Cowboys vs. Raiders: Complete Thanksgiving Day Primer for Dallas and Oakland

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Cowboys vs. Raiders: Complete Thanksgiving Day Primer for Dallas and Oakland
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are 28-15-1 all time on Thanksgiving, which works out to be the best Turkey Day winning percentage in NFL history, at least among teams that have participated in at least eight of those games. 

Now, long-term historical stats mean very little when we're breaking down games within a particular season, but the fact that the 'Boys have won five of their last six Thanksgiving games with Tony Romo at quarterback means something. 

It's a huge advantage playing at home when your opponent is traveling on three days' rest, especially when that opponent is the mediocre Oakland Raiders, who are jumping multiple time zones for an afternoon game only 96 hours after a deflating loss to Tennessee. Oakland's only road victory thus far in 2013 came over the hapless Texans, so the odds aren't in their favor at AT&T Stadium.

But you know what they say. Any given Sunday, or in this case, Thursday. 

Here's our Thanksgiving Day primer for a matchup between two of the most loved and hated franchises in NFL history...

 

Thanksgiving History

Oakland is 3-3 all time on Thanksgiving. Its last appearance was a 24-7 loss to these Cowboys in 2009. But that's the only game that is even remotely relevant here, because prior to that the Raiders hadn't played on Thanksgiving since losing to the Lions in 1970.

In fact, the Raiders have just one Thursday victory on six tries dating back 25 years. 

As far as Dallas goes, Romo is 5-1 with a 106.4 passer rating on Thanksgiving, but he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and had two interceptions in last year's 38-31 loss to the Washington Redskins.

Dallas also lost on Thanksgiving sans Romo in 2010, so the 'Boys have actually dropped two of their last three Thanksgiving home games. In their only win from that stretch, they needed a walk-off field goal from Dan Bailey to beat a bad Dolphins team by a single point.

Prior to 2010, they were 27-13-1 all time on Turkey Day. And between 2006 and 2009, in their first four Thanksgiving games with Romo at quarterback, they went 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 25.3. 

All-time Thanksgiving Day Records
Record Winning %
Minnesota Vikings 5-1 .833
Miami Dolphins 5-2 .714
Tennessee Titans 5-2 .714
Dallas Cowboys 28-15-1 .636
New York Giants 7-4-3 .607
New York Jets 4-3 .571
Chicago Bears 16-13-2 .548
Oakland Raiders 3-3 .500
Kansas City Chiefs 5-5 .500
Cleveland Browns 3-3 .500
Detroit Lions 33-37-2 .472
Green Bay Packers 14-18-2 .441
Buffalo Bills 3-5-1 .389
Denver Broncos 4-7 .364
Pittsburgh Steelers 2-4 .333
Arizona Cardinals 6-15-2 .304
Washington Redskins 2-6 .250

Min. 6 games (PFR)

One of those blowouts came against these Raiders in '09. Romo posted a 121.2 passer rating that day as the 7-3 Cowboys hammered Bruce Gradkowski and the 3-7 Raiders, 24-7. 

 

Oakland Raiders Injury Report

Injury Report for Oakland Raiders
Player Injury Status
S Tyvon Branch Ankle Out
WR Denarius Moore Shoulder Out
DE Jason Hunter Foot Out
RB Darren McFadden Hamstring Questionable
LB Kevin Burnett Quad Questionable
LB Kaluka Maiava Ribs Questionable
CB Mike Jenkins Concussion Questionable
LB Sio Moore Shoulder Questionable
TE Mychal Rivera Concussion Questionable
OT Menelik Watson Illness Questionable
DT Daniel Muir Knee Probable

NFL

The big news is that Jared Veldheer is making his season debut at left tackle after missing the first 11 games of the year due to a partially torn triceps. He was the seventh-best pass-blocking left tackle in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), so undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin will surely appreciate his presence with DeMarcus Ware waiting to pounce just a few feet away. 

“It's great to see Jared back,” McGloin said this week, according to ESPN.com. “He's such a great part of that line and he has been since he's been here."

Tony Pashos has been solid at right tackle, but the Raiders have taken a lot of hits on the left side. Rookie second-round pick Menelik Watson has also been hurt most of the year. But Khalif Barnes has held it down, and now he'll have a chance to flex inside to left guard, which would help the running game even more by removing Lucas Nix from the lineup. 

Jenkins suffered that concussion in Week 12 against Tennessee, but it looks as though he'll be cleared in time for a big matchup with his former team. 

McFadden should return after missing the last three games, but Jennings has tightened his grip on that starting job. 

"You can't deny Rashad Jennings over the last month of the season has led the NFL in yards from scrimmage," head coach Dennis Allen said this week, according to the Oakland Tribune. "I think he's earned the right and deserves the right to continue to get his carries and touches and we'll still do that."

 

Dallas Cowboys Injury Report

Injury Report for Dallas Cowboys
Player Injury Status
LB Sean Lee Hamstring Out
CB Morris Claiborne Hamstring Out
WR/KR Dwayne Harris Hamstring Out
LB Justin Durant Hamstring Out
LB DeVonte Holloman Neck Out
TE Gavin Escobar Hamstring Quesionable
WR Miles Austin Hamstring Probable
WR Dez Bryant Back Probable
DT Jason Hatcher Stinger Probable
DT Nick Hayden Ribs Probable
DE DeMarcus Ware Quad Probable
DE George Selvie Shoulder Probable
S J.J. Wilcox Knee Probable

NFL

The OCD sufferer in me would really prefer to see Holloman have a hamstring injury than a neck injury, but the important point is that he, Durant and Lee are all out. That's inevitably going to make life easier on Raiders back Rashad Jennings, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and has become the clear-cut No. 1 guy in Oakland the last four weeks.

Throw in Claiborne's absence and that injury to Wilcox and the entire Raiders offense could be in for a big day. Look for Jennings and Marcel Reese to have plenty of opportunities as receivers.

Harris' absence could hurt the offense and special teams. The 26-year-old ranks second in the NFL on both punt and kick returns and is one hell of a gunner on punt coverage.

 

How will the Raiders utilize their quarterbacks?

McGloin has been solid, which is why he's still starting ahead of a healthy Terrelle Pryor. The Penn State product has a 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 88.8 passer rating in two starts. He's more of a classical pocket passer, which could be beneficial against a beat-up front seven and a somewhat vulnerable secondary. 

However, Pryor might be even better equipped to take advantage of that paper-thin linebacking corps. He takes a lot of sacks and is prone to mistakes, but the big-play ability is always looming, especially when he uses his legs.

Despite the fact he's missed three games, Prior leads all NFL quarterbacks with 504 rushing yards. So don't be surprised if Allen and offensive coordinator Greg Olson work both pivots into the game plan quite freely. What have they got to lose?

 

What type of roles will Veldheer and McFadden play? 

McGloin has been sacked just twice on 86 dropbacks the last two weeks, but now that offensive line is shaking things up by bringing Veldheer back into the picture on McGloin's blind side. That should help, but a lack of continuity can sometimes do more harm than good. Will Veldheer be rusty going up against Ware? That's a risk Oakland is going to have to take. 

It's still not clear, though, how many snaps Veldheer will get. As Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune points out, that "remains a closely guarded secret."

And while the regime has changed since McFadden was drafted fourth overall in 2008, I'm sure there'll be some pressure on the staff to give him some reps just because he's always been "the guy." That could also be costly, because Jennings has the second-highest YPC number in the league among those who have taken 100 or more handoffs. McFadden has carried it 98 times but is averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt.

Raiders running backs, 2013
Starts Yards/start Yards/carry TD
Jennings 4 138.3 5.1 2
McFadden 7 50.3 3.6 4

NFL.com

Can the Cowboys actually win a game they really need and are supposed to win?

As an underdog on the road last week against the Giants, Dallas came through with a clutch victory in the fourth quarter, giving new life to the belief that this team might be different from the underperforming squads that have disappointed fans for three years running. 

But a loss in a game like this is exactly what Cowboys fans have come to fear and almost expect. 

It happened last year on Thanksgiving against Washington as well as in Week 16 against a broken Saints team in Dallas. And two years ago, they lost four of their last five games to blow a firm November division lead. 

Will history repeat itself, or is this Dallas team just a little bit stronger? We'll get a feel one way or another on Thursday afternoon. 

 

Can the Cowboys stop the run?

The Giants entered Week 12 as one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL, and then Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs gashed that limping front seven for 202 yards on 30 carries. Jennings and McFadden are a more dangerous duo, and Oakland is averaging a league-high 4.9 yards per carry. 

McGloin might be in for a tough day as a rookie against a defense that has forced 23 turnovers this season, but it might not matter if the Cowboys can't keep the Raiders from moving the chains on the ground. Without Lee, Durant, Holloman, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, it won't be an easy task. 

 

Most Important Matchup for the Raiders: Jennings vs. the Dallas Linebacking Corps

Lee and Durant are out, Bruce Carter has struggled in his third season and Ernie Sims received the worst PFF grade on the team in Week 12. McGloin probably can't carry this offense on his own, so he's going to have to get a ton of help from Jennings against that depleted, struggling group of Dallas linebackers. 

Rushing stats, last four weeks: Nothing has to give
YPA (rank) YPG (rank)
Raiders running game 5.1 (3rd) 143.8 (4th)
Cowboys run defense 6.0 (31st) 189.0 (31st)

Pro Football Reference

This matchup could decide the game. Jennings has 553 yards from scrimmage since Week 9 and was the hottest back in the league during the month of November. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have given up a league-high 5.8 yards per carry since Week 6.

“They’re definitely power,” defensive tackle Nick Hayden said of the Raiders, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “A power team trying to get at you. Their whole line tries to knock you off the ball.”

If they can do that and Jennings can take advantage of individual mismatches with Sims and Carter, the Raiders can control the pace, giving them a shot to pull off the upset. 

 

Most Important Matchup for the Cowboys: Tyron Smith vs. Lamarr Houston

Houston isn't a sack machine, but he brings constant heat and is the primary reason why this Oakland defense has been better than average in 2013. In fact, only two 4-3 defensive ends have put pressure on opposing quarterbacks more often than he has this season, according to PFF, which is why the Cowboys' pass protectors have to be ready.

Leading that crew is Smith, who mans the left side. The 2011 first-round pick is definitely having his best season yet, but he'll have his hands full in what is likely to be an every-snap matchup with Houston, who has lined up on the right side of the defense for more than 95 percent of his pass-rushing snaps this season, per PFF

The Raiders know that to win this game, they'll have to get into Romo's head. And considering that DeMarco Murray could have his hands full against a run D that has given up only 3.8 yards per carry this season, some early pressure on Romo could change everything. If Smith can control Houston, they'll likely be able to buy Romo the time he requires. 

 

Tale of the Tape

Tale of the Tape
QB RB WR TE OL DL LB DB ST Coach
OAK X X X
DAL X X X X X X X

Cowboys 7, Raiders 3

QB: Only three current starting NFL quarterbacks weren't drafted, and two of them will be featured in this game. The difference in that Romo is the only quarterback in NFL history with 200 or more touchdowns and fewer than 100 interceptions, while McGloin has thrown just 79 passes in his career and is about to play in his first nationally televised game.

RB: I think the circumstances Thursday will favor Jennings and McFadden over Murray and Lance Dunbar, but a healthy Murray is still the best back on the field.

WR/TE: Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten are good to roll, while Oakland will once again be without Moore. This isn't even close.

OL: Veldheer's return makes this interesting, especially if Barnes is effective at left guard. With Stefen Wisniewski at center, Oakland has a slight edge on the inside, but I still think Dallas' tackles are better. 

DL: Ware hasn't been right, and the Cowboys are without preseason starters Ratliff and Spencer. Houston, Vance Walker and Pat Sims have all been good this season, giving Oakland the edge. 

LB: Sio Moore and Kevin Burnett have played well, and both are at least questionable. Nick Roach is a fairly reliable veteran too, but Oakland wins this by default with Lee and Durant out. 

DB: Orlando Scandrick is playing the best football of his career, and Brandon Carr and Barry Church are both solid. This secondary shouldn't have any problems, especially if Wilcox plays. Opposing quarterbacks have put up a 99.2 passer rating against the Oakland defense this season. 

ST: The gap closes a bit with Dallas losing Harris, but Sebastian Janikowski is a mess right now, and the Oakland special teams are ranked 28th in the league by Football Outsiders (Dallas is ranked third).

Coach: Allen has done a decent job with a team that is still rebuilding, and both coordinators deserve credit for that. I still question Jason Garrett's game-management skills and Bill Callahan's play-calling, and Monte Kiffin's defense has been a big disappointment (although injuries haven't helped).

 

Predictions

1. Ware will have a big day. I have a bad feeling about that Oakland offensive line, which has been bad overall and doesn't know what to expect from Veldheer. Ware says he's "97 percent." It's about time for him to explode on a deer-in-headlights quarterback who is due to come crashing back to earth. 

2. Jennings will keep the Raiders in it. Expect him and that Oakland running game to make some big gains against a front seven that is pretty helpless in run defense right now. 

3. Romo will be the hero. It isn't easy to run on these guys, so he might not have a choice. Expect this to be a close game late, but watch for the league's all-time highest-rated fourth-quarter passer to come up with another big drive to clinch it.

4. Dallas will win 27-17. Ultimately, the Raiders are still a mediocre football team forced to jump two time zones on only three days' rest. And don't forget that Dallas is 4-1 at home this year, while Oakland is 1-4 on the road.

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