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Game Preview: Dallas Cowboys consider Browns game a 'must-win' for their playoff hopes to stay alive

Nov 17, 2012 -- 7:15pm

By Tony Grossi


What: Browns (2-7) vs. Dallas Cowboys (4-5), 1 p.m., in Cowboys Stadium.

TV: WOIO-TV 19 with Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf.

The set-up: The Cowboys are entering a critical stretch of their season for them to make the playoffs. They have three games in the next 12 days – all at home and all against rookie quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden, Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles). They could climb back into contention for the NFC East lead with a sweep, starting with a victory against the Browns. “It’s a must-win game,” cornerback Brandon Carr said on Monday.

Series history: Browns lead, 17-12, counting postseason.

Historical footnote: If there was a signature win in the Bill Belichick era, it occurred in Dallas on Dec. 10, 1994. The Cowboys, two-time defending Super Bowl champions and sporting 11 Pro Bowl players among 22 starters, were rolling along at 11-2. The Browns were 9-4 behind Vinny Testaverde and assorted retread defensive players such as Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson and Don Griffin. Belichick’s surprising post-Bernie Kosar team announced itself as a defensive tour de force in this meeting, intercepting Troy Aikman twice and keeping the potent Cowboys 10 points below their season scoring average in a shocking, 19-14 win. The game ended with safety Eric Turner tackling tight end Jay Novacek at the 1-yard line on fourth down. That Belichick defense would yield 204 points – still the franchise record low for a 16-game season.

Cowboys update: Without starting halfback DeMarco Murray the past four games because of a foot injury, backup Felix Jones has rushed for 44, 19, 39 and 71 yards. Lacking a running game has forced QB Tony Romo to attempt 157 passes in those four games. It’s all on Romo, and if he is pressured enough into big INT games – he’s had eight of his league-high 13 in two games – the Cowboys lose. Romo’s multiple targets make it difficult to defend, however, even when they are one-dimensional. The key is TE Jason Witten, who can bail out Romo underneath and move the chains. WR Miles Austin is his reliable outside target. WR Dez Bryant has the physical skills to dominate any cornerback, but his route-running lapses and habit of missing the easy catch keep him from being elite. Defensively, coordinator Rob Ryan has been blitzing less. Pass rusher Demarcus Ware will stress Joe Thomas all day. The secondary has four INTs all season and last week rookie CB Morris Claiborne committed five penalties.

Browns update: The week started with players, refreshed after their bye week, talking optimistically of making something of the remaining seven games. The reunion of DTs Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin after a season of injuries was another source of encouragement; it should be their first game together since Taylor had pectoral surgery in May and Rubin has slowly returned from a torn calf muscle. But optimism waned later when CB Joe Haden strained an oblique muscle in Wednesday’s practice. His status was termed a game-time decision after missing the final two practices of the week. During Haden’s 4-game suspension, the Browns went 0-4 and gave up 10 TD passes and 36 points a game. Also, QB Brandon Weeden went on the defensive, reminding a new batch of critics that he is still a rookie and has played only 9 career games despite his age (29). Finally, KR-WR Josh Cribbs spoke out about his frustration for having only eight touches on offense all year while his teammates continue to lead the NFL in dropped passes.

Injury report: Browns – CB Dimitri Patterson (ankle) and DB Ray Ventrone (hand, calf) are out; CB Joe Haden (oblique) and DT Ahtyba Rubin (calf) are questionable. Cowboys – C Phil Costa (ankle), S Matt Johnson (hamstring) and DT Sean Lissemore (ankle) are out; C Ryan Cook (knee), CB Mike Jenkins (back) and RB DeMarco Murray (foot) are doubtful.

Our take: After destroying the rival Eagles on the road last week, the Cowboys see this favorable break in their schedule as a golden opportunity to catch the division-leading Giants. They haven’t won two in a row all season, but it’s hard to envision Romo laying an egg without Haden taking away one of his targets.

Prediction: Cowboys, 28-16.

Record: 5-4.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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