Playoff hopes could be on the line tonight when the Dallas Cowboys take on the Chicago Bears at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Jason Garrett and the Cowboys (7-5) are looking for a third straight victory, which would tie them with the Eagles for best record in the NFC East, while Marc Trestman and the Bears (6-6) are trying to snap a two-game losing streak and draw even with the Lions in the North.
Winning their division needs to be the focus of these two teams, as the Wild Card spots are currently held by Carolina and San Francisco, both of which are 9-4. The Cowboys have a better divisional record (4-0) than the Eagles (3-2), so they would assume first place with a win. The Bears are basically in must-win mode for the rest of the season, as the Lions have a better divisional mark (4-1 vs. 3-2) and have already defeated the Bears twice.
3 Things to Watch
Dallas’ December Woes
Since Tony Romo became the starting quarterback in 2006, the Cowboys are 13-17 in December. Romo, who missed 10 games in 2010, is 11-15 in the final month of the regular season. In each of the past two seasons, the Cowboys have had a chance to secure a playoff spot with a victory in their final game, and have come up short both times. To be fair, both of these games were on the road, and one of them was actually played on Jan. 1 and not in December, but the Cowboys’ inability to finish strong has been well documented and something everyone on the team is painfully aware of. In 2011, Dallas entered December 7-4 before losing four of its final five games, including the finale against the Giants on New Year’s Day, to finish 8-8. Last season, the Cowboys actually played well to start their final month, winning their first three games to put their record at 8-6. But an overtime home loss to New Orleans followed by a loss at Washington gave the Redskins the NFC East title and left Dallas at 8-8 and out of the playoffs once again. Whatever the reason behind Dallas’ late-season struggles, Jason Garrett needs to figure out a way to help get his team over the hump in December. Once again, the division title and the playoffs are within reach and Garrett knows better than anyone else what’s likely to happen if the Cowboys miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Can the Cowboys Stop the Pass?
Dallas entered Week 14 ranked second to last in the NFL in passing defense. The Cowboys are giving up 294.9 yards per game through the air and have yielded 22 touchdown passes. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 64.3 percent of their passes and the Cowboys have already set an NFL record by allowing four different quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford) to throw for at least 400 yards. Drew Brees (392 yards) almost made it a fifth in Week 10, but the Saints did put up 49 points, 625 yards of total offense and an NFL-record 40 first downs in their victory over the Cowboys. As productive a season as Tony Romo (3140-24-7) is having, it’s too much to ask him to constantly bring the Cowboys from behind and to bail the defense out. Even though Chicago starting quarterback Jay Cutler is going to miss his fourth straight game because of an ankle injury, the Cowboys’ defense could have its hands full with backup Josh McCown. In six games this season, four of them starts, McCown has thrown for 1,461 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. He has posted back-to-back 350-yard efforts and has plenty of weapons to work with. Wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have become one of the league’s most productive duos, combining for 148 receptions, 2,099 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tight end Martellus Bennett has 48 catches and five touchdowns, while running back Matt Forté (58 rec.) is one of the more dangerous receiving threats out of the backfield. The Cowboys’ defense will get a huge boost with the return of linebacker Sean Lee. He injured his hamstring in the Week 10 loss to the Saints and hasn’t played since. Lee leads the team with four interceptions and is second on the team in tackles. Still Lee’s return is not necessarily a cure-all for the Cowboys’ pass defense, which will surely be tested tonight by McCown and the Bears.
Can the Bears Stop the Run?
As much as Dallas has struggled to stop the pass, Chicago has had even more issues against the run recently. Over their last six games, the Bears are allowing an average of 205.2 yards rushing per game and 5.9 yards per carry. Adrian Peterson gashed them for 211 in Minnesota’s overtime win last week, while Eddie Lacy (150), Ray Rice (131), Benny Cunningham (109) and Reggie Bush (105) all have gone over 100 yards during this six-game span. Not surprisingly, the Bears are dead last in the NFL in rushing defense at 153.6 yards per contest and for once, the Cowboys may be in ideal position to take advantage of this. Dallas has gone over 100 yards rushing in each of its last two games for the first time all season. Last week, the Cowboys had 144 on the ground in their Thanksgiving Day win over the Raiders with Lance Dunbar (12 att., 82 yds.) leading the way. Dunbar suffered a season-ending knee injury late in that game, but the team still has leading rusher DeMarco Murray. Despite missing two games because of a sprained knee, Murray leads the Cowboys with 697 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Three of those scores came last week and for the season, Murray is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Murray is at his best when he gets plenty of carries, as he’s averaging 94.8 yards per game in the six where he has gotten at least 14 attempts. The Bears are giving up an NFL-worst five yards per carry, so look for Murray to get the ball early and often tonight. Dallas’ rushing defense isn’t exactly rock solid, allowing 126.7 yards per game, so there could be a lot of ground gained between the two teams. However, Chicago hasn’t been able to stop anyone from running the ball lately, and look for the Cowboys to extend the Bears’ misery in this department tonight.
Dallas Key Player: Tony Romo, QB
Even though the Cowboys will try and exploit the NFL’s worst rushing defense (see above), the buck on offense begins and ends with Romo. The highest paid and most visible player on America’s Team will continue to be criticized, no matter how well he plays, as long as the Cowboys continue to miss the playoffs. Romo entered Week 14 among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league in both passing yards (3,140) and touchdowns (24) and has thrown only seven interceptions, yet all he’s hearing about is how poorly he has played in December. While his record as the starter (11-15) in the final month of the regular season certainly leaves something to be desired, Romo should get a lot of credit for the fact that the Cowboys are in the thick of the NFC East race despite having the league’s worst defense. That said, Romo himself has acknowledged he needs to have a strong finish and there is no better place to start than tonight. Besides putting the Cowboys in first place in the NFC East, a win tonight would help Romo atone for one of the worst games of his career. In Week 4 of last season at home against Chicago, Romo threw five interceptions, two of which were returned by the Bears for touchdowns, in a 34-18 loss. That game also was on “Monday Night Football.” Romo has a chance to exact some revenge tonight, which would taste extra sweet considering this game is in December and a victory also would put the Cowboys one step closer to playing in January.
Chicago Key Players: James Anderson, Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene, LBs
Dallas’ defense is set to get a big boost in the return of their best linebacker, Sean Lee, from a hamstring injury tonight. Meanwhile, Chicago will be without their top backer, Lance Briggs, for a sixth straight game. Briggs suffered a shoulder injury back on Oct. 20 and hasn’t played since. To make matters worse, D.J. Williams is on injured reserve, which is why the Bears have been forced to start two rookies (Bostic and Green) alongside the veteran Anderson. Bostic and Greene are former college stars at Florida and Rutgers, respectively, and believed to be the future foundation of the linebacking corps. As can be expected, however, they have endured their share of growing pains this season. Anderson is an eight-year veteran, but this is his first season with the Bears. So couple all of this inexperience with the rash of injuries Chicago’s defense has suffered to its defensive line, along with the absence of All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman (IR, triceps), and it’s little surprise the Bears are last in the NFL in rushing defense and are giving up nearly 28 points per game. The heart and soul of last year’s Monsters of the Midway were linebackers Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach. Briggs is injured, Urlacher is retired and Roach is in Oakland, so it now falls to the current trio to help turn around a defense that hasn’t been able to stop anyone from running the ball if the Bears wish to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Considering this game is in December in Chicago and knowing Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ history of late-season swoons, you would think this would be easy picking for the Bears. Especially with the NFL’s worst defense coming to town against a quarterback that has thrown just one interception all season and is coming off of back-to-back 350-yard games.
However, this is not your typical Monsters of the Midway defense, as the Bears have been getting run over by everyone for more than a month. And even though the Cowboys are known more as a passing team with Romo under center, I would like to think Jason Garrett and his coaching staff are smart enough to attack what is an apparent weakness.
The pressure is always on when it comes to Jerry Jones’ team, but I Jason Garrett’s squad takes care of business on the road. The Bears are a team in a bit of transition with head Marc Trestman in his first season, Jay Cutler in the final year of his contract and on the sidelines because of an ankle injury, and a youth movement in place on defense because of several key injuries.
DeMarco Murray continues to torment the Bears’ rushing defense, with Romo applying the finishing touch and giving the Cowboys defense just enough of a cushion to escape Soldier Field with a much-needed December win and, more importantly, possession of first place in the NFC East.
Dallas 30, Chicago 27