WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
A strong running game has played a big part in Buffalo’s surprising first-half success, and it’s expected that the team will attempt to assert its proficiency in that area this week against a Dallas defense that’s struggled to contain enemy ground attacks as of late. The Bills rank seventh in the NFL in rushing offense (135.0 ypg) for the season, while top back Fred Jackson (803 rushing yards, 6 TD, 30 receptions) is averaging a healthy 5.4 yards per carry and had a string of three straight 100-yard efforts before being held to 82 by the Jets last Sunday. The underrated veteran is also Buffalo’s third-leading receiver and figures to be leaned on heavily due to some recent hiccups from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (1930 passing yards, 15 TD, 9 INT), who’s coming off a subpar 15-of-31, two-interception display against the Jets’ stingy pass defense and has been picked off five times over the club’s past three games. The Harvard graduate’s 191 passing yards last week was also a season low, though he’s still completing a sharp 65.4 percent of his attempts for the year and has been sacked just eight times behind a no-name front line that’s held up very well in protection. Stevie Johnson (42 receptions, 523 yards, 4 TD) is on pace for a second straight season of 80-plus catches as Buffalo’s go-to receiver, with second-year pro David Nelson (35 receptions, 3 TD) emerging as a reliable option for Fitzpatrick out of the slot and journeyman tight end Scott Chandler (18 receptions) an asset in the red zone, as the ex-Cowboy’s six touchdown catches are tied for the most among players at his position in 2011.
The Bills will be aiming to add to a disappointing string of games for a Dallas defense that had been tough early on in the season, particularly against the run. The Cowboys yielded a mere 69.7 rushing yards over the first six games, tops in the league at the time, but were gashed for 239 yards on the ground by the speedy Eagles two weeks back and allowed the usually non-threatening Seahawks to run for 162 yards in last Sunday’s victory. The regression has coincided with inside linebacker Sean Lee’s (51 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD) absence caused by a dislocated left wrist, but the young difference-maker resumed practicing this week and appears on track to play on Sunday. Lee is also the team leader in interceptions, though his unavailability didn’t have much of a negative effect on coordinator Rob Ryan’s group’s play against the pass a week ago. Dallas intercepted Seattle’s Tarvaris Jackson three times, with cornerback Terence Newman (22 tackles, 2 INT) and safety Gerald Sensabaugh (39 tackles, 2 INT) also credited with two passes defensed in addition to coming up with a pick, while the secondary gets ample support from the pass-rushing prowess of outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (34 tackles). The five-time All-Pro has racked up 12 sacks through the season’s first half, the second-highest individual total in the NFL.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
A Dallas offense that had been overly reliant on throwing the ball has achieved much better balance in the three games in which Murray (539 rushing yards, 1 TD, 9 receptions) has been the feature back. The Cowboys have averaged over 180 rushing yards over that span, and the talented rookie is producing at a sensational 6.7 yards-per-attempt clip during his debut campaign. With Felix Jones likely out again with a troublesome ankle sprain, Murray will again carry the load this week. While Romo’s (2238 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) yardage totals have decreased with the newfound emphasis on the running game, the three-time Pro Bowl selection is still an accurate and experienced quarterback who operates the league’s seventh-ranked offense (400.3 ypg) and has a bevy of quality targets to choose from, though big-play receiver Miles Austin will miss Sunday’s tilt after aggravating a hamstring injury. Laurent Robinson (24 receptions, 2 TD) has proven to be a capable fill-in when called upon, however, while 2010 first-round draft pick Dez Bryant (26 receptions, 4 TD) averages 17 yards per catch as the team’s top deep threat and tight end Jason Witten (44 receptions, 548 yards, 4 TD) owns seven Pro Bowl citations and four straight seasons of over 80 catches and 950 receiving yards. Murray showed off his pass- catching skills by hauling in four passes for 47 yards in addition to his big day on the ground against Seattle.
After completely dominating a hapless Washington offense in a shutout effort in Week 8, a Buffalo defense that had surrendered over 400 total yards in five straight games took a step back against the Jets. The Bills permitted 126 rushing yards and allowed quarterback Mark Sanchez to hit on 20-of-28 throws while failing to record a sack, one week after piling up 10 on the overmatched Redskins. Buffalo still managed to force two turnovers in the loss and have been adept at that department all year long, having generated a league-best 20 takeaways and ranking second overall with 15 interceptions. Strong safety George Wilson (71 tackles, 6 PD) leads the Bills with four picks and has also been one of the team’s better players in run support during an excellent season, while promising rookie Marcell Dareus (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks) has really come on of late after being shifted to nose tackle in the wake of 2010 Pro Bowler Kyle Williams’ season-ending foot injury. Despite their outburst against Washington, the Bills have only totaled 15 sacks in their eight games and stand 27th in the league in total defense (381.1 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. The Bills have built their respectable record in large part because of excelling in this area, as the team has come up with 16 takeaways in its five victories. Dallas has had a tendency to be turnover-prone at times but has been noticeably better in taking care of the ball as of late, with the offense committing only three giveaways over the past three games. The Cowboys are the more talented of these two participants, but will still have a tough time winning if they’re making costly mistakes, as Buffalo has shown a knack for making the most of its opponent’s miscues.
Murray. The Cowboys are far more dangerous on offense when their running game is clicking, which it certainly has since the rookie back’s been placed in a prominent role. Dallas is 3-0 this season when rushing for over 125 yards, and the Bills allow about that many per game on average.
Red-zone proficiency. This could be a big advantage for Buffalo. The Bills have scored touchdowns on 64.3 percent of possessions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, tied for second-best in the NFL. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have the second-worst success rate (38.5 percent) in the league within the red zone. How both offenses execute down near the goal line could very well be the difference if the game is close.
Prediction – A two-time Super Bowl rematch from the 90?s, and the teams of course are 100 percent different, but it’s interesting to go back and relive those days. The Cowboys didn’t play great against the Seahawks, but did find a way to pull out a win. The luster of the Bills start is off, and they were beat up pretty bad by the Jets last week. Look for Tony Romo to have a good day, and if the Cowboys can stay away from big turnovers, they will win. Dallas 23 Buffalo 17