The Dallas Cowboys will enter their Week 13 matchup with the Oakland Raiders on Thanksgiving Day tied atop the NFC East. Dallas has won five of its last seven turkey-day contests and will be looking to continue that streak Thursday.
Oakland will come into the game with a 4-7 record, despite being fairly competitive this season. Rookie quarterback Matt McGloin has had a surprisingly successful first two starts in the NFL. He’s thrown four touchdowns and only one interception, with a quarterback rating of 88.8.
The Cowboys are coming off their strongest win of the year thus far, beating the New York Giants on the road. Quarterback Tony Romo led his team to a game-winning drive that essentially eliminated New York from playoff contention.
Although Dallas is the favorite to beat Oakland fairly easily, victories are never simple in this league. Here are the critical individual battles that will determine the outcome of the game.
LB Ernie Sims vs. RB Rashad Jennings
Ernie Sims has filled in quite nicely since Sean Lee went down for another injury. He’s obviously a lot less talented than the starter, however, he’s done plenty to help the porous Cowboys defense.
Against New York, Sims tied Barry Church for the most tackles with eight. Even though the Giants eclipsed 200 yards on the ground, Sims was a big reason that number wasn’t any worse.
Oakland’s most dangerous offensive weapon is running back Rashad Jennings. Since starter Darren McFadden went down early in the year, Jennings has provided a nice spark for a dull Raiders offense.
Jennings has 553 rushing yards on only 109 carries this season. He’s also a good threat through the air. The former seventh-round pick has 27 receptions for 237 yards as well.
This matchup is simple. Oakland needs Jennings to produce to move the football and have any success. Sims, along with the rest of the linebackers, should be focused on the back at all times.
LT Tyron Smith vs. DE Lamarr Houston
Another interesting competition to watch Thursday is that of left tackle Tyron Smith and Oakland’s defensive end Lamarr Houston.
Smith has arguably been the Cowboys’ most consistent player all season. He’s one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL and appears to be growing stronger each week. He’s done a fantastic job of protecting Romo’s backside in pass protection, along with opening up holes in the running game.
On the other side, Houston is the Raiders’ biggest threat to cause problems for the Cowboys. He leads his team in sacks with five and is among their leaders in both total tackles and tackles for loss.
If Oakland is going to disrupt the Cowboys’ offense, it's going to need to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. If Smith can do what he has all season and shut Houston down, Romo and the Cowboys offense will have a field day.
WR Dez Bryant vs. CB Tracy Porter
The final matchup of importance involves two of the biggest playmakers on these two teams. Cowboys’ wide receiver Dez Bryant will go head-to-head with Oakland cornerback Tracy Porter.
I often discuss Bryant in these individual battles because of his importance to the Cowboys’ offense. The team needs him to perform to his best ability every week or else the unit is stagnant.
Bryant didn’t have a huge game against New York, but he did come up big when they needed him. On the final game-winning drive, the receiver caught three passes for 32 yards, two of which converted crucial third downs.
Porter is one of the best players on Oakland’s roster. He leads the team with two interceptions and ranks among the league’s top 20 in pass deflections with 11.
Porter may need some help over the top with a safety, but if he’s able to contain Bryant, it puts Oakland in a much better position to win the game. I expect Bryant to play the way he did in the final drive against New York for 60 minutes on Thursday. He hasn’t had a breakout game in several weeks and is long overdue.
All statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com unless indicated otherwise.