OK, here we go. At the risk of dancing around the conversation of "Must Win" versus "Not a Must Win", allow me to label this game as "Need to Win".
If you want to go to the Playoffs. If you want to quiet the critics. If you have any plans of winning your division. If you don't want another season to crater. If you want your new stadium to appear difficult to play in. If you want opponents to take you serious....
Need to Win.
It certainly doesn't help that your toughest opponents seem to all be situated in December. In August, I picked my playoff teams and Super Bowl. My Super Bowl (even though I am not sure I have ever nailed this prediction in August) was San Diego vs New Orleans. Lo and Behold, those are your next two opponents, and both of those teams are flying high and feeling confident that they can beat anyone, anywhere.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are having that little pain in the back of their head emerge again. It is called doubt. They can act confident, but in their heart of hearts, I don't know how they can truly have confidence. They are a team that does not navigate through December. And they are playing a team that has not lost a December game since 2005 (15 in a row!).
But, you have to play them when the league says so, and 3:15 Sunday we can test the ambush theory in the Cowboys favor this week. Again, the ambush theory requires 2 basic ingredients: 1) Home team has suffered through a week of being doubted and questioned and picked upon, needing a win badly to stay in the mix. 2) Road team has experienced a nice run of form and it appears that everything is going very well. No real controversies, just a good team rolling along. We saw this in Green Bay and in New York against the Cowboys, but now the shoe is on the other foot. In these games, the trench warfare is dominated by the home team that has desperation and a home crowd behind them, and in the end they overcome the opponent to save the season (temporarily). It is a theory that holds up very well, but, like most sports theories, it only works most of the time. We shall see if Sunday is one of them.
The San Diego Chargers are Loaded with talent and below the National Football Post preseason rankings had the Chargers with the 8th best personnel in the league:
San Diego —
BLUE CHIP: QB, Rivers; RB, Tomlinson; TE, Gates; P, Scifres; OLB, Merriman.
ALMOST BLUE: DT, J. Williams; CB, Cromartie; CB, Jammer.
As you can see, they have much of their elite talent at key spots. QB, RB, TE, OLB, and CB, are good spots to have your best players. Jamal Williams, NT, has been down for the year. Vincent Jackson did not make this list, but given the attention he gets from the opposition, I think he may be in the next version of this list in 2010.
Norv Turner leads the Chargers back into a town where he has many of the local media types waving his pom-poms, hoping that someday he will coach the Cowboys. As a close follower of his Redskins teams in the 1990's ('94-'00), I am not terribly inclined to understand this logic, but I know that friendships can blur one's vision. Regardless, unlike his Redskins or Raiders squad, this team has elite talent, and therefore, maybe these last 3 years are the best way to judge his ability to coach a team. In these 3 years, his record with the Chargers is 28-16, with 3 playoff wins in 2 post seasons. He was 58-82 with 1 playoff win at his first two stops combined.
They present a very stiff challenge for the Cowboys this Sunday, given the fact they have won 15 straight in December and 7 straight in 2009. The Chargers are rolling right along, scoring 29 points per game, and setting themselves up for a bye week and a home game in the playoffs, with the #2 seed behind the Colts if they can fight off the Bengals (who are in Minnesota this week) down the stretch.
ON OFFENSE: When the Cowboys are on offense, they are facing a defense in San Diego that can be considered decent. They will certainly test you with the edge pass rush coming off the 3-4 flanks, but overall, you should be able to do what you do. Everyone around here keeps notes on the further adventures of Shawne Merriman, but since he hurt himself in 2008, he is not what he was.
But, the Chargers saw that coming, by drafting OLB Larry English in the 1st Round, they new that the performance and contract of Merriman might need an upgrade, so right now they are stocked with players who can do it. The best of which is Shaun Phillips who plays a relentless style and is the perfect template for that position in that defense.
For reasons that are not terribly clear, the Cowboys seem to struggle against the 3-4 defenses, with poor offensive showings against the Broncos, Chiefs, and Packers. This will again test that theory, but of course, those 3 games were on the road, and this one is ideally located inside the Cowboys new stadium.
1) - Offensive Line Must Be the Bully, Not the Bullied - Some weeks, I like to really discuss the strategy of the NFL game and break it down like it is an amazing chess match. There is a place for that this week, but I want the #1 objective to be a little pride. This time of year, the OL seems to fade. I know it doesn't make for the great copy or the exciting NFL Network debate where we can kill Tony Romo for going to Vegas over Thanksgiving, but the truth is that this OL got pushed around the field last December by pretty much all comers, and then last week in New York my prevailing memory from that day was Justin Tuck picking up Leonard Davis and planting him 5 yards deep in the backfield. Tuck, who gives up a good 50 pounds to Davis, just wanted the game far more. You can run any offense you want, and if the OL cannot at least play the opposition to a stand-still then you have no chance. There is no reason why this OL cannot issue some physical play on Sunday against a Chargers DL that teams have run upon. The possibility of no Martellus Bennett playing might not concern fantasy owners, but in the power football department, that is a loss. But, this OL must act insulted and determined on Sunday, and if they don't, then nothing else matters.
2) - Romo Stays Within Himself - I think it is only human nature to "do too much" when other departments of the team might not be getting it done to the QB's level. It is vital that he stays in the gameplan and does not take too many chances. Everything is magnified, so a interception might be all it takes to miss the playoffs. Keep playing the efficient QB that he played last week in the hostile setting of Giants Stadium and he will be fine. I think that he has immense confidence right now, and I have no real issues with this QB this season. In week 2, he threw a multi-interception game. Since then, he has not done that at all. Smart QBs win games in this league, and Romo has played a very smart season.
3) - More Tashard, Less Felix - This will likely anger some of the readers, but I need players who are ready to do what is needed this time of year. Felix is not instinctive enough on screen plays or blitz pickup for me. Last week, it looked like the Cowboys were determined to get Felix his touches, and Tashard disappears into the background. Tashard has had 12 carries in the last 5 games, with almost all of them coming out of the Wildcat/Razorback formation. Meanwhile, Felix is getting about 10 touches a game in the last 3 weeks, with his one explosive play against Oakland (like Choice had), but way too much fall-on-first-contact from Jones. I understand wanting to get the ball in the hands of your playmaker, but not if it is hurting the ability to sustain drives.
4) - Test The Chargers Secondary - Last Week, the Cleveland Browns were able to get things done against the Chargers down the field. If that is possible that Evan Moore could rack up big yardage down the seams, I have to believe Jason Witten can get it done, too. Witten and Miles Austin are marching right up and down the field, and I think there are plays to be made this week, as well. We are seeing encouraging signs from the Cowboys passing game the last 2 weeks, and they may be picking a great time to start their peak. If Roy Williams is going to get 10 targets as the #3 target, the Cowboys are going to score big points week after week. They left plenty of points on the field in New York, but over 400 yards against that defense cannot be considered a bad thing.
ON DEFENSE: OK, here is the game on Sunday. Can the Cowboys defense keep this game from turning into a track meet against an offense that can put up points with great regularity. 136 points in the last 4 games for this Chargers offense shows us that they are the real deal, and the real shocker here is that their running game is pedestrian. 1 time this season, the Chargers have received over 80 yards in a game from a runner. LaDanian Tomlinson is still a great character player and effective around the end zone, but the 3.3 average and the games of sub-50 yards tell us that time has taken a toll on LT. But, they still use their RBs as targets in the passing game (remember that Brandon Jacobs route on Sunday? That is in the Chargers playbook with Darren Sproles - a guy about a second faster than Jacobs in the 40.) and they have one of the more efficient passers in football. Drew Brees and Brett Favre have a better Passer rating than Phil Rivers, but that is it. He was +23 in TD/INT last year, and this season he is a +15. He throws a multitude of TDs, and seldom throws picks. In fact, in the last 10 games for the Chargers, Rivers has thrown 0 picks in 8 of them. Very impressive work.
1) - Pass Rush - I have nothing clever to say as a slogan. They must simply get to Philip Rivers. The Chargers started 2-3 and Rivers was sacked 15 times in those 5 games. Then, they figured out their protection schemes, and have run off 7 straight wins with Rivers getting sacked a mere 6 times in 7 weeks. Meanwhile, the Cowboys were on a tremendous roll with getting to the QB before last week. But, in New York the pass rush absolutely betrayed them - with only a garbage time sack from DeMarcus Ware keeping the Cowboys from being shutout altogether. It is just as important as the OL being the "bully". The Cowboys pass rush must have an active day, and know that Chargers LT Marcus McNeil has been playing very, very well. Must get to the QB and make his day difficult. Like Matt Ryan, if you get to him with regularity, he is not the same guy. Rivers is better than Ryan, but the Cowboys made Ryan look very average with a relentless rush in his face. Do it again.
2) - Keep Gates from Killing You - This is an absolutely tricky objective. He is going to get his because there is no way to bother him defensively. He is the ultimate pick-your-poison pass catching TE. I appreciate the idea the Cowboys fans wouldn't trade Jason Witten for anyone, but if you put down your jersey for a moment, you might see that Gates is the best in the business. Gates has 6 fewer catches than Witten, but 200 more total yards. 4 yards more per catch for a Tight End is an amazing difference in production, and Gates is as good as it gets. How do you defend him? Surely, it has to be with bracket coverage from a LB and a Safety. But, don't you think he sees that every week? It is a real quandry.
3) - LBs Must Not Get Schooled Again - In 2006, Sean Payton as coach of the Saints, discovered that the Cowboys LBs were not great in space. After the Saints did a number on the LBs, the next several opponents tried to isolate and dice up Bradie James and Friends on a week by week basis. Surely, the Chargers are looking hard at ways to get Sproles, Tomlinson, or Gates locked into a foot race with Spencer or Ware on the edge. That catch by Jacobs is an absolute game changer, and for all we know it might be a season changer. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again. Make the Chargers drive down the field, not 74 yards at a time.
4) - Stand Tall, DBs - The Chargers fleet of Wide Outs and Tight Ends are all tall men. Vincent Jackson is 6'5. Malcolm Floyd is 6'5. Kassim Osgood is 6'5. Antonio Gates is 6'4. They can get up and over most defensive backs, and in case you didn't notice, the Cowboys defensive backs are not really the tallest guys in the league. I would imagine plenty of help from safeties will be required for the Cowboys to get off the field on 3rd Down. Rivers throws it where only his guy can catch it, which makes them very difficult to deal with.
SUMMARY: I know there is a small point of comedy involved in my picks, since I seem to generally find a way the Cowboys can get the win. We must conclude that I am a closet Dallas Cowboys fan (who happens to have a Green Bay tattoo). Regardless, as a huge believer in the ambush theory, I can only assume that Steve Dennis has helped the Cowboys find that extra gear and the Cowboys will fall back on this rare Us-against-the-World game (like last December's home game against the Giants) and rise up. Of course, that win did not change anything about the December collapse, and this one might not either.
Cowboys 30, Chargers 28
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