NFL Nation: Cowboys-Steelers
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
PITTSBURGH -- When the final story of the Cowboys' 2008 season is written -- and you can consider this a rough draft -- the frigid scene at Heinz Field might warrant an extra chapter. With a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead over a Steelers team devoid of any offensive rhythm, the Cowboys suddenly remembered who they were.
I suppose we should give the Steelers credit for their stunning comeback in a 20-13 win over the Cowboys, but let's pass on that for now. The Cowboys were seven minutes, 15 seconds away from declaring themselves a legitimate Super Bowl contender again. Seriously.
Perhaps the most dominating defensive performance of the season coupled with the Atlanta Falcons' loss to the New Orleans Saints opened the door to all sorts of opportunities. Now, the Cowboys will be lucky to even qualify for the playoffs. Who among us thinks Dallas will rally and hand the Giants their second consecutive loss? That's what I thought.
The Cowboys survived four turnovers in the first half, in part, because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played like a store-front mannequin -- only with less mobility. Nick Folk's 44-yard field goal at the end of the first half set off Wade Phillips' wild celebration of a 3-3 score. His blue parka seemed to hinder the fist pumps, but who could blame him for being excited?
The Cowboys carried that momentum into the second half, scoring on their first two possessions. Rookie running back Tashard Choice, who made the first start of his career in place of the injured Marion Barber, accounted for 90 yards on the two drives. Terrell Owens, who didn't have a catch in the first half, snatched a touchdown in the back of the end zone to give the Cowboys a 10-3 lead. The way the Steelers' offense had played, any lead looked insurmountable. When the Cowboys' defense made a goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter, more than a few fans decided to escape the 18-degree weather. They obviously weren't familiar with the Cowboys' penchant for holiday collapses.
Clinging to a 13-6 lead, the Cowboys went three-and-out and then watched Sam Paulescu squeeze off a 23-yard punt from his 44-yard line. In a season full of special-teams disasters, this was business as usual. The defense finally gave in, allowing Roethlisberger and wide receiver Nate Washington to make several plays downfield. When the Steelers tied the score on Heath Miller's 6-yard touchdown catch, you could sense that the Cowboys were preparing to fold.
Sure enough, Tony Romo delivered a perfect pass to Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend, who returned it 25 yards for the game-winning score. After the game, Romo and tight end Jason Witten both attempted to take the blame -- but Witten was much more convincing. As Witten returned to the sideline immediately after the play, he tapped his chest several times to indicate that the interception was his fault.
It was a 10-yard hook route that Romo and Witten could complete in their sleep. Witten is supposed to run 10 yards, read the defender and turn either inside or outside. But he slipped at the top of the route -- and the ball ended up where he'd intended to be. With apologies to the New York Giants, Witten sounded as if he was making a confession to police as he stood in front of his locker and answered every painful question.
"I told the offense that I was accountable for" the interception, Witten said. "I wanted more than anything to let [my teammates] know it was on me and not Tony. He's got enough going on. He's a hell of a quarterback. He trusted me to make the play, and I didn't do it. I wanted them to know that it wasn't on him."
A few moments earlier, T.O. walked into the main interview room and revealed that he was -- wait for it -- wide open on the play. He said Ike Taylor lined up 12 to 13 yards off of him, so he broke off his route and looked for the ball.
"We lost the game on offense," Owens said. "You can't make critical turnovers. That interception was very, very costly there at the end. The defense stepped up to the challenge today. As an offense, we didn't."
Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who had one of the Cowboys' five sacks Sunday, still had a look of disbelief on his face as he waited to get on the bus. But he certainly wasn't ready to make a concession speech.
"We're not out of this," Ratliff said. "And we're not going to finger-point."
Ratliff's correct in saying the Cowboys aren't out of the playoff race -- they would go if the season ended Sunday -- but a win would've made things so much easier. Dallas would've taken a one-game lead on the Falcons. And now the Cowboys are only a half-game ahead of the resurgent Eagles, who stunned the Giants with a 20-14 win in the Meadowlands on Sunday.
The Cowboys close the season with a road game in Philadelphia that could end up deciding the final wild-card spot. The Eagles have the Browns, Redskins and Cowboys left on the schedule. The Cowboys must close with the Giants, Ravens and Eagles. A win Sunday would've put them in great position. But this team can't stand prosperity.
For more on this game, please continue scrolling down:
Williams frustrated with his "role" on offense: Roy Williams thought escaping Detroit and returning to his home state would be a reprieve. But that's not exactly how things have worked out. He finished with two catches for 16 yards Sunday, although he was the intended target on Romo's wild, left-handed throw in the third quarter. Williams, who looked resplendent in a light beige suit and matching fedora, told me that it's becoming tougher to hide his frustration.
"I don't get many chances," he said. "So I have to capitalize on the couple throws that come my way. I had this stuff down down after Week 1 of me joining the team. At first, I was a third-down and red-zone receiver, but now I'm supposed to be full time. I'm a coachable wide receiver. If I don't catch many and we win, I'm happy, but it's still a problem. When I don't catch any and we lose, I'm just pissed."
For the record, Williams didn't have a hint of anger in his voice when he was making those comments. It was almost as if he has resigned himself to not being a part of the offense this season. So how's the trade working out so far? We'll give it an incomplete for now, but it is baffling that the Cowboys haven't made more of an effort to get Williams involved in the offense.
Cowboys make the right Choice: It was a grim Cowboys locker room, but players couldn't help but praise rookie running back Tashard Choice, who rushed 23 times for 88 yards and caught five passes for 78 yards. He slipped on the frozen field a couple of times in the first half, but he changed cleats at halftime and it wasn't a problem the rest of the game.
Asked about his performance, Choice said, "It doesn't mean anything. It means something as far as the coaches understanding what I can do, but all I care about is winning and losing. I could have had a terrible game, but if we would've won the game, I would've had a smile on my face. But losing, it takes it all out of you. All it makes you want to do is go back and work harder and play some more."
Choice earned that chance Sunday.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|AP Photo/Rob Carr|
|Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend scores on an interception return Sunday.|
PITTSBURGH -- Although the Steelers didn't officially clinch a postseason berth Sunday, it is safe to punch their playoff ticket following a 20-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Steelers improved to 16-5 in December games since 2004, which is the time of year the elite NFL teams position themselves for the final push.
The AFC North-leading Steelers (10-3) have mastered the art of winning ugly.
With three games remaining, the Steelers (10-3) are one game up on next week's division opponent, the Baltimore Ravens (9-4), and hold a two-game lead on the division-leading New York Jets (8-5) and Denver Broncos (8-5) for the No. 2 seed in the conference. Still at stake is an important first-round bye and home-field advantage up until to the AFC title.
With the exception of the turnover battle, the Steelers were outplayed throughout the game. Dallas finished with more passing yards (194-168), rushing yards (95-70) and first downs (15-13). But after trailing 13-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh tightened up and ran off 17 unanswered points in the final seven minutes, 15 seconds of the game.
"People get too preoccupied with style points," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "That was a beautiful football game because we displayed mettle and we hung together."
Tomlin is right. At this point, style points are pointless. The Steelers will go back to work and try to correct their mistakes and they feel a lot better about doing so with another victory in hand.
Here is what else we learned about Pittsburgh in its win over Dallas:
Part of Pittsburgh's theme this year has been a different hero stepping up every week, and against the Cowboys, it was Deshea Townsend's turn.
The veteran cornerback is in his 11th season and one of the oldest players (33) on the defense. But Townsend made a huge 25-yard interception return for a touchdown that produced the game-winning score for Pittsburgh with 1:40 remaining.
Deep in its own territory, Dallas took a chance late by throwing against the Steelers on second down, and Townsend picked off a pass intended for Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (six catches, 62 yards).
"It was a great pass -- right at eye level," Townsend said smiling. "I saw the tight end and nothing else was there."
Townsend's teammates were genuinely elated for him making the big play against Dallas.
He's had an up-and-down season. Townsend began the season as the starter, suffered an injury and and returned to the lineup as a backup.
But Townsend never complained and took advantage for one of the biggest plays of his career.
"He is a team guy," Tomlin said. "He doesn't care about anything but winning. ... It is great that he had an opportunity to make a significant play like that for us, because he is as deserving as anyone."
PITTSBURGH -- In a game full of Pro Bowl talent, an unlikely hero emerged in the final two minutes of Sunday's 20-13 Steelers' win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Call him "Big-play Deshea."
Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend returned a Tony Romo interception 25 yards late for the go-ahead touchdown to improve the Steelers to 10-3 on the season. The Steelers showed grit by overcoming a 13-3 fourth-quarter deficit to score 17 unanswered points in the final 7:15 of the game.
The win helps Pittsburgh tremendously in terms of securing the coveted No. 2 seed in the AFC. The New York Jets (8-5) lost Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers to put Pittsburgh two games up on the Jets with three games remaining. The Denver Broncos (8-5) also are in the running but are a long shot to catch Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also survived with a split in their series with the NFC East in four games. The Steelers have an important AFC North contest next week against the Baltimore Ravens.
PITTSBURGH -- The Cowboys survived a four-turnover first half and seemed poised to pull off the upset with a 13-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But the Steelers erupted for 17 points in the final 7:15 of the game to escape with a 20-13 win.
The Steelers (10-3) tied the score with 2 minutes left and then cornerback Deshea Townsend picked off Tony Romo and brought it back 25 yards for the game-winning touchdown. It appeared that tight end Jason Witten was taking the blame for cutting off his route on Romo's interception. It was a stunning turn of events in a game that the Cowboys appeared to have under control.
It also wasted a strong performance from rookie running back Tashard Choice, who accounted for 166 total yards. The Cowboys fell to 8-5 with the loss and they're tied with the Falcons (8-5) in the race for the final wild-card playoff spot. But the loss means the Cowboys only have a half-game lead on the Eagles (7-5-1). Washington could also pull into a tie with the Cowboys if they beat the Ravens later tonight.
Romo was 19-of-30 for 210 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. He turned the ball over three times in the first half alone, but he led the Cowboys on a game-tying drive at the end of the half to make it 3-3. From the first possession of the second half, it looked like the Cowboys would take over the game. And when the defense had a goal-line stand against the Steelers early in the fourth quarter, a Pittsburgh comeback looked improbable.
For now, the Cowboys can forget about the possibility of meeting this team again in the Super Bowl. They're in a fight for their playoff lives. Throw in a couple of late special-teams miscues and you have the makings of a remarkable fourth-quarter collapse. Now an angry Giants team that lost to the Eagles today is heading to town.
If the Cowboys don't make the playoffs, this will be the one that got away.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' biggest weakness is coming back to haunt them in the third quarter.
Trailing 10-3, Pittsburgh is trying to jump-start its offense by passing the football more and the Dallas Cowboys are starting to bring the heat.
As a result, the Cowboys have sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on back-to-back drives in the third quarter to stall Pittsburgh. One sack was by cornerback Orlando Scandrick and the other was from linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
[Update: Dallas just recorded a field goal to take a 13-3 lead late in the third quarter.]
|Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE and Rick Stewart/Getty Images|
|Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger meet in a highly anticipated game Sunday with playoff implications for both teams.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and James Walker
In advance of the Cowboys-Steelers game Sunday at Heinz Field, NFC Beast blogger Matt Mosley and AFC North blogger James Walker agreed to discuss what this December showdown means to the league and the world in general. The Cowboys (8-4) could take a major step toward solidifying an NFC wild-card spot, while the Steelers (9-3) are fighting for a second consecutive division title and a first-round bye.
Mosley and Walker are both en route to Pittsburgh to cover what should be the best game of the weekend. Please enjoy the following discussion:
Both quarterbacks are banged up, but how will each fare in this marquee matchup?
James Walker: Ben Roethlisberger had a minor tweak to his right knee at the end of practice Wednesday, but the Steelers are saying it's no big deal. The larger concern in such a big game is Roethlisberger's shoulder, which has been an issue all season. The injury has gradually taken the deep-passing game out of Pittsburgh's offense. In the past three games, Roethlisberger's longest completion is just 37 yards. Most of his throws of late have been underneath to receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
Matt Mosley: Tony Romo is planning to play without a splint on his right pinkie for the first time in a month. At first, he felt some pain when he had to drive the ball on deep out patterns, but he's pretty comfortable at this point. He went back to his favorite target, Jason Witten, last Thursday against the Seahawks. And contrary to what No. 81 might say, Witten's the most important piece of the passing game. But since we brought him up, it's a great sign that Terrell Owens has made a significant impact in the past two wins. The Steelers will use press coverage and have a safety over the top in order to slow down T.O. The Cowboys will counter with some pre-snap motion, and this could also be a breakout game for Roy Williams. With Marion Barber (toe) banged up, the Cowboys might have to lean heavily on their passing game.
MM: If Barber can go, the Cowboys will try to feed him the ball early in the game. But the Steelers do a great job taking away the run. The Cowboys have a left guard (Montrae Holland) who's inexperienced in this offense playing next to a false start waiting to happen (Flozell Adams). The Steelers will exploit those matchups every chance they get. The Cowboys won't say it publicly, but they feel like they can make plays downfield against the Steelers' secondary. Romo does an excellent job sliding away from pressure, and he should have plenty of opportunities. When Romo came back, the Cowboys started playing at a faster tempo. They will try to keep the Steelers guessing. Look for third-receiver Patrick Crayton to have a nice game. Teams tend to forget about him on the backside and this is the type of game where he could end up with 80 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers will try to confuse Romo with a lot of different looks. I've watched all 11 players line up in a two-point stance before. They'll bring pressure from everywhere. It's up to Romo to quickly identify where the pressure's coming from and go through his reads at a rapid rate. Since that's one of his strengths, it shouldn't be a major problem.
JW: Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is very good at taking away what opponents do best, which gets teams out of their comfort zones. Last week, Pittsburgh took Randy Moss (four catches, 45 yards) out of New England's offense and quarterback Matt Cassel looked lost without his best weapon playing well. I expect the Steelers to do the same to Owens, who could be matched up most of the game with cornerback Ike Taylor along with help over the top from the safeties, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. But what's intriguing this week is Dallas has so many other offensive weapons that it could still pose problems for Pittsburgh. It will be an interesting chess match indeed.
Will the weather and muddy conditions at Heinz Field play a factor in this game?
JW: Pittsburgh is accustomed to playing on this surface, so it will be more of an issue for Dallas. The forecast is expected to be in the high 20s with a 40 percent chance of snow, so that's an advantage for the Steelers, particularly defensively. I've heard so many players around the league complain about Heinz Field this time of year and I think it gets in the head of some teams. Yet I've never once heard a Steelers player complain about playing in the mud. I expect the running games to be very important Sunday. Barber's injury status is huge in this game.
MM: Wade Phillips had his team practice indoors with a DJ when it was 70 degrees outside Monday. He did make the Cowboys practice in "the elements" when temperatures were in the low 50s. He coached in the inclement weather in Buffalo, and he's indicated this week that too much is made of the awful conditions at Heinz Field. Phillips thinks the mud would slow down both defenses, but as James pointed out, the Steelers are used to playing in the Heinz soup. The Steelers put down a new surface, but the fact that high school and college teams play on the field makes for a dicey situation. Romo played in poor weather at Eastern Illinois and he spent a lot of winters in Wisconsin. I don't think the cold weather will faze him. I think Phillips is underestimating how cold it will be Sunday evening -- and it might come back to bite his team.
Which team has more at stake in terms of playoff implications?
MM: The Cowboys have much more at stake in this game, but it's certainly not a must-win situation. The Cowboys will host the Giants and Ravens in consecutive weeks after the Steelers game. If they lose to the Steelers, they can beat the Ravens and then finish on the road in Philadelphia against a team that will likely be out of the playoff picture. If the Cowboys beat the Steelers, it could serve as the impetus for a strong December and push toward the playoffs. The Cowboys have much more to gain here than the Steelers, but I wouldn't dare go out on a limb and pick them to win.
JW: Dallas is more in danger of not making the playoffs, so it's hard to argue that this game isn't more important for the Cowboys. But the Steelers also have a golden opportunity here. They have back-to-back road games against the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, who have a combined record of 19-5, and there is no promise that the Steelers will win either of those contests. So it's very important for Pittsburgh to take care of business at home. A win Sunday combined with losses by New England and the Miami Dolphins and the Steelers are in. There's no point for them to leave anything to chance in the final weeks of the regular season.
Prediction and score?
JW: Dallas struggles in December and has looked ordinary on the road with a 3-3 mark. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh thrives this time of year and is 15-5 in December since 2004. So the Steelers will win this game 24-20. Unless Owens has a huge performance, the Cowboys won't score many points. Romo should face a lot of pressure Sunday, and a turnover or two is all Pittsburgh needs to win at home.
MM: I'm shocked that "Big Game" James has the two teams combining for 44 points. I think the Steelers will win, 17-10. The Cowboys have plenty of weapons on offense, but they haven't seen a defense like this. Even Arizona's front completely baffled the Cowboys for most of the game, and the Steelers are a lot better than that defense. But if Barber's able to bang away at the Steelers' defense, you never know what could happen. Again, keep your eye on Patrick Crayton in this one. He'll be the unsung hero for the Cowboys if they pull off the upset. And though Phillips hates that we keep bringing it up, the Steelers have an advantage in the mud.
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