- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Over the next three weeks, beware the Dallas Cowboys.
With the flop of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins' free fall, the NFC East is a two-way battle between the Giants and Cowboys. The Giants' one-game lead is tenuous for a couple of reasons. After Thanksgiving, they have to play the Packers and Saints. Secondly, the Cowboys have their Thanksgiving brunch schedule.
Because the Cowboys have been grandfathered into having a home game every Thanksgiving Day, the veterans grow accustomed to a schedule that raises their level of play and ultimately rewards them with a 10-day break. Some might complain about playing three games over a 12-day span, but the Cowboys have turned that schedule into a huge advantage.
I believe it's one of the reasons Tony Romo is at his best in November.
The process started in Week 10, when the Cowboys blew out the Buffalo Bills 44-7. On Sunday, the Cowboys visit the Redskins and then come back to host the 2-7 Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day. There is a good chance the Cowboys will win both and be 7-4 heading into a winnable game against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 4.
Look into the past and see the success of the Cowboys around Thanksgiving. Last year, Romo was hurt and the Cowboys were down. But from 2006 to 2009, when Romo was the quarterback, the Cowboys went 11-1 during that 12-day Thanksgiving stretch. Romo completed 65.7 percent of his passes, averaged 263 yards a game and threw 28 touchdown passes.
Watch for Romo to put up similar numbers during this year's stretch. Naturally, some teams around the NFL would like to see a rotation for Thanksgiving games. That would be fair, but the NFL is also about ratings and marketing its brand, and having the Detroit-Dallas doubleheader is part of the tradition that shouldn't be changed.
With the Lions becoming a potential playoff team, they too can start to take advantage of the Thanksgiving schedule, which offers the comfort of home and a 10-day break before the next game.
From the inbox
Q: I notice something very different in Arian Foster's running style in comparison to the rest of the league. He routinely leaves his feet in order to dive forward at the end of plays to pick up an extra few yards. Usually he commits to the dive when the hole closes and he knows he can sneak through the gap at the last minute. Do you think this trend will catch on and is this going to help extend his career because it limits the big hits?
Sean in San Diego
A: Great observation. The Texans' running back does have somewhat of a forward jump cut that gets extra yards. That style may save his legs, but his style is so physical I do think it will take a toll on his body over time. Brett Favre was able to last so long because he was off his feet after he threw passes. He would move backward and leave the ground as the ball left his hand. That saved him from planting and suffering major knee and leg injuries. I don't think what Foster does is strategic. It's just part of his natural ability, so I think it would be hard for others to copy.
Q: I know the media doesn't accept the fact that Cowboys fans can't stand Tony Romo anymore. The fact is we would rather see Stephen McGee start the rest of the 2011 season. At least then, we can hold a lead and not have to watch Romo give the ball to the wrong team. With that said, do you think the Cowboys should take a QB in the 2012 draft?
Jesse in Fort Worth, Texas
A: They are going to stay with him in 2012. That may not please fans, but it makes the most sense. You saw him on Sunday against the Bills. He shredded them. McGee may be a better athlete, but he doesn't have that flair for running a passing offense that Romo has developed. With the easy schedule ahead and him being great in November, watch him put up great numbers over the next month. Maybe that will mean he'll break the hearts of Cowboys fans in December and January, but he's the best option they have.
Q: The Patriots decided to cut oft-injured CB Leigh Bodden and dump his big contract. I understand the move to a point, but can the Patriots really be picky about their secondary? I just don't think Antwaun Molden and Phil Adams are long-term solutions. Also, with Devin McCourty in a sophomore slump and Ras-I Dowling hurt, can the Patriots really deal with Kyle Arrington being their best corner?
Jacob in Hull, Mass.
A: There isn't much the Patriots can do now. It's too late. Nothing on the street can help. They have to get through with a very thin secondary and that is going to lead to some bad games against good quarterbacks. Strategically, the only thing they can do is put pressure on the quarterback. Andre Carter's 4½-sack day against the Jets is a start. I just find it unbelievable that Bill Belichick has let the defense drop off so much in talent. He's had so many picks and plenty of chances to sign good players off the street.
Q: Last season, the Colts had plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. They had Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark on offense to help Peyton Manning. They also had All-Pro defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. In my opinion, there are too many playmakers on this team to be winless. The owner recently told his fan base that this was bound to happen after their years of success. I believe the coaching and ownership are tanking games to get Andrew Luck. There is definitely no urgency to win a game. This is terrible for Colts fans.
Rob in Mantua, N.J.
A: I don't buy the idea that the Colts are tanking games. Their defense may not be any good, but they play hard. Remember, the defense was constructed for a team that had Manning and would figure to have the lead or be close most of the game. Curtis Painter can't make enough plays to give the Colts a lead. They go into games spotting most teams a touchdown drive or two, and once they fall behind, they have little chance of coming back. It is terrible for Colts fans. But it does look as though the Colts will get Luck. They will have to decide either to trade him for two or three draft choices or part with Manning. At least you know as a Colts fan that things can't get any worse.
Kevin in Barkhamsted, Conn.
A: Other than maybe Lofa Tatupu, whom nobody has gone after since he was cut in free agency, there weren't many middle linebacker options for the Giants to sign after they lost Goff. I agree with you that they have to prioritize linebacker and make it a better position. They do a great job of drafting corners and defensive ends. Next year, they need to concentrate on linebackers.
Q: I disagree with you. QBs benefit greatly if they sit the first year or two on the sideline. Sure, there are rare exceptions and Luck could be one of them. The biggest factor in the success or failure of drafted QBs is stability. The QBs who have failed as first-round picks were with teams that constantly changed their [offensive] coordinator or head coach.
Dan in Tacoma, Wa.
A: For years, I was on your side of the argument. I saw Alex Smith, Joey Harrington and other first-round picks rushed into the starting lineup and struggle or fail. In the early part of the 2000s and the late 1980s, sitting the quarterback was the right thing to do. It worked for Steve McNair. It worked for Carson Palmer. But times change. Look at Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Newton isn't winning, but that's because of the team he's on. Dalton is one of the reasons the Bengals are 6-3. Coaching stability is important for all franchises. I believe Luck is so good, sitting him would be a waste.
Q: Your feelings on the Steelers once again steering away from their roots of running the football? I know the young receiving corps has shown itself to be impressive, but we need the run to set up the pass. Or are we turning into a team that passes to set up the run?
Doug in Perrysburg, Ohio
A: The Steelers are now a pass-first team. They do have balance, but the development of the receiving corps shows there is more talent on the passing side than the running side. Antonio Brown is exceptional in the open field. Hines Ward is dependable. Heath Miller moves the chains. Mike Wallace makes big plays and is consistent. The Steelers show they have the ability to run the ball, but the talent has shifted to the passing side. The deeper they get into the season, the more you see that profile.
Kevin in Kennesaw, Ga.
A: No, they didn't make a mistake in trading for him. The mistake they made was in not figuring out at the beginning of the season what they wanted to do. They had Bush in spread passing formations either getting carries or catching the ball out of the backfield. They would do that for a series or two and then shift to a running formation, sometimes using a sixth offensive lineman (Nate Garner) as a blocking tight end. When Daniel Thomas had a couple of 100-yard rushing games, they minimized Bush's role until Thomas retweaked his hamstring. Bush and Thomas were a talent upgrade from Brown and Williams. Too bad they couldn't figure out how to use them in a successful way over the first seven games.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter
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