A lot to cover after a holiday break.
Gameday: Redskins vs. Cowboys
Big difference: In the approach to the final two games. Dallas seems like it's focusing more on what's gone wrong this season, making these last two games seem like a slow death march to the end. Washington is focused more on finishing strong to build for 2005. The Redskins have far fewer questions to answer for next season than the Cowboys.
A major difference: is at quarterback. Vinny Testaverde is playing like an old man and the Cowboys are suffering. When Mark Brunell played this way, at least Washington had an experienced backup who was young, giving them someone who could help now and improve for the future. Dallas had no such player. Drew Henson might be the guy in a few years, but he's nowhere near game ready and Tony Romo? Come on. Ramsey gives Washington some hope, which Dallas lacks until it improves this position for the present.
The last time: Washington won in Dallas was 1995 -- with Heath Shuler leading the way. Since Joe Gibbs retired, the Redskins are 6-17 against Dallas.
Pay attention to: the speed of Dallas' linebackers. They'll make it hard for Clinton Portis to cut back on the stretch plays or to get wide on the simple zone-blocking runs to the outside. On these plays, everyone must get on their blocks as they get wide or the penetration is stopped immediately. This might force a more powered attack. But the linebackers' speed also makes the counter trey a tough run today. Perhaps a three-tight end approach would work well -- just not all day, please.
Take a shot: downfield. Dallas' secondary is weak, with second-year corner Terence Newman, expected to be an elite corner, struggling. Safety Roy Williams is better as a blitzer than in coverage. Take advantage of this, as they did in the first meeting with several long passes to Rod Gardner. There's no reason they can't do this again, especially if the running game clicks.
Inconsistent: That best describes Dallas this season. The Cowboys play like a playoff contender one week and a bottom feeder the next. They've lost seven games by two touchdows or more, yet somehow beat Seattle, 43-39, and nearly beat Philly last week. They also lost by only four to Pittsburgh.
Playoffs: Win and keep hoping. It's unrealistic, but for a longshot it's not out of the realm of possibility. Do they deserve it? No, not compared to other seasons. But an extra week of practice followed by playing in a pressure-packed game would definitely help. Again, this is all about building for next season and the future. If that's the case, a playoff game would just be a primer for '05. But a strong finish is what's important, regardless of what that earns them.
Something to prove: The snub of Redskins for the Pro Bowl should serve as a motivating factor for a bunch of players who already think they're overlooked. Antonio Pierce has a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder -- and that was before missing out on the Pro Bowl. Watch how they respond this week. Thing is, it's almost appropriate, in a way, that they were snubbed. This defense is a little like the old Hogs lines, much better collectively than perhaps individually because they work so well together. It's hard to pick out a defensive player who's having an off year.
Be careful with: the left side of Dallas' offensive line, with tackle Flozell Adams and guard Larry Allen. It's their go-to side and, in short-yardage situations, Pierce must shade a bit toward this side, something he didn't do the first time.
How to stop Julius Jones: by gang tackling him. Sounds simple, but the kid breaks a lot of tackles because he runs so low. If there's only one guy there, he can break through. If there's two or three, or four, the first guy will stop him and the second will tackle him. They can't let him get untracked.
Another to watch: tight end Jason Witten. Rookie Sean Taylor will be matched against him at times as will linebacker Marcus Washington. Taylor has shown he can handle this type of matchup.
Happy man: Corner Fred Smoot, who won't have to face Antonio Bryant. Smoot usually lost that battle and Bryant's replacement, Quincy Morgan, has bad hands.
Prediction: The Redskins are playing more consistently of late. That matters today as they win 20-13.
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