Remember that day when the Cowboys went into Three Rivers Stadium and crushed the Steelers 37-7? Seems like two years ago, doesn't it? Well, it's only been a month and a half since that flamboyant showing, and you have to wonder what ever happened to that Dallas team.
What are its trademarks now, in the wake of the 20-17 loss to a severely crippled Giants outfit? Long drives that end in field goals. An offensive line that tires badly at the end of games. A running attack that lacks punch. Only one receiver, Michael Irvin, who seems on the same page with the quarterback.
And let's talk about the quarterbacking. In his first two years in the league Troy Aikman played on bad teams and got slaughtered every Sunday. Then the Cowboys got good. Norv Turner arrived to take over the offense, and everything was precise, everything was in rhythm. People were where they were supposed to be, and if they weren't, they didn't last long. When things got tough, there was always a frenzied little runner named Emmitt Smith to bail out the offense. Aikman got used to this way of life, but in the last couple of years he's had trouble adjusting to the downside.
Turner is gone; this week he'll be coaching the Cowboys' Monday-night opponent, the Redskins. The old Emmitt is gone. Oh, he'll still get decent yardage, but Dallas can't close out a game with him anymore. And Aikman is a quarterback who isn't very good in the Brett Favre improvisational style. He threw two bad interceptions on Sunday, one of which cost the Cowboys seven points when he tried to jam the ball into Irvin, who was tightly bracketed, and the Giants' Tito Wooten ran it back for a score.
But the Cowboys are still 3-2, and if they win in Washington, they'll move ahead of the Skins for the NFC East lead. The Redskins, crippled by injuries on the defensive line—and after Sunday's thrashing in Philadelphia, on the offensive line, too—certainly look vulnerable. Washington was whipped in every phase of the game except special teams, but the Eagles never win that battle. The Redskins were flat. Gus Frerotte was out of sync with his receivers. The Eagles' pass rush, which hadn't put pressure on anyone this season, looked ferocious. The Skins made Eagles defensive tackle Rhett Hall look like another Jerome Brown. The Washington defense? Don't even ask. Two flawed teams will be going at it, and I like Washington on emotion and Turner's ability to find the soft spots in the Dallas defense.
Look for the Cardinals to beat the Giants in the Arizona steam bath. New York's defense performed heroically against Dallas, especially when you consider it was on the field for more than 40 minutes, but I think there will be a carryover effect here, and the Giants will tire in the desert heat.
A Ray Rhodes-coached team can be very good or very bad, and you never know which one will show up; you have to play psychiatrist and try to gauge the intensity. I think the Eagles will be on a downer in Jacksonville. They're usually way up for division games, especially at home, and way down for AFC games on the road, losing three of four of them under Rhodes. The only win came by one point against the Jets last year, and they tried to lose that one, but the Jets wouldn't let them. Call it Jacksonville by a touchdown.
The Jets put together a decent first half against winless Indianapolis on Sunday, then closed up shop and let the Colts and their backup quarterback, Paul Justin, make a run at them. Trailing 16-10 in the final minute, the Colts had a fourth-and-two at the New York 25 and, if they had converted, could have sent the Jets into the dumper. Won't Bill Parcells have fun this week reminding his players of the near disaster. So I think New York will come out smoking against the Dolphins, and I like the Jets to win it, but I'd feel a lot better about this pick if I could figure out what's up with wideout Keyshawn Johnson.
New York's favorite author seems to be regressing, and he is becoming less and less a part of the offense. He caught one of the four passes aimed his way on Sunday, for 11 yards, and on one of those plays he let cornerback Carlton Gray nudge him out of bounds and intercept the ball, which set up the Colts' only touchdown. I also noticed Johnson logging more bench time than is seemly for a man of his self-proclaimed talents. This club desperately needs a big-play receiver, and so far, this guy simply hasn't been it. Watch him catch eight passes for 150 yards on Sunday against a team the Jets always seem to play tough at the Meadowlands.
Down 21-3 to the Packers, the Buccaneers kept their poise, climbed back into the game and stopped Green Bay on all five of its second-half possessions. And they rushed for 217 yards in the game. Look for Tampa Bay to bounce back big at home against Detroit, especially if the Lions' left offensive tackle, Ray Roberts (sprained knee), is out. A tackle tandem of Larry Tharpe and Juan Roque is not an offensive line coach's dream.