Cowboys on familiar ground with win-or-go-home Week 17
In the offseason, Dallas coach Jason Garrett visited the Yankees' spring-training home in Tampa, and sought out Derek Jeter. Garrett was raised in Yankee country, so he has great respect for the Yankee shortstop, and he wanted to ask him about leadership. In this way: We have guys on our team -- Tony Romo and Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware -- who are well-respected, and guys in the locker room look up to them, but they're not holler guys. They're not leaders in the classic sense of the word. What's your take on leadership and how vocal guys have to be?
According to Garrett, Jeter said this: "It ain't about what you say. I've been around guys over the years who talk a lot, and they weren't necessarily considered leaders. It's about what you do, how you practice, how you run out ground balls hard every time.''
Garrett liked that, because he's around guys like Romo and Witten and Ware, and he sees them doing the right things. And on Sunday night in Washington, they'll have one more chance to do the right thing on the field and get into the playoffs when they play an NFC East championship game for the third time in four seasons.
Dallas won the NFC East on the last day of the 2009 season, 24-0 over Philadelphia. The Cowboys lost the NFC East on the last day of the 2011 season, 31-14 to the Giants. Now they complete the NFC East title trifecta, playing the last team in the group, Washington, at what will be a nutty FedEx Field, nuttiness fueled by the excitement of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III running the option offense called by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
It's no secret I like Romo as a player a lot. I know he won't be considered among the best in the game until he plays better in the playoffs; no quarterback is an all-timer if he's invisible in January, and Romo's won only one playoff game in an eight-year starting career. When I posted a note this week on Twitter that Romo, in the last two Decembers, has thrown 20 touchdowns with two interceptions, a familiar barrage came back. Many wrote some form of: What's he done in January? A few said something like: Yeah, and the Cowboys are 4-5 in those games. He leads the Cowboys on two long drives in the last five minutes last week to tie the Saints and force overtime, but the Cowboys allow 562 yards to New Orleans and lose. Again, Romo can't win the big games.
This weekend, there's little doubt in my mind that Romo, and the Cowboys, will have to score 24 or more to win -- and maybe in the thirties. Not only is Ware ailing with shoulder and elbow injuries that will limit his effectiveness, but the way Washington runs its offense makes it difficult for a good pass-rush to get home anyway. Watch the way the Redskins call their offense, both with Griffin under center and in the Pistol (four yards behind center). And watch how often Griffin either hands it to Alfred Morris, who is third in the NFL in rushing attempts, or play-action-fakes it to him and throws. The Redskins' passing game is a very basic one, but part of its design is to make is hard for any defense to tee off on Griffin, who's either play-actioning or rolling out so often that he's really not the kind of target a defense can isolate.
Romo's going to have to make the most of what may be limited chances. Washington watches tape. The Redskins see what a sieve the Dallas run-defense has been recently -- 5.1 yards per rush allowed over the last four games. With Morris averaging 4.7 yards per carry, it's natural to think Washington will try to mash the ball more than throw the long ball. Dallas' best hope may be to force turnovers, and it would be uncharacteristic to think Griffin and Morris, who have turned it over by fumble or interception just 10 times in 15 games, will be generous Sunday night. As eerie as it sounds, the absence of nose tackle Josh Brent with his DUI manslaughter charge could be more of a factor in this game than the ailments plaguing Ware.
So for Dallas to win a very tough game Sunday night, Romo will have to lead by example. He'll have to score on more than half his possessions, and not settle for more than a field goal or two. Because Washington isn't going to be held down.
B.J. Raji (No. 90) and Ryan Pickett (No. 79), DL, Green Bay. These are the Packers' two best run players on the defensive front, and they'll be the first line of defense against Adrian Peterson, who aims to break the all-time rushing record Sunday in the Metrodome. The Vikings have lost two in a row at home to Green Bay, but they'll be playing for a playoff spot as well as Peterson's record. He needs 208 yards. For Peterson to break the record, he'll have to break through these two veteran run-stuffers.
1. Chuck Pagano's return. The Colts were 9-3 -- and inspired by his fight against leukemia -- during his absence. Now Pagano inherits a playoff team, and he'll have a chance to beat the big bad Texans, in a raucous Lucas Oil Stadium. Hope the roof's closed. That'll make the love even more deafening.
2. The Chase for 2,105. Adrian Peterson rushes for history, and the Vikings rush for the playoffs. Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier says the record won't get in the way of trying to win a game. What will be interesting is if the Packers are up by 14 with 10 minutes to play. Will Frazier put the ball in the hands of an unreliable Christian Ponder, or will he give Peterson a shot for history? Which gives him the best chance to win? It'll be an interesting debate.
3. The Chase for 2,000. Jon Gruden said it best last Saturday night: It's not Calvin Johnson's fault, but a receiver getting a boatload of yards in a lost season for a 4-11 team isn't great theater, except in Stat-ville.
4. The least-interesting Week 17 I can recall. When's the last time the playoff scenario has been so clear with a week to play? I'm sure it hasn't been very long, but the only drama in the AFC is over home-field; in the NFC, there's a Washington-Dallas title game that will be fun, and then it's about which of the outside-looking-inners (Minnesota, Chicago, New York) can win a game to get in as the sixth seed.
5. Black Monday. Looks like about eight openings, with five or six on the GM side. Big questions will be Ken Whisenhunt in floundering Arizona, Ron Rivera surviving a second straight sub-.500 season with an impatient owner (Jerry Richardson) in the wings, and owner's Clark Hunt decision on whether to start over in Kansas City with a new GM and coach after a debacle of a season.
6. The fate of Sean Payton. I'm hearing more and more that he'll be re-upping with New Orleans -- in part because Jason Garrett's staying in Dallas barring a Sunday debacle, in part because the grass isn't always greener on the Jerry Jones side anyway, and in part because the Saints may be his only favorable option.
7. The Northwest Brian Hoyer Fan Club. Most in Seattle have never heard of the quarterback who will start for Arizona on Sunday in Candlestick Park. But Hoyer, who will be the fourth Cardinal starting quarterback this year, likely gives Arizona its best chance to pull a stunning upset at San Francisco. Seattle needs a Niners loss, and a win over the Rams, to win the NFC West.
8. The end of an era in Kansas City? The Chiefs are 23-41 under fourth-year GM Scott Pioli, who arrived with such promise after being Bill Belichick's personnel man in New England in the Patriots' glory years. But having such faith in quarterback Matt Cassel could end up putting Pioli on the street. The pressure on Clark Hunt to overhaul the team -- again -- is enormous. Hunt likes Pioli, but he's going to have to decide if the fan anger and ticket boycott by some season-ticketers is worth his faith in Pioli picking the next Chiefs quarterback in a very bad year for drafting one.
9. The strange case of Mason Crosby. Last chance for Crosby to earn a little Mike McCarthy faith. Crosby, the former reliable kicker, has shanked five inside the 50 this year, and missed seven of eight from 50-plus. McCarthy still has faith in him, but It'll be sorely tested if Crosby misses one or two in a dome Sunday.
10. Teams not resting their starters. Hooray! Coaches have come to their senses!