For Dallas, a mediocre season from quarterback Tony Romo, a non-existent running attack, and an inconsistent defense prone to late game collapses, all led to another underachieving season and a failure to make the playoffs in 2012.
This year, however, many of the Cowboys' past problems seemingly have been remedied.
Running back DeMarco Murray is fresh off a 26-carry, 175-yard standout effort against the Rams that included a 41-yard scamper. His performance brought balance to the Cowboys offense, and helped set the physical tone that led to Dallas' blowout victory.
Romo, despite suffering from sore ribs in the first three games, has managed to avoid the catastrophic, multi-interception games that his gunslinger-style sometimes produces. Thus far, he has completed over 72% of his passes, and has thrown 6 touchdowns compared to only one interception.
But perhaps the largest area of improvement is on the defensive side of the ball, where new coordinator Monte Kiffin has abandoned the team's inconsistent 3-4 scheme and implemented his trademark 4-3, "Tampa 2" defense.
The results so far have been excellent. With Kiffin at the helm, the Dallas D has transformed into a hustling, gang-tackling unit that not only forces turnovers, but also ranks second in the NFL in terms of fewest rushing yards allowed. Given that the NFC East is having a particularly down year, Dallas' defense alone might be enough to carry the team to a division title.
Nevertheless, there is reason for caution.
Dallas' defensive front four has played well, but has been doing it with smoke and mirrors. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jay Ratliff has yet to play a snap, and end Anthony Spencer -- awarded the team's franchise tag and over $10 million this offseason after recording 11 sacks last year -- is likely out for the season due to knee trouble.
The Spencer injury is especially devastating because it will put more responsibility on future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware to generate sacks. Moreover, there is a concern that linemen George Selvie (2 sacks) and Jason Hatcher (3 sacks) might not be able to maintain the consistent high level of play that they have exhibited in the first three games.
Meanwhile, the Chargers also had their share of problems last year, starting with the offense.
Quarterback Philip Rivers had a rough season playing behind a shaky Chargers offensive line, as he was sacked an AFC-high 49 times, threw 15 picks, and lost 7 fumbles. His struggles, and those of the offense overall, eventually led to Coach Norv Turner's dismissal and to the drafting of offensive tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round.
This year, Rivers is looking more like his old playmaker self, as he has thrown 8 touchdowns and only 1 interception, while completing 70% of his passes. In addition, his favorite target, tight end Antonio Gates, finally appears to be healthy, as he has caught 15 balls and one touchdown.
Although Rivers seems to be back on track, San Diego has multiple problem areas it must address. First, the running attack has been woeful, as running back Ryan Mathews has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game, and is averaging a paltry 3.6 yards per carry.
The defense has been even worse, ranking a lowly 31st overall and giving up an average of 470 yards per game. Safety Eric Weddle leads the team with 21 tackles, which often is not a good sign since he must cover up the mistakes of others.
More importantly, San Diego's defense has not been clutch, as it has squandered leads in the fourth quarter, including last week's game-winning drive to quarterback Jake Locker and the Titans in the final minute of that contest.
Cowboys win, 30-24.
Expect both offenses to move the chains and put up points thanks to their talented quarterbacks. The difference will be that Romo will have a running game to lean on and a better collection of skill players to target, including Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant, arguably the most talented player on the field in this game. The fact that Romo will be facing one of the weaker defenses in the league certainly doesn't hurt his chances either.
The Rivers-to-Gates connection will be problematic for Dallas and will win its share of battles on third down, but with Malcolm Floyd likely out due to injury, the rest of the Charger receiving corps will be too depleted to trade scores with the Cowboys offense.
Ultimately, it is the Cowboys' defense that sets them apart. Ware (4 sacks) and company will pressure and sack the stationary Rivers, and eventually, that will make a difference. Dallas already leads the NFC with 11 sacks.
Speedy linebackers Bruce Carter and Sean Lee will be effective not only rushing Rivers, but also dropping back into pass coverage on the intermediate routes to help on Gates and running back Danny Woodhead. In addition, corners Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Orlando Scandrick will show they have the athleticism to cover the Charger wideouts effectively one-on-one.
In the end, Dallas will pull away late to win on the road in a closely-contested game.
News and Notes
- Paul Oliver, a Chargers defensive back from 2007-2011, tragically committed suicide this week. The Chargers issued the following statement on his passing:
“Everyone in the Chargers family is sad today after hearing the news about Paul. He was part of our family for five years. At just 29 years old, he still had a lifetime in front of him. Right now all of our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this most difficult time.”
- Cowboys rookie tight end Gavin Escobar will enjoy a homecoming when he takes the field Sunday. Escobar, who caught his first NFL touchdown pass last week versus St. Louis, played his collegiate ball at nearby San Diego State.
- Rookies Manti Te’o and D.J. Fluker participated in practice Wednesday after missing time due to injury. “They’re back in the mix with everything and I’m expecting them to play, but as this game goes and with the things that happened last week in practice, there’s no guarantees," Chargers coach Mike McCoy replied, when asked if the two would play on Sunday. "But as of Wednesday it looks good. We’ll take it a day at a time.”
- The Chargers will celebrate Hispanic Heritage Day at the Chargers-Cowboys game. As part of the festivities, the Chargers will honor Mexico's 2013 Little League World Series baseball team from Tijuana, and will feature a mariachi halftime performance.
By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com