Sunday, January 17, 2010

Divisional Disaster: Dal 3, Min 34

The Cowboys had the momentum for four straight wins while the Vikings limped through December while managing to hang on to a first-round bye. It almost seemed too good for Dallas, with analysts and experts aplenty picking the Cowboys to upset the Vikings in Minnesota. Heck, some wouldn't have even considered it an upset. The Cowboys had momentum and a fierce defense while the Vikings had a 40-year-old signal caller and a shaky secondary.

But as the dust settles after Sunday's Division-Round Disaster for Dallas, the NFC Championship game will feature the two teams that looked to be on a collision course for a Super Bowl berth since the first half of the season. Minnesota defeated the Cowboys, 34-3, to advance to the NFC Championship against the New Orleans Saints with next week's winner representing the conference in Super Bowl XLIV. For Dallas, the season ends two games longer than the previous year.

It's easy to declare this season a success compared to the rest of the Tony Romo era. The Cowboys came on strong to win the NFC East and a playoff game, ending a 13-year drought of postseason struggles. But one week after getting the monkey off the back of head coach Wade Phillips (now 1-5 in playoffs), that mangy ape hopped right back on. A successful season? It doesn't feel like it.

With one game left (NYJ at SD) in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, each of the home teams who enjoyed a first-round bye has faced little if any competition from the Wild Card Round winners. Dallas became the latest victim as the rested Vikings abruptly ended the Cowboys season, a season which looked more and more like something that could result in a Super Bowl berth. Had the Cowboys beaten Minnesota, it would have been a rematch against the Saints, which was proven possible a month ago. Not so fast, Dallas.

And for outsiders who think Wade Phillips can say "Mission Accomplished" for this season's playoff win, those are the same people who were probably satisfied when he proclaimed the Cowboys "made it to the final 8" after being bounced from the 2007 playoffs. If he says the words "final 8" again after this game, Jerry Jones might blow a gasket and install himself as the next Cowboys coach. However there is no doubt Phillips' ability to lead the defense helped carry this team late in the season, and for that reason alone he should remain as head coach. Jerry might want to consider a shakeup at offensive coordinator, however, as Jason Garrett's unit struggled mightily against what seemed like a far superior opponent.

Tony Romo had his worst game of the season at the worst time. The Cowboys offense put up its lowest point total (3) since November 2004, a 26-3 loss in Cincinnati. Romo's three turnovers -- two fumbles and an interception -- were just the tip of the iceberg of the Cowboys offensive troubles. And while the defense gave up more than 30 points for the first time this season to an opponent that wasn't the New York Giants, the offense continued to put the defense in bad spots throughout the game.

The Vikings began four different drives in Cowboys territory, and while the defense held them to 13 points on those drives, they had trouble getting off the field in the second and fourth quarters. The defense did force four straight punts at one point, but during that stretch from 1:51 left in the first half through end of the third quarter, the Cowboys offense couldn't capitalize on its stout defense.

Dallas missed a field goal, went 3-and-out, and 3-and-punt in that span, and Minnesota never looked back. How inept was the Cowboys offense? They never realistically had a chance for a touchdown. And even if Suisham makes all three field goal attempts, the Cowboys score a whopping 9 points, not enough to topple the Vikings. No question the kicking battle is wide open next season, but don't put the blame on his foul foot. His first-half field goal was the only thing Dallas' offense had to show for it's game, and things didn't get much better after a disappointing first half.

The offense failed to come through with big plays during the game, with only one play going for more than 20 yards, a 22-yard pass to Jason Witten. The running game was stymied by the front four of Minnesota, who were just as good if not better than advertised. Jared Allen, the Williams Wall, the whole gang slowed the Cowboys running game, rending Marion Barber useless while putting Romo under constant pressure, sacking him six times. His interception was more a result of pressure than anything else. The Vikings got in his face, and Romo floated a ball intended for Patrick Crayton right into the awaiting arms of Ben Leber. His first fumble lost forfeit a chance to get on the board first. His second fumble gave Minnesota a chance to extend their lead.

Marion Barber's career as a dominate bruiser and closer could be dwindling. I realize he's been injured over the last few games, but it's no secret that he just hasn't been able to run over or through defenders as he did in 2006 and 2007. Felix Jones again got the bulk of the carries and will most likely become the featured back next season.

Just to throw it out there, another 0-catch day for Roy Williams. Huzzaah!

Miles Austin finished his breakout season with 4 catches for 34 yards, including a heads up jump ball snag after a tipped pass by Jason Witten. Austin didn't get a chance to get loose in the Minnesota secondary mainly because Tony Romo never had time to let a big play to Austin develop. It all goes back to protection (or lack thereof), and the Cowboys offense simply couldn't make things happen. I do wonder how Austin will be rewarded for his Pro Bowl season this year, and how do the Cowboys explain to him why Roy Williams makes 10 times more than he does when Austin had three times the production. Jerry would have to give Austin a $120 million deal to make it on par with the production of the two receivers. That probably won't happen, but expect some sort of extension for Austin in the offseason.

Speaking of big play receivers, Minnesota's Sidney Rice put on a clinic against the Cowboys secondary. His 6 catches for 141 yards and 3 touchdowns lifted the Vikings past Dallas. Between Rice and the Vikings front four on defense, the Cowboys never really had a chance in this one as it turns out. Rice completely faked out Gerald Sensabaugh on his first touchdown, a 47-yard strike. I couldn't figure out how Sensabaugh didn't know Rice made the catch, and the receiver strolled in for the game's first score while just allowing the ball to fall into his hands past an oblivious Sensabaugh.

Rice's second TD was the result of his ability to scramble around the secondary and find space where Favre could get him the ball. His third touchdown was perfectly covered by Mike Jenkins, who was running with Rice step for step and even got a hand on the ball as it came down... right into the hands of Rice, who broke away from the diving Jenkins for the trifecta. If the Cowboys had to play this game over again, would Rice ever not be double-teamed? Hard to argue against it. Look for the Saints not bracket Rice next week with a safety over the top or at least have someone jam him at the line of scrimmage. When he gets a free release, he can run past most defensive backs in the league.

The Cowboys held Adrian Peterson in check, giving up just 63 yards on 26 carries (a 2.4 yard average). But don't kid yourself. The Vikings haven't been a true running team since Favre solidified and justified his comeback with that last-second TD in the back of the end zone against the 49ers in Week 4. Running the ball is just something the Vikings do now to keep their senior citizen quarterback fresh. And it worked and Favre made the throws he needed to make the get the job done.

The Cowboys finish the year 12-6 (1-1, postseason) and NFC East champs but fail to get within a game of the Super Bowl. As the team heads to the offseason, they have a chance to make next season's run at a Super Bowl all the more meaningful. Super Sunday will be at Cowboys Stadium in Febuary 2011, and the Cowboys will attempt to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in it's home stadium.


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