After the high that accompanied the Cowboys' last-minute victory over the Redskins in Week 16, the 'Boys and their fans suffered a humongous letdown when it was revealed that quarterback Tony Romo has a herniated disc.
Head coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys are insisting Romo is day to day and has a chance to play on Sunday. The team obviously has an incentive to not reveal Romo's status so it doesn't force its hand with the Eagles coming to town in Week 17, but nearly every media outlet outside of Valley Ranch is reporting that Romo won't be able to suit up.
That's a devastating blow for the Cowboys, as they have little chance to keep up with Philly's high-flying attack without their franchise quarterback at the helm. So can Kyle Orton lead Dallas to victory? Before exploring that topic, let's take a look at the Cowboys' playoff chances, injuries and an area of potential improvement.
At this point in the season, the standings and playoff scenarios are simple and have been well-documented: The winner of the Cowboys-Eagles Week 17 matchup is in the playoffs, and the loser is out. The Cowboys took down Philly earlier in the year, meaning they'd sweep the head-to-head series with a win and a tied regular-season record.
|New York Giants||6-9||-103|
Looking at the point differentials for each team, you can see the Eagles have clearly been the class of the NFC East. They've been particularly efficient lately, averaging 39.3 points over the past three weeks.
We know the Eagles offense is going to be able to take advantage of a weak Dallas defense. The key to this game, assuming Romo is out, is whether Orton will be able to consistently move the ball on the Eagles.
With a post-Romo injury total of 53 and the Eagles favored by seven points, Vegas is basically predicting a final score in the range of 30-23. The experts in Vegas clearly believe the loss of Romo will be extremely detrimental to Dallas, even at home.
The Cowboys have dealt with many injuries this year, some to studs such as linebacker Sean Lee, but the Romo back injury will obviously have a far greater impact.
|QB Tony Romo||Back||Doubtful|
|CB Morris Claiborne||Hamstring||Questionable|
|LB Sean Lee||Neck||Questionable|
|LB Ernie Sims||Groin||Questionable|
Although Garrett left open the possibility of a Romo return this week, the quarterback needs surgery on his herniated disc:
Tony Romo diagnosed with herniated disc. Surgery necessary, per sources— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) December 23, 2013
The question is when he'll have that surgery. Right now, it looks highly doubtful that Romo will be allowed to play against the Eagles. Since the Cowboys haven't ruled him out, though, we have to assume there's at least a fraction of a chance he can play.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne and linebacker Ernie Sims look like they'll be able to return in Week 17, according to ESPN Dallas. Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News has reported there's still a chance linebacker Sean Lee will be able to suit up as well. All three players can be considered questionable right now, with Claiborne and Sims closer to probably and Lee perhaps leaning a bit more toward doubtful.
What Must Improve: Receivers
Against the Redskins in Week 17, wide receiver Terrance Williams was the team's leading receiver with 84 yards, 51 of which came on a single play. Williams hadn't crossed that 84-yard mark in any other game since early October, however.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Miles Austin has been a ghost. After hauling in 10 catches for 72 yards in the opener, Austin hasn't posted more than 35 yards in a single game. Even with an elite skill set, Austin just isn't much of a factor anymore. He hasn't scored all season.
Wide receiver Cole Beasley has had some clutch catches in recent weeks, but it's not like he can be counted on as a long-term producer for Dallas. He's valuable in 3rd-and-medium situations, but he can't stretch the field vertically, and he won't ever be consistently productive in the red zone because of his size.
Further, tight end Jason Witten is clearly no longer a dominant player. He's been unusually productive in the red zone with eight touchdowns this year, but he's always been rather inefficient in short areas for a tight end. He's had a couple of big games this year, but Witten has also had games with 12, 27, 25, 27, 37, 10 and, most recently, 13 yards. He's disappeared at times.
With Orton presumably forced into a starting role on Sunday night, every receiver not named Dez Bryant needs to step up in a big way. If Williams, Austin, Witten and Co. don't bring their best games, the Cowboys stand no chance of keeping up with Chip Kelly's potent offensive attack.
More on QB Kyle Orton
As a final note, I want to take a quick look at Orton. Is he capable of leading this offense in an effective way?
Orton's career YPA is 6.6, which isn't good. One thing he's been able to do relatively well as a longtime backup quarterback, though, is limit his interceptions. He's never thrown more than 12 in a season, and when at his best in Denver, he had seasons with touchdown-to-interception rations of 21-to-12 and 20-to-9. He averaged 7.1 YPA during those two seasons.
Orton's biggest weakness has been delivering the football in a consistently accurate manner. He has just a 58.4 percent career completion rate, and he's never surpassed 62.1 percent accuracy in a season. That might lead some to argue that the Cowboys should stick with short, easy throws, but I disagree.
It seems unlikely Orton will continually deliver the football accurately all the way up the field on multiple drives, so it makes sense to take some chances. Orton's arm isn't very strong these days, but the Cowboys should try to generate some quick scores so Orton doesn't need to be great over and over again.
That ideas speaks to the fact that Dallas needs to implement an extremely high-variance approach. That means deep passes and lots of blitzes on defense. The Cowboys need to do everything they can to make this game as chaotic as possible. They're probably going to need something fluky to happen, such as a return touchdown, in order to win.