Redskins vs. Cowboys: Five Keys to Week 3's Monday Night Game

Kevin CraftContributor ISeptember 23, 2011

Redskins vs. Cowboys: Five Keys to Week 3's Monday Night Game

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    It's easy to forget that the rivalry between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys was once considered the fiercest in professional football. 

    Animosity between the franchises was kindled when former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall voted against NFL expansion in Dallas, and it has continued on the field ever since. Washington and Dallas are two of the NFL's richest franchises, but that's their only similarity.

    The best Cowboys teams featured star quarterbacks and elite skill players, while the Redskins dynasty of the '80s and early '90s relied on a dominant offensive line and superior play calling. Even the cities—Dallas represents the freewheeling, untamed spirit of Texas while Washington is known as a haven of bureaucracy and deliberation—stand in stark contrast to each other.

    It’s not surprising that in 2008, Sports Illustrated named Redskins-Cowboys the greatest NFL rivalry of all time.

    Over the last decade the rivalry has lost some of its luster, as both teams have consistently failed to live up to expectations. Neither team has reached the NFC championship since 1996. As a result, fans and pundits outside of Washington and Dallas have written off this once highly anticipated biannual contest as one of little consequence.

    It is somewhat ironic that as the rivalry's reputation has declined, the on-the-field drama has risen.

    The past decade has produced some of the tensest games ever played between the two teams. From the Redskins Monday Night Miracle in Week 2 of the 2005 season to the classic battle in Week 9 of 2006, when a Dallas penalty combined with an obscure NFL rule allowed to Redskins to kick a game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock, the twists and turns have never been more dramatic than in recent years.

    This Monday night the rivalry resumes in Dallas, where the Redskins will look to build upon their first 2-0 start since 2007, and the Cowboys will try to earn their first winning record of the season. The Cowboys are technically favored by less than a touchdown, but smart fans know that that it's too early to know which team is better.

    Here are five things that will help determine the outcome of Monday night's game.

Will Injured Ribs Hamper Romo?

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    Tony Romo may be a flawed quarterback—his inconsistent play at the end of games has led many analysts to question his status as an elite NFL quarterback—but one thing is for certain: he is a much better player than Cowboys backup Jon Kitna.

    Last week, Romo suffered a fractured rib and a punctured lung when ex-Redskin Carlos Rodgers hit him on a corner blitz in the second quarter of the game against the San Francisco 49ers. Romo left the field—Kitna threw two interceptions in relief—before returning in the fourth quarter and leading the Cowboys to a come-from-behind victory.

    Romo's status for Monday night's game remains uncertain, but it's looking more likely that he will attempt to play.

    If that is the case, the Redskins can at least hope Romo's injury will prevent him from throwing the deep ball with accuracy and using his mobility to buy time for his downfield receivers. Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall has already publicly stated that he will target Romo's injured ribs if given the chance, but the best case scenario for the Redskins would be Romo holding a clipboard on the sideline.

    Bottom line: The Cowboys are a very dangerous team when Romo plays at a high level, and Romo's ability to play through pain will dictate how well the Redskins defense has to play on Monday.

Will Grossman Turn the Ball Over?

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    Much has been made of Rex Grossman's improved play through the first two weeks of the season. At times, Grossman has looked sharp and deserves credit for making some big throws in crunch time, like his 18-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss in the fourth quarter of the Redskins victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

    But for all the progress Grossman has made, he is still prone to turning the ball over: he already has recorded two interceptions and one fumble this season.

    Minimizing turnovers is a staple of good NFL teams and until Grossman proves his turnover-prone days are behind him, the Redskins' offensive potential will be severely limited. 

    Bottom line: The Redskins' chances of winning decrease significantly every time Grossman turns the ball over.

Key Match-Up: Redskins Secondary vs. Cowboys Receivers

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    Sometimes football is a game of inches, other times it's a game of hamstrings—as in which team's players have healthy ones.

    Such will be the case on Monday night when a battered Redskins secondary squares off against a depleted Cowboys receiving corps in a battle of the walking wounded.

    The Redskins are hoping that strong safety LaRon Landry's injured hamstring will be healthy enough to allow him to see his first on-field action since last season. Landry is a supremely talented game-changer, and without him the Redskins are forced to rely on the inconsistent Reed Doughty and the mercurial and mouthy DeAngelo Hall.

    On the other side of the ball, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant might be the most talented receiving duo in the entire league. The Cowboys have announced Austin will miss Monday's game with a hamstring injury of his own, and Bryant remains questionable due to the bruised thigh that kept him out last week.

    Regardless of whether Bryant gets on the field, the Redskins still have to deal with tight end Jason Witten, who hung 140 yards on the Redskins defense last December.

    The Cowboys are a pass-first offense, so containing the Cowboys receivers is critical to the Redskins defensive success.

    Bottom line: The unit that wins this battle of attrition will give their team a good chance to prevail.

Fred Davis: A Star on the Rise

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    Star players often determine the outcome of football games. For the Redskins, no player's star has burned brighter this season than that of tight end Fred Davis.

    Davis has always possessed a ton of talent, but in his first three seasons in Washington he played second-fiddle to fan favorite Chris Cooley.

    That always struck me as a mistake, because while Cooley is a very good player, Davis has the potential to be great.

    This season, a knee injury has limited Cooley's playing time, and Davis, after an offseason in which he worked hard to lose weight and improve his mobility, has capitalized on his increased playing time. He currently ranks 13th in receiving yards in the NFL, and only one tight end—Jason Witten—has more receiving yards.

    Bottom line: Davis' size and speed make him a difficult match-up for linebackers and defensive backs; the Redskins should target him early and often.

Special Teams Play

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    Games between division rivals are usually close, and close games are often decided by special teams.

    The Redskins' special teams play has been a mixed bag so far. Brandon Banks ranks in the top ten for both punt and kick return yardage and is always a threat to take a kickoff or punt to the end zone.

    Redskins placekicker Graham Gano has missed one field goal and had another one blocked. He has yet to attempt a field goal of 40 yards or more, and his play has not inspired confidence in his ability to put points on the board when the offense can’t find the end zone.

    The Cowboys' special teams have been somewhat unremarkable. Placekicker Dan Bailey has converted three out of four field goals, and his long for the year is 48 yards. Dez Bryant is a threat as a punt returner, but considering he hurt himself in Week 1 on a punt return, it’s doubtful he’ll be tasked with return duties on Monday.

    Bottom line: Neither team can afford to miss easy field goals, and the team that wins the field position battle will likely prevail.