The schedule makers were very kind to the Dallas Cowboys, giving them three straight and five of six home games from Nov. 18 through Dec. 23.
Whether Dallas takes advantage or not remains to be seen.
The Cowboys have a full head of steam entering Sunday's matchup with the Cleveland Browns, and will try to build on an upcoming soft schedule. They got themselves back into the playoff mix with last week's 38-23 win at Philadelphia and heated up the NFC East race.
Big plays on defense and special teams resuscitated the Cowboys back to life in a game that meant so much for both teams. The Eagles also entered the game at 3-5, but quarterback Michael Vick was knocked out of the game with a concussion and Dallas turned up the defense on rookie QB Nick Foles. Brandon Carr returned a tipped pass for a touchdown and both DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer each had a crucial sack to seal the win.
Jason Hatcher recovered a fumble in the end zone on a big sack deep in Eagles territory to finish the scoring and cap a 21-point fourth quarter. Along with Carr's pick six and Hatcher's gift in the end zone, Dwayne Harris had a 78- yard punt return for a score.
"We talk about 'all three phases,' really, on a daily basis," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Everybody has a role in what we're doing, and everybody has to pick each other up. ... Everybody understands it's a team game."
Garrett, though, wasn't too pleased that the Cowboys were penalized 13 times for 75 yards, and thought the defensive infractions hurt tremendously. It seemed Dallas wanted to give the game away and amazingly improved to 3-1 this season when committing at least 13 penalties. Ten of the 13 penalties on Sunday were against the defense, six of which gave the Eagles a first down. Rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne was flagged five times on the afternoon.
But perseverance and patience paid off for Dallas, which sits right behind the struggling 6-4 New York Giants for first place in the division. The Giants have been known for their November breakdowns and things could get interesting over the next few weeks.
Dallas ended a two-game losing streak and won for just the second time in six games. It will have to come out firing on all cylinders against Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. Weeden is tied for second in the NFL with 12 interceptions, but guess who leads the league in that category? That would be Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo with 13. Romo has had two games with four or more picks and hasn't thrown one in two straight and three of four games.
"The ball is the most important thing ... we've got to protect the football," Romo said. "We talk about it all the time. And when you can do that. You have a chance to have some success and be a pretty good football team."
Right now the Browns are not a good football team and had their bye week to reflect on that. They entered the break with losses in two of three games and are just 2-7 on the season.
Cleveland, which was 3-6 at this point a season ago, dropped a 25-15 decision versus Baltimore on Nov. 4. It played well defensively, holding the rival Ravens under 300 yards (282) of offense and keeping Ray Rice from rushing for more than 100 yards (98). But at the end of the day, a pair of interceptions by Weeden proved to be costly.
Browns head coach Pat Shurmur discussed what went on during the bye.
"As coaches, we got a chance to sit down and evaluate what went right early in the year and what didn't go well and what we want to try to focus on. That part was good," Shurmur said. "I think the players got a chance to get away a little bit and take advantage of some much-needed rest."
Shurmur's squad hasn't been as bad as the record indicates. Four of the losses have been by seven points or less and only one was more than 10 points -- a 41-27 setback to the Giants in Week 5. The bye not only gives teams a chance to reflect on what happened in the previous weeks, but also helps players heal for the home stretch.
Defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin (calf) and Phil Taylor (pectoral), and defensive back Dimitri Paterson (ankle) have been working their way back to the field. Veteran defensive end Frostee Rucker is excited to see some of his teammates on the mend.
"It's going to be an awesome thing when we're all out there healthy," Rucker said. "We get Dimitri back soon, I hope, and it's going to be exactly what they wanted on paper. Having not played with Phil until last week, I got a feel for how he plays football, how competitive he is and what a force he can be in the middle. Now, we've got both of the big guys in the middle and we're ready to roll."
Being 'ready to roll' may be an overstatement. At least it's healthy for a team to have optimism. Rucker said the Browns will be ready for a Cowboys team that is fresh off a win. It will be a challenge for Cleveland, as it has dropped two straight and seven of the last 10 meetings. Dallas won the previous meeting, 28-10, on Sept. 7, 2008 and is 17-12 all-time in the series.
The Browns haven't won in Big D since a 19-14 decision on Dec. 10, 1994.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Can the duo of Weeden and Trent Richardson lead the Browns to a win in Big D? Probably not, but they'll give the 'ol college try. Weeden has taken every snap this season and hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in two straight games. In the loss to the Ravens, he failed to reach the 200-yard passing mark for the third time this season and had a poor rating of 44.4. At least it wasn't as bad as his 5.1 rating back in Week 1 versus Philadelphia.
Weeden and the Browns struggled in the red zone against Baltimore, settling on five field goals from Phil Dawson. The former Oklahoma State star has passed for the first, second and fourth-most passing yards in a game by a Browns rookie and has two of the top five longest TD passes ever by a first-year Cleveland quarterback.
"I think he has done some good things in the first nine games to basically play every snap," Shurmur said. "He has had a lot of opportunities to do some good things. Then, there are some things, some throws and some decisions that he'll learn from. I think that's just natural. That really is the routine that all players go through. It's amplified when you're a rookie quarterback in this league."
Richardson had time to rest his ribs on the bye week and ripped off two straight 100-yard games before the break. He had 122 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in a win versus San Diego, then ran for 105 yards on 25 touches against Baltimore. Richardson (575 yards) may not catch fellow rookie Doug Martin (862 yards) of Tampa Bay in rushing yards, but could make it close.
"I see a young man that's a rookie that's fighting through an NFL season," Shurmur said of Richardson. "Sometimes, that deals with playing with injury, illness, what have you. And I see a guy that realizes he physically can get a little better and he knows it will help his performance, so, that's good. I hope he gets better."
Richardson will see plenty of Dallas' 13th ranked rush defense (105.2), but the Cowboys have been stingy in yards allowed (318.8) and against the pass (213.6). So perhaps there's a chance Richardson could go off Sunday.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett talked up Romo after the Eagles, saying how his quarterback can improvise when plays break down and still have a sense of what's going on downfield. Garrett also was a quarterback in the NFL, albeit not that good, but has been impressed recently with the oft-criticized Romo.
"The amazing thing with him is that he feels so much and he can see so much while all this stuff is going on," Garrett noted. "Having played the position, I know what a melee this thing feels like. He just has this great poise about him as an athlete. It's pretty unique."
Romo has 13 interceptions to 12 touchdown passes, and has thrown a TD strike in each of the past six games. He has been sacked lately, going down three times on Sunday and eight times in the past three weeks, but has produced back-to-back ratings over 100 (109.3, 122.1).
With running back DeMarco Murray still bothered by a foot injury, Felix Jones took pressure of the passing game with 71 yards on 16 carries and 22 more yards and a touchdown on three receptions. Speaking of the pass attack, Dallas is sixth with 287.3 yards per game. Dez Bryant had just three catches against the Eagles, but his 30-yard TD catch was clutch. Tight end Jason Witten added to his franchise-best total in receptions with eight more Sunday for 47 yards.
The Browns entered the season with a stout secondary, but they have faded off in recent weeks. Dallas will test the defensive backfield often this week.
The Cowboys temporarily saved their season and still have a pulse in the NFC East race. Are the Cowboys one of the elite teams in the conference? Not so much. Can they make a run and hope for others to falter down the stretch? Absolutely. That run has to start this weekend for Dallas against an inferior Browns team that tends to give opposing teams issues. The Cowboys don't have to be perfect on Sunday, but stability on both sides of the ball is essential.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 26, Browns 17
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