As I mentioned in my previous column, the Dallas Cowboys have entered a game with Peyton Manning with their backs against the wall. They will need another inspired performance if they wish to get their season back on track as Manning leads his undefeated Denver Broncos (4-0) into AT&T Stadium (4:25, CBS) for a tilt against the 2-2 Cowboys.
In what turned out to be a very sour Southern California vacation for the Kiffin family, son Lane saw his tenure at USC come to an end in the most humiliating way possible (left behind at LAX after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State) and patriarch Monte saw his defense, which posted admirable results in the first three weeks of the season, get torched for 506 yards by the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium en route to a 30-21 defeat in the lovely city discovered by the Germans in 1904.
401 of those yards came from the arm of Philip Rivers, who, other than a 2nd quarter interception that LB Sean Lee returned for a touchdown, was magnificent on Sunday, completing 35-of-42 passes, three of which ended in touchdowns. The final one was the nail in Dallas's coffin, a 56 yard strike to Antonio Gates.
If Dallas thought Rivers was bad, Halloween has come several weeks early for the defense, who must deal with Manning and his merry receivers. The Broncos are coming off a 52-20 destruction of the Philadelphia Eagles, a game that saw Manning throw for 327 yards and 4 touchdowns, adding to his already impressive total of 1,470 yards and 16 touchdown throws. Needless to say, Manning, who has yet to throw an interception this season, leads the league in both categories, in addition to topping the charts in completion percentage (75.0%) and passer rating (138.0). The numbers might've been even more inflated had John Fox not call off the dogs (or horses, in this case) and stick Brock Osweiler in.
Obviously, Dallas is not favored in this game by anyone who doesn't bleed Cowboys blue and silver. Manning brings in his talented receiving arsenal to Dallas as well, headline by the fearsome trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and the newly acquired Wes Welker. If the Cowboys want to win, they will need to not only shut down this powerful receiving corps but win the turnover battle. That may be stating the obvious, but when you consider that Manning has not thrown an interception this season, it's imperative to force Denver into uncomfortable situations. If the Cowboys can force Manning into a sense of discomfort, they can force the Broncos to beat them with their underdeveloped run game.
As for the offense, it would not hurt to see QB Tony Romo return to his gunslinger ways, even if ever so briefly. Romo's new conservative approach to the offense has helped in several ways (for example, he's turning the ball over a lot less often), but one cannot win on screen passes and five-yard-outs alone. Of course, Dez Bryant is the perfect option, but the Cowboys need variety if they're going to pull off the upset. You know how Manning was able to make guys like Austin Collie and Brandon Stokley look like superstars in Indianapolis? Romo has to do the same here. With Miles Austin's status still in doubt for this week, Romo will have to get his lesser known targets involved in the offense more. Enter Terrence Williams, a rookie receiver out of Baylor who really has to start redeeming himself. A blown route in the Week 1 game against the Giants led to Romo's only interception this season, and his fumble at the San Diego 1 yard line ended any hopes of a Dallas comeback last week.
Dallas also must not abandon the run game when things don't start to go their way. When it became apparent that the momentum was turning in San Diego's direction, the offense panicked and totally forgot they had DeMarco Murray in the backfield. Murray finished the game with a solid 5 yards a carry, but he only had 14 of them for a total of 70 yards. Denver does have a great run defense, allowing just 74.0 yards on the ground per game (tops in the NFL) but Dallas must let the Broncos know that the passing game is not the only thing they have to fear. The run game will also allow the Cowboys to run play action, which could open the path Romo needs to toss a long ball downfield.
I do believe the Cowboys have a better shot in this game than most, but to predict a win at this point is simply too much wishful thinking. Denver has looked like absolute world-beaters and the Manning that we see on Sunday could be better than any version of Peyton Manning that we've ever seen. So while I think the Cowboys will keep pace slightly with the Broncos for a bit and that the game will serve as a good learning experience, Denver is too good to blow a game like this. Pulling off an upset is not out of the question, but sometimes you just have to take the moral victory. Of course, though, if moral victories counted, everybody would be undefeated
Prediction: Broncos 38, Cowboys 27