Cowboys move up in class by going to Pittsburgh

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by Sportsbook Advisor - 12/6/2008 4:31 PM Share

The Dallas Cowboys will find out Sunday whether Tony Romo, back from his broken pinkie, can be as effective against one of the NFL's elite teams as he has been against also-rans.

Dallas has won three straight since Romo returned, but the last two have been at home against San Francisco and Seattle, team with six wins between them. This week, the Cowboys go to Pittsburgh to take on the AFC North-leading Steelers (9-3), who beat the Patriots 33-10 in Foxborough last week when they forced five straight turnovers to start the second half.

Romo seems fine now, but two of Dallas' best players have injury problems: linebacker DeMarcus Ware and running back Marion Barber. Ware injured a knee and Barber a foot in the Thanksgiving Day win over the Seahawks, although both say they expect to play.

While they've won only one more game than Dallas (8-4), the Steelers are in a better position in the standings, a game up on Baltimore with four to go in the AFC North. They can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a combination of other developments. The Cowboys trail the Giants by three in the NFC East and are basically playing for a wild-card playoff spot; one more win by New York clinches the division.

"I think we are kind of a nicely boring team," Pittsburgh defensive end Aaron Smith said. "We just come out and find a way to win."

That might apply to the Pittsburgh offense. But not the defense, where outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have accounted for 25 1/2 sacks between them. Harrison has 14 sacks, one off the team record, and six forced fumbles, two of them last week against New England.

Still, Dallas' three straight wins after four losses in six games have the Cowboys in a positive frame of mind. Their theme for the last month has been reversing what happened last year, when they got home-field advantage for the playoffs, lost to the Giants in their first playoff game, then watched New York go on to win the Super Bowl.

"I think the physical health is getting better, but mentally we've got the right approach," tight end Jason Witten said. "That doesn't guarantee wins, but what it does for us is help us understand what the challenges are. I think this team is excited about the opportunity it has, and really it's almost kind of like we're the underdog during the whole thing."

Including Sunday against the Steelers.

The weekend began with San Diego's 34-7 win over Oakland on Thursday. The Chargers (5-8) snapped a three-game losing streak and won for just the second time in seven games. It was San Diego's 11th straight win over the Raiders. Oakland (3-10) reached double digit losses for the sixth straight year.

The Giants, Arizona and Tennessee can clinch their divisions this week.

New York wins the NFC East by beating Philadelphia at home or if Dallas loses to Pittsburgh. The Giants also clinch a first-round playoff bye with a win.

Arizona wins the NFC West with a win at home over St. Louis or a San Francisco loss at home to the New York Jets. Tennessee clinches the AFC South with a victory at home against Cleveland or an Indianapolis loss at home to Cincinnati.

In other games Sunday: Minnesota is at Detroit, Houston at Green Bay, Atlanta at New Orleans, Jacksonville at Chicago, Miami vs. Buffalo at Toronto; New England at Seattle, and Washington at Baltimore

Tampa Bay is at Carolina on Monday night. ^Philadelphia (6-5-1) at New York Giants (11-1)@

The game is overshadowed by Plaxico Burress' suspension by the Giants following his arrest on gun possession charges this week. In fact, New York has won the three games Burress has missed this season by a total of 62 points.

"Every time Plaxico doesn't play, those receivers sure seem to play well," Eagles coach Andy Reid says.

The Eagles put themselves in desperation mode by tying the lowly Bengals and losing to Baltimore after Reid benched Donovan McNabb at halftime. So they probably have to win out to have a shot at a wild-card berth. Not easy against a team that's won seven straight, six over winning teams, including a 36-31 victory in Philadelphia less than a month ago. ^Tampa Bay (9-3) at Carolina (9-3) (Monday night)@

For the NFC South lead. If the Bucs win, they get what is essentially a 1 1/2 -game lead because they beat the Panthers 27-3 in Tampa on Oct. 12.

The Bucs also have a 3-1 record within the division, another tiebreaker that could come into play in a three-way race with the Falcons. Next week, they are at Atlanta, which is a game behind the two leaders.

Steve Smith , whose remarkable catch set up the winning touchdown in a 35-31 shootout in Green Bay last week, took that win lightly. Not this game.

"It just means we're 9-3," Smith said of the Green Bay win. "It's nothing to go start making T-shirts about. It's just a record. We've got a very good opponent coming in our house Monday night. That's our next focus." ^Atlanta (8-4) at New Orleans (6-6)@

The other half of the NFC South, a division that might send three teams to the playoffs—something that was supposed to happen in the NFC East.

Matt Ryan , the Falcons' remarkable rookie quarterback, is probably the leading candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year right now. But he's been so good—bunched with Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers in the passer ratings— that there is talk now of him as an MVP candidate.

That was supposed to be the province of Drew Brees, who remains on track to surpass Dan Marino's mark of 5,084 yards passing in a season. But it's hard to win an MVP from last place in your division. ^Washington (7-5) at Baltimore (8-4)@

The Beltway rivalry, moved from daytime to prime time, is a critical game to the playoff hopes of both teams.

The Ravens have a decent shot at winning the AFC North because they still have a home game with the Steelers and both teams have difficult closing schedules. Joe Flacco, a remarkable rookie quarterback like Ryan, has been holding up well.

The Redskins made the postseason at 9-7 last season, but that probably won't be good enough in the NFC this year. Right now, they are chasing the Cowboys and the NFC South teams for a wild-card berth, and Clinton Portis, their main offensive weapon, has been playing hurt. ^New York Jets (8-4) at San Francisco (4-8)@ ^Miami (7-5) vs Buffalo (6-6) (at Toronto)@ ^New England (7-5) at Seattle (2-10)@

The AFC East in capsule, with the top three teams all legitimate contenders for the division title and wild-card spots.

The Jets let Miami back in the race by losing to the Broncos last week. That means the season finale, when the Dolphins come to the Meadowlands, could be for the division title.

The Dolphins also get something of an advantage by going to Toronto for their game with the Bills. For one, it will be played inside, giving Miami a better chance than it might have had in December weather in Buffalo. For another, Toronto is home to a lot of Dolphins fans, which means the cheering sections will be more equal than they would be two hours to the south.

The Patriots are making their second two-week West Coast trip of the season, staying out there before playing in Oakland next week. They did the same in early October, winning in San Francisco, then losing in San Diego. ^St. Louis (2-10) at Arizona (7-5)@

Arizona's drive to clinch its first division title since 1975, when it won the NFC East as the St. Louis Cardinals, has stalled against the better opposition of the NFC East. Back in the comfort zone of the West, it should wrap up things, guaranteeing its first home playoff game since 1947, when the franchise was in Chicago.

How bad are the Rams? They lost only 16-12 to Miami last week, but overall they have scored just 159 points and allowed 360, a point differential of 201 that is 20 points worse than winless Detroit. ^Kansas City (2-10) at Denver (7-5)@

The injury-wracked Broncos are the NFL's most mystifying team. They lost in Kansas City early in the season, lost at home to Oakland two weeks ago, then beat the Jets in the Meadowlands last week, putting themselves in position to wrap up the dismal NFC West soon, if not this week.

The Chiefs got their second win when they beat the Raiders and seem content to build with one of the NFL's youngest teams. So Herm Edwards is likely to be back as coach. ^Cleveland (4-8) at Tennessee (11-1)@

The Browns are down to Ken Dorsey, the third-stringer, at quarterback, after Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson were lost. Regardless, it appears coach Romeo Crennel is on his last four games and that GM Phil Savage might be, too.

The Titans should wrap up their division and seem on track to get home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs after bouncing back from their only loss two weeks ago by routing the Lions on Thanksgiving. ^Cincinnati (1-10-1) at Indianapolis (8-4)@

The Colts have won five in a row and are positioning themselves nicely for an AFC wild-card spot.

But their wins are by a combined 20 points. Two were over Pittsburgh and New England, although they haven't been blowing out patsies either. In their 10-6 victory over Cleveland last week, they didn't score an offensive touchdown, the first time that happened in more than five years.

Marvin Lewis is probably safe as Bengals coach, in part because the front office doesn't like to pay off contracts and Lewis has two more years left on his. ^Minnesota (7-5) at Detroit (0-12)@

The Vikings are a game ahead in the NFC North and looking for a title. The Lions are simply trying to avoid becoming the first team ever to go 0-16.

Minnesota's defense nearly had a setback off the field when the NFL suspended run-stuffing linemen Pat Williams and Kevin Williams for testing positive for a banned diuretic that can be used to mask steroids.

The NFL Players Association filed a lawsuit Thursday and a federal judge temporarily stopped the suspensions while he reviewed the case. ^Houston (5-7) at Green Bay (5-7)@

A lot of folks think the Packers' decline is due to the trade of Brett Favre to the Jets to make room at QB for Rodgers. But the defense is more to blame than anything Rodgers has done. It's 22nd in the NFL in points allowed at more than 24 a game, and gave back a 31-28 lead in the final two minutes in last week's 35-21 home loss to Carolina.

This is Houston's seventh season back in the league and it has never been better than last year's 8-8. It could surpass that if it wins out, although a finishing schedule that also includes Chicago, Oakland and Tennessee will make that hard. ^Jacksonville (4-8) at Chicago (6-6)@

Chicago's playoff fortunes took a huge dip in a matter of seconds last week when the Bears were stuffed at the Minnesota 1 as they seemed about to go up 14-3, then lost the ball on downs and allowed a 99-yard TD pass from Gus Frerotte to Bernard Berrian to give the Vikings a 10-7 lead en route to a 34-14 victory.

Jacksonville, which made the playoffs last year and was highly regarded entering 2008, seems to have tossed in the towel. There is internal discord and some folks are blaming their slide on the pressure from preseason expectations.

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