With the New York Giants sitting at 0-3 and the St Louis Rams getting destroyed by the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night, the quality of the Dallas Cowboys’ two wins in 2013 thus far leaves much to be desired.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys enter this Sunday’s game with the San Diego Chargers on top of the NFC East with a 2-1 record. The Cowboys recovered from September 15’s heartbreaking loss to Kansas City to dominate the Rams in a 31-7 blowout. The Cowboys pounced on the Rams early, owning a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, before jumping out to a 24-0 lead by the middle of the third quarter. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford found himself constantly harassed by Dallas defenders, who sacked Bradford six times, the most notable of which came in the third quarter when LB DeMarcus Ware recorded his 115th career sack, surpassing Cowboys legend and Super Bowl XII co-MVP Harvey Martin for the most in Cowboys history.
The Cowboys’ next opponent, the San Diego Chargers, sit at 1-2 on the season, but still boast an arsenal of deadly offensive weapons. The Chargers, who rank 11th in the NFL in total offense on this season, have had a very Jekyll and Hyde season. After a nightmare Monday Night opener, which saw the Chargers blow a 28-7 lead en route to a 31-28 loss to the Texans, the Chargers slowed down the famed Chip Kelly offense on the road in Philadelphia, using a game winning Nick Novak field goal to beat the Eagles by a 33-30 score. Last week, disappointment again struck San Diego as they fell to the Titans in an suspenseful 20-17 game.
With a lineup featuring QB Phillip Rivers, WR Eddie Royal and TE Antonio Gates, the Chargers’ offense is still very much a force to be reckoned with. However, in both of San Diego’s losses, they’ve failed to get any sort of rhythm going. They gained 539 yards in their win over Philadelphia, but the offense sputtered in their two losses, gaining under 300 yards in each game. If the Cowboys seek to avoid another letdown to an AFC West opponent, it is imperative that Monte Kiffin’s defense continues to improve. The new and improved Dallas defense was on full display against the Rams, allowing St Louis to tally just 232 yards (including a mere 35 rushing yards) and one 3rd down conversion in 13 attempts.
The Cowboys, who rank 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (66.2), shouldn’t have too many problems with San Diego’s run game (headlined by Ryan Matthews, who has picked up 164 yards through the first three games), but the secondary will have to be on full watch for Rivers, who has accumulated a 116.2 passer rating thus far this season (2nd in the NFL to Peyton Manning). Rivers has been criticized for his turnovers, but has thrown just one interception so far this year. In order to control Rivers, the secondary will have to focus not only deep threats like Royal and Gates but short threats like RB Danny Woodhead as well. Woodhead is listed on depth chart as the team’s third running back, but he currently leads the Chargers with 17 receptions.
Of course, as we discovered in the Kansas City game, the defensive performance means nothing if the offense can’t capitalize. After the first two games, it was quite clear the Cowboys were having problems in the red zone. It’s nice to see Dan Bailey put one through the uprights and all, but the only way Bailey should see the field in the red zone is if he’s on for an extra point. Its come back to haunt Dallas already this season. For example, up 10-7 on the Chiefs, the Cowboys opened the 3rd quarter by moving inside the Kansas City 10, but couldn’t punch it in. Bailey’s field goal made it 13-7, but the damage was done. Armed with momentum, the Chiefs took the ensuing possession into the end zone, giving them a lead they’d never relinquish.
The Cowboys took small steps to resolving those issues last Sunday. In their four trips to the red zone, the Cowboys scored two of their four touchdowns, including a Tony Romo to Dez Bryant hookup and a DeMarco Murray run, each from two yards out. Romo and the offense will have a golden opportunity this Sunday, as San Diego’s defense gives up just over 470 yards a game, worst in the AFC and second-worst in the NFL (besting only the Redskins). The passing game in particular could have a field day with the Chargers’ pass defense, which does rank dead-last in football. Someone, however, will have to step it up in the absence of WR Miles Austin, who will sit out Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. Romo will undoubtedly seek out Bryant plenty of times on Sunday, but when Dez is double teamed, as likely will be the case for most of the game, one of the Cowboys’ younger receivers must step it up. They do have TE Jason Witten, who always provides a spark, but this is a golden opportunity for rookies WR Terrence Williams and TE Gavin Escobar. While Escobar made an impact last week, scoring his first NFL touchdown, Williams has yet to do any of note this season. No doubt he’ll be asked to step up with Austin out and fellow WR Dwayne Harris (hip) also hurting (Harris has said he will play).
On one hand, the Cowboys need to enter next week’s highly anticipated date with Denver with some sort of momentum if they want any chance to knock off a Broncos team that looks to be Super Bowl favorites at this point. At the same time, they cannot be caught looking ahead to Denver’s visit. In order to beat San Diego, Romo and the offense must take advantage of a shaky San Diego defense to not only build confidence for Peyton’s trip to AT&T Stadium, but also build some ground on the NFC East as well. Despite the supposed resurgence of Rivers and the fact the Boys will be in their unlucky blue jerseys this week, I don’t see Romo and his comrades passing up the opportunity to torch a defensive unit that allowed Jake Locker to accumulate 299 yards and 96.6 passer rating.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Chargers 20