowns. He helped his team open a 25-point lead over the ‘Skins in the first half, leaving them to an impressive one-touchdown victory.
While RGIII should have plenty of confidence against a Cowboys defense that is riddled with injuries, and one that he destroyed just a month ago, Dallas should be excited for another go at the rookie quarterback.
Dallas may have to depend on linebacker Anthony Spencer’s new found pass rushing ability to pressure RGIII if Ware is a non-factor. The Cowboys struggled against the zone read that the Redskins run so well, so watching how Ryan defends against Griffin and the zone read will be interesting.
The Cowboys will also have tape on the young quarterback. Griffin is no regular rookie quarterback, just check his stats for 2012, but the Dallas defense will have a better idea of how to defend against RGIII because they’ve played him once before.
There is no need for me, or anyone else, to tell the Cowboys how important this game is for them. Not many people want Dallas to beat Washington, just peep at the ESPN poll screenshot or listen to the Tony Kornheiser Show.
Dallas is still football enemy number one in some circles, and when Sunday night arrives for Week 17, fans from both teams will be ready to find out which team will make it out of FedEx Field with a spot in the playoffs.
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