The NFC East title is on the line, and with it, an automatic berth into the postseason. The Cowboys have to win to claim their first postseason berth since 2009. The Redskins could lose and still return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, but only if the Bears and Vikings drop their earlier games.
Both teams enter the game hot. The Redskins have won six straight, while the Cowboys have won four of six.
Not a bad setting for the 106th edition of this rivalry.
"When you think about the Cowboys and Redskins, it's always been a rivalry," Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Now there's a little bit more at stake. This is like a statement game, one of those games where you can prove to a lot of people no matter what goes on with your team, guys being (injured), you can get a win. You can still play well because it's a team game. It's not just one player out there playing."
Cowboys-Redskins (8 p.m. ET on NBC)
Bedard: Romo and Dallas battle RG3 and Washington for the NFC East title.
Naturally, most fans are expecting the same old Cowboys to show up at FedEx Field, something the players are keenly aware of.
“It can’t be the same ol’ story,” tight end Jason Witten said. “It’s hard to get in this situation and play for a division title. It’s a great opportunity for us. Hopefully those past experiences have helped develop us so we can be better in this situation. But it is, it’s a different experience. Obviously, different opponent and it’s going to be a tough challenge.”
For the Redskins, this is uncharted territory for many of their players, including standout rookie quarterback Robert Griffith III.
"For guys like myself (and) the other rookies, we're fresh into this rivalry," Griffin said. "But we can definitely sense how the fans feel, how some of the guys who have been here for many years feel about the Cowboys, and that's the mindset we have to take on. We're doing it for them. We're doing it for the fans."
A look at the three keys for each team heading in Sunday night’s game:
Stop Alfred Morris: Everyone knows how dangerous of a weapon Griffin can be because you have to fear the run and the pass with him. The Cowboys need to do everything they can to make the Redskins more predictable and one-dimensional, and that means you need to them in bad down and distance situations, particularly on third down.
You do that by stopping rookie running back Alfred Morris, who has 1,413 yards. In the first matchup against the Cowboys, Morris had 113 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. He’s had at least 20 carries in the Redskins’ last seven games.
If Morris is able to run wild and set up Griffin, the rest might not matter.
Grind it out through the air: Because the Redskins are so dynamic offensively and the Cowboys are so beat up, the Cowboys would greatly benefit by winning the time of possession battle. You usually do that on the ground, but the Cowboys are so anemic running the ball — DeMarco Murray has averaged 3.7 yards per carry since returning from a foot injury.
And he’ll be facing the fifth-ranked Redskins rush defense (95.5 yards per game), that it will be up to quarterback Tony Romo to control the game by throwing it. Romo has been hot in December — 66.4 completion percentage, 1,328 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception — so they need to ride him again.
Keep throwing: The combination of Romo to receiver Dez Bryant has been on fire with 10 touchdowns in the past seven games, including last Sunday’s nine-catch, 224-yard and two-touchdown performance against the Saints. Bryant had eight catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Thanksgiving game against the Redskins.
In short, Romo and the Cowboys should be able to throw against the Redskins and make some plays, provided the improved offensive line gives him the opportunity.
Make Romo eat elsewhere: The Cowboys will want to pass, and Romo will try to feed Bryant and tight end Jason Witten. Don’t let them. Double-team Bryant with a safety over the top, and pound/re-route Witten as soon as he breaks off the line.
Make Romo try to beat you throwing to unreliable Miles Austin, Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris, and with checkdowns to backs DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones.
The odds are strong that Romo and the Cowboys won’t be able to outpoint the Redskins that way.
Block Anthony Spencer: Cowboys right outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware gets all the accolades, which he should as a perennial All-Pro with 11.5 sacks this season. But left outside linebacker Anthony Spencer has been very good of late as he finished his contract before becoming a free agent.
The Redskins are a bit weak at right tackle with starter Tyler Polumbus (concussion) cleared but questionable. Backup Maurice Hurt had some issues last week against the Eagles that he can’t afford against a talent like Spencer.
Don’t stop attacking: The Redskins led the Cowboys 28-3 on Thanksgiving and nearly blew the game. Dallas has made a living out of falling behind early and then rallying for either victory or a close defeat.
The Redskins must continue to put distance between themselves and the Cowboys, because once Romo gets in a groove, he’s hard to stop.
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