Sunday, September 26, 2010

Houston, you have a problem: Dal 27, Hou 13

The Dallas Cowboys were courteous enough to allow their neighbors in Arlington a moment in the sun yesterday as baseball's Texas Rangers clinched their first AL West crown in 11 seasons. But after allowing the metroplex less than 24 hours to celebrate the return of post-season baseball, the Cowboys returned the area's focus to football yet again.

Dallas reduced the Houston Texans to stepchild status in the battle for the Lone Star State with a 27-13 win, giving Dallas its first victory of the season while Houston suffered its first loss. Tony Romo connected with Roy Williams for two TDs, first-year placekicker David Buehler quieted his critics with a pair of long field goals, and the defense snatched its first three takeaways of 2010.

It's more than just the first win of the season. It's the all-around good game the Cowboys needed if they want to fulfill the dream of playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Let's be clear, however. Realizing that dream is still a long way away, and with 13 regular season games to go, Dallas is merely a fraction of the way there. Still, returning to the top of the division is a lot easier when you avoid falling to 0-3 to start the season.

It might be easy to get caught up in the return of what was an offseason full of Super Bowl hype surrounding the Cowboys. There will certainly be plenty of talking heads proclaiming the Cowboys to be officially back on track, but it takes more than a Week 3 win to earn a playoff berth. Dallas needs to put the blinders on and ignore that hype, ignore that talk which might be tough considering it will build for two weeks through the bye until the next game on October 10.

The Cowboys have three of their next four games at home and can realistically win all four games to find themselves at 5-2 at the end of October. They could also flounder in those games with only a home date with Jacksonville on Oct. 31 as what you could call a "sure thing" win. (Then again, didn't we think that about the Rams game a few years ago?)

There's a lot of potential for the Cowboys on the road ahead. Today they were fortunate to realize some of that potential while erasing the sour taste left by a pair of losses to Washington and Chicago.

A few thoughts and notes from a must-win game in which the Cowboys came through:

+ Roy Williams has needed a game like this since the trade that brought him to Dallas from Detroit in 2008. The former Longhorn caught five balls for 117 yards -- a personal best since joining the Cowboys -- and a pair of touchdowns, including a 63-yard breakaway that helped put Houston away with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Williams has endured plenty of criticism since joining Dallas and signing a big contract extension with little results. A game like this will hush the talk of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant being the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers for Dallas.

+ While Miles Austin had a quiet afternoon (2 catches for 20 yards), the rookie Dez Bryant continued to cause match up problems for smaller defensive backs. Bryant caught four balls for 50 yards, bringing him to 14 catches and 158 yards through three games. Glass half full, he nearly had a pair of TD catches against Houston except he was called for illegal touching when he was forced out of bounds and came back in on a 37-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Bryant came down with another deep ball from Romo but was out of bounds on the front pylon of the end zone when he made the catch. It's two plays where as Bryant become more aware in the NFL, he will be sure not to allow defensive backs to use the sideline as an extra defender. For now, it's still progress for #88.

+ After losing the turnover battle the first two weeks of the season (-1 in Washington, and -3 against Chicago), it looked like Dallas may have to endure another season where the defense can limit its opponents on the scoreboard but can't provide the offense with a short field. The Cowboys took the ball away from the Texans three times to be +3 in turnovers, picking off Matt Schaub twice and forcing a fumble from the NFL's leading rusher Arian Foster. Mike Jenkins made the first INT which helped wipe away the memory of his illegal contact penalty that gave the Texans a fresh set of downs around midfield. It was on an overthrown ball from Schaub, but Jenkins was able to stay with it to ensure the Cowboys kept Houston off the board on that drive.

+ The Cowboys were able to generate 101 yards on the ground this week after running for only 36 against the Bears in Week 2. It's still not enough of a ground game to truly make opponents bite on play fakes. Instead the Cowboys were able to victimize a younger secondary through the air more despite what the ground game was doing rather than as a result of it. For now, that's fine, but perhaps Jason Garrett should pick one running back and let him get some moment as a feature back instead of going with this tricycle.

Dallas Rushing
M. Barber17553.2112
F. Jones7436.1015
T. Choice242.003
T. Romo1-1-1.000

Felix Jones provided a healthy yards per carry average, and maybe he can be what Julius Jones was not in 2007 when the Cowboys used Julius to start and Marion Barber as primarily at the end of each half to wear down an opponent. If we're not going to see Felix more prominently in the backfield, it'd be nice to see him back on the kick return team as he has already proven he is capable of taking a kick off to the house.

+ Just a funny moment from the referee asking the fans to "excuse me for a minute" when he needed to confirm the numbers of penalized players on the kickoff following Houston's fourth quarter field goal. I've never seen a ref more tempted to say, "Ah, $#@& it," instead of announcing the actual penalties.

+ Speaking of penalties, the Cowboys earned a win despite plenty of ugly penalties. Dallas was fortunate in holding Houston to a fourth quarter field goal which kept the Cowboys out in front by 11 after a Keith Brooking pass interference penalty was offset by a Texans holding penalty. Here is a look at the Cowboys penalties and penalty yards through the first three games:

Week 1@Washington1281
Week 2CHICAGO650
Week 3@Houston849

+ Kicker David Buehler, in his first year as placekicker, made a 49-yard field goal to close the first half and tacked on a 40-yard kick in the fourth quarter. After starting the year 2-for-4 with a pair of misses that changed how the Cowboys approached the end of each of the first two games, Buehler first-half ender was a nice appetizer for later this season when he will be called upon for more important kicks. It was good to see him get this opportunity after the Cowboys passed on long field goal attempts on their opening drive, opting to go for it on fourth down twice.

The Cowboys are 1-2 on the year, and with three of their next four games at home -- and the one road trip at what doesn't look like the intimidating return to the Metrodome in Minnesota that we might have been expecting before the season -- Dallas has a legitimate chance for a 5-2 record. Here's a look at what lies ahead for the Cowboys after next week's bye:

DateOpponentTime (CT)
Oct. 3BYE--
Oct. 10TENNESSEE3:15 pm
Oct. 17@Minnesota3:15 pm
Oct. 25
Nov. 7@Green Bay8:20 pm

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