The Dallas Cowboys can make it five wins in six games and they can continue to stay alive in the NFC playoff race with a win at home on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet the Steelers are pretty much just as desperate, and they come to town having lost three of four with their wild-card hopes up in the air.
So how does a badly banged-up Cowboys team keep hope floating with another slightly unexpected victory? Here are some suggestions in regard to their gameplan.
Be patient on offense
The key for the Cowboys will be to avoid forcing things. Against the Steelers excellent defense, it could be a long and frustrating day for the offense, but that was also the case for the majority of their Week 14 matchup with Cincinnati. In that game, the Cowboys had just 10 points during the first 53 minutes, but finally made some plays late against a worn-down defense to pull out the victory.
Against an equally strong Pittsburgh defense, that's exactly what they have to hope for on Sunday.
Yes, the Steelers trailed the Chargers by as many as 24 points in the third quarter last week, but their defense is much better than that. That was a blip on the radar for a team that matches up well with the Cowboys and likely won't let Tony Romo do a lot in Week 15.
Romo was harassed often against the Bengals last week, and the Steelers pass rush isn't as good. That's why I'm scared that they'll be tempted to get pass-happy against a defense that won't bring quite as much heat and will be without top cornerback Ike Taylor.
The problem is that the matchups still aren't good with Dez Bryant hurting. Bryant can probably be contained by the very solid Keenan Lewis, and Cortez Allen has the ability to limit Miles Austin in the slot, taking away that usual advantage for Dallas. They Steelers have also defended tight ends extremely well this season, and they're too smart and experienced to let Romo use Jason Witten as a crutch.
The good news is that this defense lacks bite. They rank 28th in the league with only 12 takeaways and rank 22nd in the league with 26 sacks. Despite the pass protection issues in San Diego, they got to Philip Rivers only once in last week's loss.
So Dallas can probably afford to take some well-timed chances, but the key will be to chip away with DeMarco Murray, who's getting healthier each week, while waiting to take some shots.
Help the secondary out on defense
The Steelers haven't been hitting home runs often this season, and run defense has been the real concern on defense for Dallas. We also know that Ben Roethlisberger is healthier now than he was a week ago, and we know that the Steelers offense can explode at any given time.
Considering that the Steelers' once-hot running game has hit a wall the last few weeks, I'm thinking the Cowboys would be better off letting Dan Connor, Ernie Sims and (occasionally) Anthony Spencer do their thing without much support while ensuring that the secondary has as much assistance as possible against a group of very fast and talented Pittsburgh receivers.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne and saftey Gerald Sensabaugh are banged up for the Cowboys, and Orlando Scandrick remains out as well. Considering how often the Steelers like to use three wideouts along with tight end Heath Miller as a receiver, that's a concern. With slot expert Scandrick out and Claiborne hurting, Mike Jenkins could have to move all around the field, and the recently signed Sterling Moore could be forced to cover Mike Wallace and/or Antonio Brown more often than the Cowboys would like.
Rob Ryan is going to have to pray that Spencer can hold things down underneath with little help. They are also hoping that DeMarcus Ware finally breaks out of a mini-slump rushing the passer because the Cowboys are going to have to use five or six defensive backs often in this matchup.
If he doesn't, the Cowboys are likely going to get burned. In what should be a close game, that could be the difference.