Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Thursday, December 31, 2009
Updated: January 3, 2:06 AM ET
Cowboys looking to buck trend

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Part of the Dallas Cowboys' recent woes in December can be attributed to Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles.

In this series, the Cowboys usually win the first game, then Reid makes adjustments and the Eagles win the second one, which is often played in December. The Eagles have beaten the Cowboys in eight of the teams' past nine second meetings. Six of those games were played in December.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hopes the start of a new year and a new-look team can change that.

Much is at stake in Sunday's home game against the Eagles, as the game will determine the NFC East champion. Winners of two straight, the Cowboys are no longer the team that falls like the temperature in December. Quarterback Tony Romo has been hot. The defense is gaining confidence. Slowly but surely, the running game is coming back.

But the Eagles are hotter. Reid's team has won six straight. Pro Bowl voters recognized the success of both teams. Each is sending six players to the Pro Bowl, and each is loaded with alternates.

The developments of wide receivers DeSean Jackson (Eagles) and Miles Austin (Cowboys) have contributed to the success of both offenses. Jackson is a modest surprise; he was a second-rounder whom the Eagles felt would star on special teams and help as a third receiver. Instead, Jackson has been a superstar. He has eight touchdowns of 50 yards or more this season, tied for the most in NFL history. He made the Pro Bowl as a starting wide receiver and as a kicker returner.

Austin, meanwhile, is a huge surprise. Before the season, most thought he would be a fourth receiver. If he gets 20 receiving yards on Sunday, he will join Michael Irvin and Terrell Owens as the only Cowboys receivers with 1,250-yard seasons. Austin also will go to the Pro Bowl.

Reid pointed out that the Cowboys' offense now looks better without Owens, who still can't believe he was released during the offseason. The Eagles don't seem to miss Owens, either.

With Owens gone, Romo has total control of the offense. Friction is gone. Egos seem to be in check. Wide receiver Roy Williams has been a disappointment at wide receiver, but he's not blaming anyone but himself and vows to work harder to catch the ball and run better routes.

Overall, the team looks relaxed and refreshed as opposed to the tight team that seemed to be fading at the beginning of December. Making the playoffs also may have saved coach Wade Phillips' job.

With the Saints and Vikings struggling down the stretch, the argument can be made that the Eagles and Cowboys are the NFC teams best positioned for a run to the Super Bowl. First, though, they have to sort out who wins the division.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady will start Sunday's game vs. Houston. Chances are he won't be around for the finish.

1. New England Patriots at Houston Texans: In many ways, this game is meaningless for the Patriots. Whether they are the third or fourth seed in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots will have to play next week in the wild-card round, so much of their focus will be on staying healthy. Coach Bill Belichick may use his starters for the first half and see how the game is going before deciding whether to pull Tom Brady and his crew.

The Texans will be going for broke. At 8-7, they can make the playoffs with a win and some help. Plus, a victory would secure the first winning season in franchise history, and that means a lot to owner Bob McNair. Head coach Gary Kubiak will come under review at the end of the season, and it would help to have one winning season on his résumé. He has developed a top quarterback in Matt Schaub, who is a second alternate to the Pro Bowl, and the Texans' defense is young and exciting. A victory also would appease the home crowd.

2. Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders: Within seconds of losing in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Ravens turned their attention to Oakland. A victory over the Raiders would put Baltimore in the playoffs. Even though Oakland has knocked off the Bengals, Eagles, Broncos and Steelers, this game shouldn't be hard for the Ravens to win. Raiders coach Tom Cable hopes to return next season, but the fact that he may not see eye to eye with owner Al Davis about the greatness of QB JaMarcus Russell could lead to another Oakland coaching change.

3. Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets: NBC's "Sunday Night Football" flexed what might have the feel of an interesting preseason game. By kickoff, the Bengals, who already have clinched at least the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs, will know whether they have a chance to earn the No. 3 seed. If they don't, they probably will rest quarterback Carson Palmer and other starters.

For the Jets, this game means everything. They can get into the playoffs with a victory, and coach Rex Ryan will do everything to give rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez a taste of playoff experience. NBC might not have grabbed much of a game, but it was attracted by the drama of the Jets getting a chance to play themselves into the postseason.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins: At 8-7, the Steelers have a chance to sneak into the playoffs. Still, it has been a disappointing season. Their secondary fell apart, age crept into their defense's front seven and their offensive line struggled. But AFC playoff teams would fear the Steelers if they sneaked in because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He's still dangerous when the game is on the line.

5. New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings: Brett Favre came to the Vikings to take them to a Super Bowl, but three losses in the past four weeks have put their quest in jeopardy. Minnesota has lost its grip on the No. 2 seed in the NFC and could be forced to play next week in the wild-card round and eventually on the road in a cold-weather game. Coach Brad Childress must stop the bleeding immediately.

The Giants go to the Metrodome with only pride to gain. Their season started 5-0, but their defense fell apart because of injuries, missed tackles and on-the-field confusion. The Vikings must beat New York and hope the Eagles lose to Dallas. That would give the No. 2 seed back to Minnesota, which appeared to have a playoff bye locked up weeks ago.

6. Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: Last week's loss in Philadelphia put the Broncos on the outside looking in for the playoffs. They know they are out if the Jets and Ravens win Sunday. Beating the Chiefs shouldn't be hard, but we are talking about a Broncos team that lost at home to the Raiders in Week 15. And this week Denver will be without wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was scratched Friday. It's been an incredible fall for the Broncos, who lost their final three games to surrender the AFC West title to the Chargers last season.

The Chiefs have gone through a miserable season but would take pride in ensuring the Broncos don't make the playoffs. During the summer, few had figured the Broncos would be going for a 9-7 season, but a 6-0 start spoiled Broncos fans.

7. Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals: This could be another game with a preseason feel. There is a good chance these teams will meet in the wild-card round, and neither side would want to tip off strategy for that game. By kickoff, the Cardinals will know whether the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed is in play. They need a loss by Minnesota and Philadelphia to keep alive their hopes of playing for the No. 2 seed and a bye. If the Packers lose, they could drop to the sixth seed.

Chris Johnson
The Titans are out of the playoff mix, but Chris Johnson has a lot to play for in Week 17.

8. Tennessee Titans at Seattle Seahawks: Is first-year coach Jim Mora coaching for his job? Probably not, but the Seahawks have been outscored 106-24 in three straight embarrassing losses. A bad loss in the season finale at home might affect his job status. Starting Monday, the Seahawks begin a search for a new general manager. Mora needs to build a little momentum for next year.

The Titans, meanwhile, will try to get RB Chris Johnson to the 2,000-yard rushing mark. He's 128 yards short. They'd love for him to get the single-season rushing record (he's 233 yards short of that), too.

9. Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Amid rumors of Bill Cowher's interest in coming to Tampa, Bucs coach Raheem Morris has the team on a timely two-game win streak. But will it be enough to keep his job? The Bucs have gone from 9-7 to 3-12 under Morris, and he already has lost a good portion of his coaching staff since being hired. A bad loss to the Falcons won't help Morris. Meanwhile, the Falcons need this victory to finish with back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 44 years.

10. Jacksonville Jaguars at Cleveland Browns: This game is more important than people imagine because jobs are on the line. Browns coach Eric Mangini is trying to impress new team president Mike Holmgren with a fourth consecutive victory. That might not save his job, but Mangini will try. Meanwhile, a Jaguars loss could hurt coach Jack Del Rio, although most believe his job is safe because the team owes him $15 million over the next three years. Plus, he's done a great job, turning around a young team and pushing it to 7-8. Still, a loss would be the Jaguars' fourth in a row. Think about it for a second. Mike Shanahan, an institution in Denver, was fired after blowing an 8-5 start last season. Del Rio could have reason to worry if he ends the season on a sour note.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.