This weekend's game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys feels like deja vu to me. About this time last year, NBC snatched the Cowboys' regular season finale because it was "win or go home" for both teams. Only this year it's not the New York Giants led by a ferocious pass rush—it's the Washington Redskins led by the #2 overall draft pick, Robert Griffin III.
Thanksgiving Day's contest paved the way for a second quarter of epic proportions. RGIII and the Redskins put up 28 points and forced Dallas to play from behind the rest of the game.
This weekend's game will not have the same narrative if Rob Ryan and the Dallas defense have anything to say about it.
Here are six keys to the game for Dallas:
In the first battle between the Cowboys and Redskins, Robert Griffin III exploited the Cowboys defense with multiple big plays. It seemed it was the "same old story" as last year, when Eli Manning did just that to the Cowboys twice in 2011.
In the second quarter of the Thanksgiving Day game, RGIII used the play action pass to hit Aldrick Robinson for a 68-yard touchdown. The Redskins used play action again when Griffin hit Pierre Garcon for a 59-yard score with minutes left in the 2nd quarter. In the fourth quarter, a 29-yard pass to Niles Paul was also off play action (although if you look at the film, it wasn't very convincing—RGIII handed off to air).
For those that weren't counting, 21 of the Redskins' 38 points came directly off play action.
Through Week 15, RGIII has been sacked 29 times (Kirk Cousins was sacked three times last week against Cleveland), and the Redskins offensive line is giving up an average of two sacks per game.
The Cowboys sacked Griffin three times on Thanksgiving Day. Two came from a high-performing Anthony Spencer and the other from Jason Hatcher.
RGIII will have less mobility because of his knee injury—but don't count him out of the running game completely. He will likely be more cautious exposing his body when running downfield.
With the reduced chance of RGIII running, look for Ryan to bring more pressure and 'put a hat' on RGIII.
Expect a 5+ sack performance from this inspired Cowboys defense.
DeMarco Murray returned three games ago from a foot injury and has been running like a man on fire ever since.
Murray's biggest compliment came from ESPN's Dan Graziano, who wrote, "...Murray is the kind of runner who likes to overcome difficulty. He's tough. He absorbs contact. He's used to having to try and make something out of nothing, and he digs it."
Murray has shown that he loves contact, but not a crazy Marion Barber-style contact. There have been several times that Murray has run out of bounds to avoid contact, which is exactly what any young up-and-coming running back should do.
Murray creates contact to get the necessary yards, and knows when to be a North/South runner.
The Dallas Cowboys offense did not look the same without Murray. Even without the gaudy stats, film review shows how important Murray is to the team.
Against the Bengals this year, the "atta boy" award that Jason Garrett hands out should have gone to Murray. His runs on key third downs on the last drive of the game helped the Cowboys successfully kill the clock.
Murray wasn't healthy the last time the Cowboys played the Redskins. His skill set changes the makeup of this matchup because the Redskins now have to respect the run. Center Ryan Cook will also be healthy, and this offensive line has been rolling as of late.
Expect Murray to do the same.
This matters little to Jason Witten, as he stated after last week's game, "I have so much respect for the game and this position. To break [the record] it's special. Probably more so, this year, because of the way the season started for me. Something I'm going to remember for a long time. Obviously my priority now is trying to win a game." (Courtesy DallasCowboys.com).
In Week 12 against the Redskins, Witten had nine catches for 74 yards. Of those nine catches, three were on third down. On third down, Romo is going to look for Witten. Washington knows this—but will they be able to stop it?
The Redskin pass defense currently ranks 30th, and Jason Witten should get started early and often. Whether it be against zone schemes or man coverage, look for Witten to pad his record.
Don't be surprised if Witten passes Michael Irvin's franchise record of 111 catches in a single season.
Dez Bryant reminds me of one of my favorite comic book heroes.
His emotions on the sideline turn into raw, unrelenting play. One tackler is rarely enough to stop him.
His Pro Bowl snub shows that the Pro Bowl is nothing but a popularity contest. There are only two wide receivers in the NFL that are playing at his level—Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson.
The last time the Cowboys played the Redskins, Dez Bryant blew up for 145 yards and two trips to the end zone. And that was without a legitimate running game.
Tony Romo trusts Bryant—1,311 yards on 88 catches with 12 touchdowns worth of trust—and Romo will only look away from Bryant to throw to Jason Witten. Last week Romo was burned by Miles Austin and his buttery fingers (three drops!). Don't look for Romo to make the same mistake, as he will feed Bryant the ball with a vengeance this week.
Expect Bryant to play like he is angry because that is his secret: He's always angry.
Jason Garrett is selling, and his Cowboys are buying. Halfway through the season the Dallas Cowboys were 3-5. There was not much proof to show that the Cowboys were anything but a subpar 8-8 team.
The Cowboys have gone through quite a turnaround, only losing two games since. Once to the New Orleans Saints last week in an overtime thriller that had no playoff implications for Dallas. The other loss came against the Redskins.
The theme for this year's Cowboys should be battling through adversity. Jason Witten's potentially life-threatening injury was only the beginning for Dallas. Along the way, they have lost Barry Church, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Kenyon Coleman to IR. Jay Ratliff, Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Spencer, and Sean Lissemore have all missed extensive time as well—and that's just on the defensive side of the ball.
The offensive line has a new member each week and in a new position. The O-line shuffle has been no fun for anyone, including Tony Romo.
To top it off, Garrett had to lead his team through a tragedy in which one teammate lost his life, with another now indicted on felony charges
These Cowboys trust in Garrett, and they are buying what he is selling.
Garrett's stock is way up, and it only looks to continue in that direction. Better buy some while you can.