Tony Romo and the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win over the playoff-bound Colts
A pair of 10-4 teams at two different points on the playoff path will intersect when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Dallas Cowboys later today on CBS. The Colts have already clinched their second straight AFC South title, while the Cowboys can win the NFC East with a win at home.
Dallas took over control of the division with a 38-27 win in Philadelphia last week, and now just needs one more victory to end its postseason drought following the Eagles' shocking loss to the Redskins on Saturday. The Eagles control all of the tiebreakers, but the Cowboys would need to lose today and next week to Washington to give Philadelphia any hope. And even then the Eagles would still need to beat the Giants on the road next Sunday to force the tiebreaker.
The Cowboys may be without DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, who is trying to play just days after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand. With Murray leading the way, Dallas has used its running game to not only move the ball, but also control the clock, and the Cowboys may be forced to rely on backups Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar if Murray can’t play.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Dallas -3
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Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Pass with Purpose
No team has attempted more passes than the Colts, which is why Andrew Luck leads the league in both yards (4,492) and touchdowns (38). The secret to Indianapolis’ success is pretty straightforward – a lot of Luck. With 10 wins, no one can really argue with the Colts’ approach, although it does have some downsides. For one, teams that lean heavily towards the pass can be easier to defend, although Indianapolis’ offensive statistics portray a different tale. However, throwing the ball a lot does open up the possibility for more mistakes. Case in point, over the past four games Luck has thrown four picks and lost four fumbles, accounting for more than half of the team’s 13 turnovers during this span. Despite posting a minus-six turnover margin during this stretch, the Colts went 4-0 because they scored nearly 29 points per game. For all of Dallas’ success this season, the defense is giving up nearly 250 yards passing per game and has allowed 20 touchdown passes. Luck and the Colts will be able to take their deep shots against the Cowboys’ defense, they just need to be careful to not take too many chances through the air. Dallas’ offense could be shorthanded both in the backfield and up front, and the last thing Indianapolis would want to do is give Tony Romo and company extra possessions. The Colts have been able to overcome their mistakes recently, but with the playoffs looming now is the perfect time to focus on ball security and cleaning up other things. With Indianapolis’ playoff ticket already punched, the focus these next two weeks should be on laying the groundwork so the Colts can be successful come January.
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Dallas’ Key to Victory: Take a Page out of Indianapolis’ Playbook
The Cowboys have made a living this season out of running the ball. Behind DeMarco Murray, they have the third-most productive ground game (146.6 ypg) and have used that to control the clock. Dallas is second only to Pittsburgh in time of possession (32:50). However, the Cowboys could be without the NFL’s leading rusher this afternoon (trying to play through a broken hand) and their offensive line is pretty banged up too. If Murray can’t go or is limited, the burden falls on Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar to pick up the slack, and this may be too much to ask of them, especially if the line isn’t at 100 percent. So instead of focusing on running the ball, perhaps Dallas should let Tony Romo do his best Andrew Luck impression and air it out a little more. For one, Indianapolis is 19th in the league in passing defense (240.6 ypg) with 21 touchdown passes allowed and just 12 interceptions. Secondly, the Colts’ best cover guy, cornerback Vontae Davis, is dealing with a groin injury, which has caused him to miss a game and could impact his effectiveness this afternoon. A limited Davis is a good sign for Dez Bryant and the other Cowboy wide receivers. Lastly, it’s not like Romo has been a bad passer this season. He’s second in the league in passer rating (110.4) and is tied for seventh in TD passes with 28, even though he’s 22nd in attempts. Romo has thrown just eight interceptions all season and a total of two over his last six games. Dallas hasn’t needed Romo to throw the ball a lot, but health concerns and matchup are just two reasons to at least consider changing things up against Indianapolis.
All of the attention entering this one has been on the health of DeMarco Murray’s left hand, and rightfully so. However, even if Dallas has to go without the NFL’s leading rusher, I think the Cowboys have enough depth in their backfield to weather Murray’s absence. In fact, I think Dallas’ best course of action should Murray not play is to open up the playbook and have Tony Romo throw it more than usual. Andrew Luck may be the league’s most prolific passer, but Romo has weapons of his own to use, namely Dez Bryant, and could be facing an Indianapolis secondary that’s not at full strength. The Colts don’t really need to win this game, whereas this victory would mean everything to the Cowboys. Behind an impressive aerial attack, Dallas ends its four-season playoff with a big win at home.