Monday, December 18, 2006

That's More Like It ... Except For The Spitting Part

The Cowboys clinched their first playoff berth since 2003 with a hard-fought, back and forth win over Atlanta Saturday night, 38-28, and the rest of the weekend's slate of games seemed to break just right for Dallas, as the overall #2 seed and their first division title since 1998 are theirs for the taking with a win over the Philadelphia on Christmas night. The road win gives Dallas their best away record since they went 6-2 in 1995, their last Super Bowl year.

QB Tony Romo went an efficient 22-29 passing with 2 TDs and a first half interception, catapulting him to second overall in the NFL in passer rating, his 98.4 trailing only Carson Palmer's 98.7 for the top spot. Terrell "The Llama" Owens caught both of Romo's TD tosses, and WR Terry Glenn and TE Jason Witten each hauled in 5 passes. Romo is now 6-2 as a starter. The season would have been considered a success even if Dallas didn't make the playoffs but were able to break in a new QB, the big picture outlook is bright for Dallas as it enters the postseason with a chance for an all-important first round bye. That's because old rivals Washington went in and totally shut down the nation's darlings -- the prematurely anointed New Orleans Saints -- holding Drew Brees without a TD and RB Reggie Bush to 33 yards of total offense. In New York, Philadelphia spanked the reeling Giants, 36-22, setting up what is essentially a showdown for the NFC East title in Dallas on Christmas night. A win gives Dallas its first division crown since 1998, with the overall #2 NFC seed still up for grabs. And in rainy Seattle on Thursday night, the 49ers shockingly exploded for 21 fourth quarter points to upend the Seahawks, sending the defending NFC champs to a mediocre 8-6 record. You would have made a lot of money and won a lot of fantasy leagues if you had Frank Gore as your RB, because the unheralded Miami product is first in the NFC and third in the entire NFL with 1,491 yards rushing after 14 games.
Talk about coming out of nowhere...

Anyway, the Cowboys-Falcons game was tied at 21-all at halftime, thanks to Michael Vick's 3 first half TD passes; Vick would finish with 4 TDs in the game -- giving opposing QBs an astounding 9 TDs in the last two games versus Mike Zimmer's suddenly porous pass defense (Drew Brees threw 5 TDs in last week's game). But Tony Romo led the Cowboys to 17 straight unanswered points in the second half, including a late 11-play drive that finally put the game out of reach. On that game-winning drive, which started with just under 9 minutes remaining, Romo had 5 straight completions.

The game was televised only on the NFL Network, but thankfully was broadcast on radio in the New York area, thus saving me from spending 30 or 40 bucks on 3 or 4 Heinekens and a Chicken sandwich at McCann's, the local Astoria sports bar. Instead I made some of my soon to be patented olive oil French fries in my local kitchen and cranked up the volume on the three radios where I had the game on. For Dallas, this was a case of the good, the bad and the ugly for Dallas -- but in this year's NFL it's better to win ugly than lose pretty. The good was how Tony Romo bounced back from his worst game of the year, going 22-29 for 278 yards, making his record 6-2 in games as a starter; oddly, it was his second 22-29 game in four weeks, a weird statistical anomaly.

Also positive was RB Marion Barber's continuing spectacular running and all-around skill display, gaining 69 yards on only 11 carries -- causing many in Cowboy nation to call for him to start over Julius Jones. Another 2 rushing TDs gives Barber 13 for the year, along with 2 more receiving, making him a mini LaDainian Tomlinson (the San Diego RB who now has a flagrantly ridiculous 31 TDs for the season and is performing on a whole other level in 2006 -- one not reserved for mere mortals). As Bill Parcells colorfully put it when describing Barber, "Marion ran real tough. He was honking his horn pretty good."

And "Ware" would the Cowboys' defense be without LB DeMarcus "Every" Ware, in on another sack, but more importantly showed how good he is in coverage, picking off an under-thrown flat pass by Michael Vick and then dashing 41 yards for the pick-six, finding the end zone for the second time this season. He has been holding the defense together with his inspired play after Greg Ellis went down for the season. Rookie LB Bobby Carpenter, a first-round pick, finally made his first real contribution. Carpenter was used mostly as a spy to shadow Michael Vick, and he finished with 1.5 sacks.

The bad news for Dallas centers around their poor pass defense in the last few weeks. CB Anthony Henry has been sloppy in coverage and lackluster in his tackling, giving opponents something to exploit away from the solid Terence Newman, who has turned into one of the game's legitimate shutdown corners. And SS Roy Williams continues to struggle in deep coverage, with an increasing number of fans favoring converting him to a front seven position. And despite four sacks against Atlanta, the pass rush is still not scaring up enough pressure, which will be vital in the next few games and later in the playoff run.

The ugly? As if you had to ask, Terrell Owens once again had to draw attention away from all the positives produced by the Cowboys' gritty, gut-check win, childishly spitting on Falcons' CB DeAngelo Hall, then even more foolishly admitting to the craven, disgusting act in postgame comments. That's what's known as Dumb & Dumber. You never open your mouth unless you know what the shot is. That said, Owens -- on the field -- is "quietly" but not silently having a monster year, with 77 receptions for 1,040 yards, and his two TDs give him 11 for the year, which leads the NFL. But there's always the emotional baggage that goes along with it.

Notes: The Cowboys have found something in rookie return man Miles Austin. The rookie from tiny Monmouth College in New Jersey has given Dallas an important edge in field position over the last 3 or games, consistently returning kickoffs past the 30. With a long of only 37 yards, he still qualifies for 6th in the League in return average at 25.9, and is a force on kickoff coverage as well ... Kevin Kiley, the color man on the radio broadcast, turned in the best game call I've heard all year, putting most of the ex-players who usually man that post to shame; it was literally like having a coach break the game down. In one instance he explained the differences between the 4-3 versus 3-4 defense in understandable terms. Unfortunately he was paired with Joel Myers, all too often proving himself to be a true horse's hind quarters -- an all too common characteristic of most play-by-play men .. Overall, the best radio team is Dave Sims and Bob Trumpy. Sims has come a long way since his early days as talk show host on WFAN, while Trumpy is the ex-Bengals TE who never resorts to making the game a joke yet has fun with the broadcast ... All of a sudden the NFL is rife with good, young quarterbacks. In addition to my favorite, Tony Romo, there's Philip Rivers in San Diego, Vince Young in Tennessee, Matt Leinert in Arizona, and Jay Cutler of Denver. After a horrid first game versus Seattle, Cutler has rebounded to go 38-61 for 449 yards, 4 TDs and only one pick in his last two games. It helps that he has one of the best offensive football minds in the last few decades in his corner in head coach Mike Shanahan ... But my sleeper pick, and it gives me no pleasure to report this as a Cowboys fan who will have to see the guy twice a year, is Redskins QB Jason Campbell. The second-year player has a special poise in the pocket and a rocket arm, as well as terrific mechanics and a great offensive line to give him time. The numbers don't show it yet, but I think this guy will be a solid QB for years to come ... Speaking of solid, I think I wrote off Eagles' QB Jeff Garcia a tad prematurely. Based on his 9 TD passes and only one INT, his rating is 96.3. Plus his leadership, experience and passion are making up for the drop-off in talent from the injured Donovan McNabb. And don't think Garcia wouldn't love to get the last laugh on his old "buddy" Terrell Owens as he brings his Eagles to Texas Stadium with first place on the line. His scrambling ability and movement around the pocket make him hard to defense, as the Giants will no doubt admit after Garcia's effective game yesterday ... Amazingly, the Giants would be a wild card if the playoffs started today. And in a strange turn of events, Cowboys fans will probably be rooting for them to beat the Saints next week when they host them in the Meadowlands. Playoff positioning makes for strange bedfellows this time of year.

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