The NFL set up the schedule to have the NFC East's top two teams meet on the last day of the season. Of course, they were thinking it would be the Philadelphia Eagles battling the New York Giants. Instead, the Dallas Cowboys travel to play the Washington Redskins, with the winner of the game becoming the division champion and hosting a wild card game, most likely against the Seattle Seahawks. It's a game that should breathe new life into one of the NFL's most storied rivalries, one that has been less than compelling of late.
It's a rematch, but things are not exactly the same as they were on Thanksgiving, when the Redskins won 38-31 in Arlington. The Cowboys lost that game in large part due to three turnovers (a fumble and two interceptions), but they've cut down on their turnover problems in the last few weeks. Robert Griffin III, who is going to the Pro Bowl, and deservedly so, is coming off a knee injury and did not look nearly as mobile last week. On the negative side of the ledger, the Dallas defense has continued to fight injuries and is trying to succeed with last minute pickups in place of some of their most talented players.
At the same time, Washington is dealing with significant injury issues on their defense. Both teams should have some advantages when they have the ball. Neither is likely to completely stop the opponent, just slowing down the opposing offense is the goal.
Everyone talks about RGIII and the read option, but don't forget the other half of that formula, rookie running back Alfred Morris. The duo has given Washington the best rushing attack in the NFL. Morris has rushed for 1413 yards this season, and RGIII has 752. The rest of the team: 270 yards. The Griffin/Morris tandem is the Redskins rushing attack. Morris is the primary threat inside the tackles, while Griffin is able to get outside.
Here's the question on Sunday: how much has Griffin recovered from his banged-up knee and how willing is the team to risk the future of their franchise? This is the argument that has always been made against the option-type attack in the NFL. The quarterback is at much greater risk in this style offense, and even the extensive rules to protect the passer cannot do much for a player who has become a ball carrier.
Washington keys the offense off the run, a typical Shanahan approach. The read option is sort of a play action on steroids when Griffin passes from that and it leads to some wide open receivers. If the option is still working, Dallas has to figure out how to do a better job of containing the run without letting receivers run free. They do have the advantage of having seen it once before, but as I mentioned, the personnel is constantly shifting and the ability level is not necessarily on the upswing as new bodies get plugged into the lineup.
When Griffin does pass, he is frighteningly efficient. He is tied for the second best passer rating in the NFL, fueled largely by having only thrown five interceptions on the season. The receiving corps is not spectacular, but with the way the read option sucks defenders in, they often wind up all alone in the secondary and the best yards/attempt number in the league bears testimony to that.
If the option is off the table due to Griffin's knee, the onus goes on Washington to prove they can run a more conventional offense. But that is not an automatic advantage to Dallas, since they still have a very good running back and a quarterback that is accurate and shows good judgement.
On the other side of the ball, Dallas is coming in with one of the most anemic running games in the league, but they have a quarterback who is playing some of his best football of the season. Jason Garrett wants to run the ball, but the combination of offensive line problems and the foot injury to DeMarco Murray, the team's best running back, have stymied the ground game for most of the season. Murray missed the first game with Washington, and if he can at least provide a threat of a running attack, it could make a lot of difference. Tony Romo does not run a read option, but he is very good at play action, with effective fakes.
Washington has an excellent run defense, which makes sense since they have to practice against such a great rushing offense, but as the Cowboys demonstrated in some of the recent games, Murray does not have to get a big total. Just a couple of solid runs that force the defense to respect the run, and the play action pass becomes much more effective.
The big opportunity for Dallas is exploiting the Redskins secondary. Washington is 30th in pass defense. surrendering 288 yards per game through the air. With the emergence of Dez Bryant over the second half of the season, the Cowboys have a chance to rack up some major yardage.
This game will probably be a shootout. Dallas has been prone to falling behind, as happened in the first game against Washington. If they avoid that, they have the firepower to match the Redskins, even with a healthy Griffin. If his game is impacted much by his knee, then Dallas may be able to outpace Washington on the scoreboard.
All the makings are here for an exciting game. It will play out before a national audience, with more riding on it than a Dallas-Washington game has seen in many years. The NFL has to be happy with this one to cap off the season, even if it was not the game they expected to showcase here.