Cowboys need to get back on winning track

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 12.

First ... Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys: Between this Sunday and Thanksgiving, Bill Parcells and the rest of the NFL will find out if the Cowboys will be a playoff team.

Parcells learned something during road trips to Tampa Bay and New England. Against good defenses, his team is challenged, and the problems are more pronounced on the road. Crowd noise makes it more difficult for a young quarterback such as Quincy Carter and the home crowd makes it easier for a defense to stuff struggling offenses.

This isn't to say the Cowboys aren't a playoff team. Just because the Bucs and Patriots shut them out doesn't erase their 7-3 start. Their defense is legit. It's fast. It's smart. It makes plays. It's hard to score upon. That defense should keep the Cowboys in contention through the end of the season.

But Sunday's home game against the Panthers and the Thanksgiving Day game against the Dolphins will determine whether this offense can succeed at home against very good defenses.

Carter, Troy Hambrick and the rest of the Dallas offense have to prove against the Panthers and Dolphins that they can beat a good defense.

Statistically, you'd think the Cowboys would have their best chance against the Panthers. Carolina ranks No. 17 in the league allowing 314 yards a game and if you can get to their secondary, you can beat the cornerbacks.

Carter's problem is he's facing one of the best -- if not the best -- defensive lines in the NFL. Julius Peppers is due for a breakout game. Defensive end Mike Rucker has one every week. And watch out for Kris Jenkins, who has been one of the most dominating defensive tackles in the league this year. Jenkins could take advantage of the banged up Cowboys offensive line and force Carter out of the pocket.

Where the Thanksgiving Day game is even more of a problem is that the Dolphins can affect Carter two ways. Their cornerbacks are good enough to take away Carter's main receiving threats. The Patriots slowed Carter by eliminating Terry Glenn as a passing option. Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison can single up and take away two of the three Cowboys receivers. Plus, the Dolphins are strong enough up front to take away the Cowboys running game. They are only allowing 85 yards a game.

If the Cowboys are going to make the playoffs, they need to show enough offense in these two games to win one or two of them. If not, those road trips to Philadelphia and Washington in December will get much tougher.

And 10. New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: The Saints are hanging in the playoff race with a 5-5 record, but their margin of error is slim. The offensive mistakes in the first half of last week's game against the Falcons almost killed them when they fell behind 20-3. A similar first half against the Eagles could kill their playoff bid. The Eagles are on a roll. Donovan McNabb gains more confidence by the week, and the running game is working, particularly with Brian Westbrook getting healthy again and getting into a rhythm. Who would have ever thought the Eagles would be averaging 120 yards a game on the ground? The Eagles have almost twice as many touchdown runs as they do touchdown passes. Ground Reid. What a change. The biggest mission for the Eagles defense is containing Saints halfback Deuce McAllister, who has seven consecutive 100-yard games.

9. Washington Redskins at Miami Dolphins: See the mess Steve Spurrier created by letting Hue Jackson call the offensive plays two weeks ago. Now Spurrier wants more input on the offensive calls, which means he'll probably call the plays Sunday night against the Dolphins. If they don't work, Spurrier will lose some credibility in the locker room. Even worse, he has a quarterback, Patrick Ramsey, who is just about physically shot. A problem with a broken foot has resurfaced, and it's not out of the question for Ramsey to have to be replaced by Tim Hasselbeck. Even if Ramsey plays, can he last? Dave Wannstedt faces a tough decision. Brian Griese does a nice job of running the Dolphins offense, but he knows Jay Fiedler -- when healthy -- is a little more mobile and mobility is important because of the troubles the team is having blocking. The Dolphins can't afford to lose this game because it would be their fourth home loss and there are only two home games left after this. Plus, the Dolphins have to come back and play on Thursday in Dallas. The Dolphins need a 100-yard rushing day from Ricky Williams.

8. San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers: Dennis Erickson handled his quarterback controversy well by saying Jeff Garcia is the starter, but he has to be 100 percent healthy to start against the Packers. Garcia isn't 100 percent healthy. His high ankle sprain leaves him at about 70 percent, and if Garcia can't get out of the pocket running, he's not as effective. Let Garcia rest another week because Tim Rattay gives the 49ers the best chance to win against the Packers. He's been impressive with his accuracy and downfield throwing in home wins over the Rams and Steelers. More important, Terrell Owens likes Rattay more than Garcia, so Owens won't be a distraction with Rattay starting this game. The big mystery in Green Bay is how badly Brett Favre reinjured his broken right thumb. Favre can't be expected to throw too many downfield passes with a twice injured thumb. He's going to have to continue to rely on Ahman Green to be the focal point of the offense via the ground attack. More of Favre's passes will be short tosses out of the backfield and shuffle passes. If the weather is cold and wet, it could actually favor the 49ers because of Favre's thumb.

7. Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills: The Bills have gone three games without an offensive touchdown, and the fans are restless. So is owner Ralph Wilson. A lot of people wondered if offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was going to keep his job this week. Of course, releasing any coach this late in the season is silly. Gilbride is bright, but the Bills are running out of offensive options. Travis Henry has a broken leg. Drew Bledsoe holds onto the ball too long because no one is open. Eric Moulds has a bad groin. The Bills are a mess and a seventh loss would virtually put them out of the playoff race. The Colts have their own worries. They don't have healthy wide receivers. They will probably give Marvin Harrison the week off to get his hamstring ready for next week's game against the Patriots. But this Colts team has shown great resiliency. The Colts have now won four games without either Harrison or running back Edgerrin James. The Bills are limiting opponents to 95 yards a game on the ground, but if Harrison is going to be out, Indy needs 100 out of James. That's the best matchup in the battle of former AFC East rivals.

6. Seattle Seahawks at Baltimore Ravens: The Seahawks are 6-0 at home, but have only one win on the road. The Seahawks have a decent chance of winning their final two home games -- Cleveland and Arizona -- but to make the playoffs they need 10 wins, and that means winning a game on the road. The Ravens won't make that assignment easy. Offensively, the Seahawks have to play a mistake free game against one of the league's fastest, most disruptive defenses. That might be easier said than done. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would be putting up Pro Bowl numbers if his receivers would hold onto passes. Only the Lions have dropped more passes than the Seahawks. Wide receiver Darrell Jackson, who has 12 drops, didn't drop one last week against the Lions and the Seahawks won. Hasselbeck has completed 60.7 percent of his passes, but he'd be closer to 69 percent if his receivers would help more. An even bigger worry for the Seahawks is the defense. They have hit the wall as far as being able to stop the run. They've lost all of their experience at the starting defensive tackle position. Now Randall Godfrey is banged up at middle linebacker. Jamal Lewis could put up big numbers in this one.

5. New York Giants at Tampa Bay Bucs: The loser can officially say goodbye to the playoffs. That's what makes the Keyshawn Johnson move so strange. Keenan McCardell has a sore hamstring. Joe Jurevicius is playing on a knee that might not last for four quarters. Johnson is healthy, wants the ball and Tampa Bay deactivated him for the final six games. What if McCardell and Jurevicius can't make it to Monday because of their health? The Bucs would have to go out and sign a wide receiver to have enough to get through the game. That's a big sacrifice just to make a point to a player who didn't want to be a Buc anymore. The Giants have their own problems. Kerry Collins, despite having a great deep arm, ranks among the worst in 25-yard pass plays. That's baffling. The team is minus-7 in takeaway/giveaway differential. The offensive line is going to have a hard time matching up against the explosive Bucs defensive line. This was supposed to be a matchup of two Super Bowl contenders. Now, it's a Monday version of Survivor in which both teams will eventually be eliminated.

4. New England Patriots at Houston Texans: The Patriots are running out of receivers. Troy Brown is banged up. David Patten is out for the season. David Givens is ailing. Heck, the Patriots had to pull J.J. Stokes off the streets as insurance. Does that mean the Patriots may try to run the ball? Let's not go that far. No matter what is ailing with the Patriots, Bill Belichick has done a masterful job of figuring out how to fix it. He knows this is a dangerous game. The Texans defense may be giving up 371 yards a game, but Belichick knows this is a game primed for a potential upset. The Texans have nothing to lose. They are 4-6 and play four of the final six games on the road. Dom Capers excels in close games, and the Patriots don't have the explosiveness on offense to make this anything but a close game.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: Bill Cowher is mad. He's upset his team is 3-7. He's mad at the league for scheduling them for a Monday game in San Francisco and coming back on a short week to travel to Cleveland. What upsets him the most is that a loss to the Browns would end this season. He needs to be so angry that his team will refocus. These teams don't like each other, and the Steelers are still stinging from their 33-13 loss to the Browns at Heinz Field in Week 5. A lot of Steelers are playing for their jobs in this one -- Tommy Maddox, Chad Scott, Jerome Bettis, Brent Alexander and Mike Logan -- just to name a few. The Browns had a confidence booster last week, blowing out Arizona. Kelly Holcomb had his first good game since last week, and if he can beat the Steelers, he would head into the final five weeks with confidence.

2. Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: Did anyone really expect the Chiefs to go undefeated? Not really. They are on pace for a 14-2 season, not 16-0, and everything should go back to normal Sunday. After all, the Raiders are a mess. Four players were cited for testing positive for THG. A bigger list is heading toward injured reserve. The Raiders need to hold an alumni function just to find players to get through the final six games. The big talk in Kansas City is why the Chiefs aren't running the ball more. Are they saving up Priest Holmes for the stretch? This game plan should be simple. Run a few more times with Holmes and get out of this game quickly.

1. Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are loaded with problems. They are on a four-game losing streak. Their defense can't stop anybody. Half of their starting defensive line was arrested this week for DUI. And the pressure of playing behind a defense giving up more than 30 points a game of late is causing Daunte Culpepper to go back to last year's bad habit of creating turnovers. That's why the Lions are always a welcoming visitor. They have lost 21 straight road games, and their receiving crew is so depleted for talent that quarterback Joey Harrington isn't a threat. Culpepper needs to be patient, throw a few long ones to Randy Moss and get that good feeling back again.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.