Nov. 14, 2008—The rapidly changing fates of the NFL have diminished the sizzle of the great rivalries. But this weekend—when the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers resume hostilities in Wisconsin and the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins maul each another in D.C.—there will be more at stake than mere bragging rights. The Packers and Cowboys began the season as favorites to meet in the NFC championship game, now both of those teams stand one loss away from being a playoff long shot.
The Cowboys' situation is dire, but that's not news. The team mirrors/rivals its owner, Jerry Jones, in megalomania, and they have made numerous public statements to make their current slump—Dallas has lost three of their last four games—seem like the prelude to a heroic final winning streak that will restore order and justice in the north Texas outpost of the NFL.
Well, perhaps! A win Sunday night in Washington could easily be the start of a three-game winning streak that would leave the Cowboys in the thick of the wild-card hunt after Thanksgiving.
There's a lot of appeal to their claim. For one, the Cowboys have been hit hard by injuries. They have lost starting players like quarterback Tony Romo, strong safety Roy Williams and cornerback Terence Newman to injuries; the oft-suspended corner Adam "Pacman" Jones has run afoul of the NFL again and is suspended pending a review next week. Romo returns this week, and that should give a big boost to the Cowboys' offense. Newman returns this week, too (though he won't return punts), and that should help the Cowboys' pass defense.
On the other hand, what if they are just a bad team? What if it's the healthy players playing badly that have created the Cowboys' situation? That is what it looks like to me. The Cowboys' defensive line and interior linebackers are struggling against the run. In Dallas' most recent game, a 35-14 loss to the New York Giants, the Cowboys surrendered 200 yards on 34 carries. Or put another way, the Giants gained six yards every time they ran the ball.
Since the Redskins are also a power running team, let's look at the first meeting between the teams, a 26-24 Washington win in Texas Stadium on Sept. 28, when Dallas had most of its lineup intact. The Redskins ran the ball 37 times for 161 yards, a 4.4 average. The Redskins controlled the line of scrimmage and kept the ball for more than 38 minutes. It's not just their NFC east opponents who are running all over the Cowboys. Last season when Dallas went 13-3, their defense was sixth in the NFL against the run. This year they are 18th.
What's more telling is that rather than address these problems, the Cowboys sent a first-, a third- and a sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft to Detroit for wide receiver Roy Williams. The move wreaked of panic. Randy Moss, a player with a far better track record than Williams, was traded in 2007 for only a fourth-round pick. The trade essentially guts the Cowboys 2009 draft and that's crucial. If the Cowboys lose to the Redskins—and as long as Redskins leading running back Clinton Portis plays (he's 50/50)—then the Cowboys may be in for significant rebuilding. Most of the Cowboys' starters on the offensive line are on the wrong side of 30. This is not a good time to lack draft picks.
The Cowboys finish the season with one of the toughest four-game slates imaginable: tilts at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and home games against the Giants and Baltimore Ravens. Even with a win on Sunday night, Dallas could still be looking at an ugly 8-8 finish. The Cowboys know they are in trouble, but their problems run deeper than they acknowledge.
The Green Bay Packers have similar problems, but they've made less of a soap opera of it. Like Dallas, Green Bay came into the season with legitimate title dreams, and now they find themselves one loss away from seeing those hopes on life support. Although people are already starting to point out that last year's Packers with QB Brett Favre came within a win of the Super Bowl and that this season without him they are struggling (while Favre's Jets are playing well), the offense isn't Green Bay's trouble; it's their defense. They have failed to find consistency on the defensive line and linebacker Nick Barnett, one of the best in the league, is out for the season.
The Packers are 28th—out of 32—against the run this season, but they are monsters against the pass, ranking third, and three of their four starting defensive backs are among the league leaders in interceptions. The Bears may start backup QB Rex Grossman, who throws interceptions so often you might think he's colorblind.
What makes the Packers' position so precarious is that they are 4-5. Although their schedule isn't the beast that awaits the Cowboys, a Green Bay loss on Sunday pretty much means that they would need to win every remaining game to have a shot at the playoffs.
I think Green Bay will win (then again I'm a Bears fan and err to the side of caution), and I think Dallas will lose, but at this point I can't see either team playing in January. In the NFL, injuries, ineffective line schemes and suspensions can turn a mortal lock—on a playoff spot, for example—into a very tenuous grip.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.