Wildcard Preview: Dallas Cowboys vs Seattle Seahawks
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 5, 2007
This Saturday, Terrell Owens and the Dallas Cowboys will be on the road to take on Shaun Alexander and the Seattle Seahawks in the second game of the Wild Card Playoffs. Although both teams were expected to be elite teams heading into the season, both clubs have experienced some unusual events during their seasons. In Dallas, the Cowboys seemed to make a successful transition from Drew Bledsoe to Tony Romo, while calming Owens in the mean time. Unfortunately, their once-threatening defense has not been playing very well as of late. The Seahawks were in the Super Bowl last season, but have had a rough season. They finished the year as division champions, but only had an 9-7 record. Part of that can be attributed to the injuries to Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander for a good chunk of the season, but overall, they have missed that "it" factor.
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Tony Romo: 220 of 337 for 2903 yards, 19 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 21 sacks.
Note: Like it or not, Tony Romo is going to sling the football when he sees fit. That may have worked in his first couple of starts, but it hasn't been as bright lately for the young man out of Eastern Illinois. Over his last five games of the season, Romo threw eight interceptions, as Dallas lost three of those games, which prevented them from winning the division. At this point, no one is disputing the Cowboys' decision to go with Romo over Drew Bledsoe though. Part of what has killed Romo is the fact that it doesn't seem the Cowboys coaching staff knows what they want to run offensively. Romo needs to re-establish his connection with Terry Glenn early, and then look for Terrell Owens off of playaction.
Matt Hasselbeck: 210 of 371 for 2442 yards, 18 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 34 sacks.
Note: Hasselbeck didn't have to play in the first round of the playoffs last year, but he still won two playoff games to advance his team to the Super Bowl. He clearly has the experience edge over Romo, but he still may not be in top-notch form after returning from injury back in Week 12. Part of the reason for him struggling so much comes as a result of a vulnerable offensive line to go along with some poor play at the receiving position. Hasselbeck was sacked 34 times this season in just 12 games, compared to only 24 times last season in 16 games.
Note: The Cowboys have a very nice one-two punch at the running back position, but it has also created some problems in the team's offensive gameplan. Jones is the team's starting running back, but he only averaged about 11 carries per game over the team's final six games. Barber didn't get too many carries over that same span of time, either. I think the Cowboys lost a little bit of their sense of reality when Romo got hot during the team's four-game winning streak, because the running game wasn't being worked into their gameplan effectively enough. Dallas needs to give Jones 20 carries and Barber around 10 touches if they want a shot at beating the Seahawks.
Note: Like Seattle, the Seahawks' running backs have both received plenty of action this season. However, unlike the Cowboys, the Seahawks are all about sticking with Shaun Alexander. Maurice Morris has rarely touched the ball since Alexander returned from injury. Alexander has found it a little more difficult to run this season, only averaging 3.6 yards a pop. It is worth noting that that number is actually deflated due to three less than stellar games before his injury, as he has run the football fairly well since coming back. Alexander should get up around 30 carries against Dallas' now vulnerable defense.
Note: This is the area in which the Cowboys clearly have the Seahawks beat on paper. Although Owens has had a ridiculous amount of drops this season, if he is on the top of his game from the get go, it'll be extremely tough to deny the Cowboys a victory. Terry Glenn or Jason Witten need to establish themselves as threats a little more down near the red zone. Although that is primarily Marion Barber's zone for touchdowns, Glenn did not sniff the end zone over his past five games, and Witten was only there once all season. Crayton is a receiver in the slot who has been able to make a lot of plays for Dallas, and as a unit, the Cowboys have made more plays than Seattle's receivers.
Note: With the amount of drops the Seahawks have faced this season, it brings back memories of two and three years ago when it was the biggest fault of the team. While Jackson has been the primary go-to-guy for Hasselbeck again, they've had trouble finding a substantial No. 2. Nate Burleson has been almost non-existent in the offense, Branch has had too many drops since coming over from New England, and Hackett is starting to shine. An underrated boost for the Seahawks offense is the fact that the tight end Stevens has gotten more involved lately after missing the first half of the season. Seattle's receiving group had a ton of promise before the year started, but overall, they have delivered as the team had hoped.
Note: Dallas' defense has the potential to be extremely dangerous, but everyone knows that the amount of points they've allowed down the stretch is alarming. Giving up 42, 28, 23, and finally 39 points in the final four games is something that would be expected more so out of a team like Indianapolis. The good news for Dallas is that they still have plenty of playmakers, all of which can make up for a couple of rough weeks to close the season. Roy Williams, Anthony Henry, and Terence Newman should create some problems for Hasselbeck if his receivers continue to drop the ball. DeMarcus Ware has reached the quarterback often this year, and that isn't a good sign for the Seahawks. Even if Ware's presence doesn't result in a sack, Hasselbeck likes to take chances. If Ware hits him when he takes that chance, it could be a pick six for Dallas.
Note: The Seahawks defense has had its ups and downs this season, but there's no better way to describe them than "average". This clearly isn't the same Seahawks defense from a season ago, which shows in the fact that they are averaging less than an interception per game. If there is one player that the team hasn't minded the addition of this season though, it's linebacker Julian Peterson. Peterson has been a nice compliment to second-year man Lofa Tatupu. The Seahawks have plenty of other players capable of playing fine on defense, but besides those two men, it's hard to find a real "playmaker". If the Seahawks defense can't get Romo out of rhythm early, they'll be in trouble.
Martin Gramatica: 6-of-8 in field goals, with a long of 48 yards.
Note: The Cowboys are obviously more comfortable with Gramatica than they were Vanderjagt. With that said, Gramatica still hasn't had a lot of work this season. He's not been known from being the greatest kicker from beyond 40 yards in his career, and playing on the road won't help matters. With that said, Bill Parcells still has what he didn't have with Vanderjagt: faith in his kicking game. When it comes down to crunch time, that may be enough to allow the Cowboys to prevail.
Nate Burleson: 24.7 yards per kick return, 9.5 yards per punt return, 1 touchdown. Josh Brown: 25-of-31 in field goals, with a long of 54 yards.
Note: Burleson has been more of a factor in the return game than as a receiver, but the real story here is the play of Josh Brown. Brown has been a perfect 12-of-12 in the fourth quarter this season, and has come through with several clutch kicks for the Seahawks. If the game comes down to it, I'd have more faith in Brown than I would Gramatica.
When the Cowboys first made the switch to Tony Romo earlier this season, I was hesitant regarding the decision. Bledsoe was a veteran and had his "statue-like" problems, but I thought that the team would take awhile to get started under Romo and end up just barely missing the playoffs in what is a tough division to play in. Instead, Romo came in and performed well almost immediately, and even drew a Pro Bowl nomination. Things haven't been so bright in recent weeks though, but is the problem really Romo? When he floats it up into double coverage when the receiver is not in the area, then yes, it is. But the Cowboys haven't been losing because of Romo.
On offense, the Cowboys need to establish an identity and make sure their players know before the game what will be going on. Too many times late in the season, I've watched Dallas games and wondered "Why isn't Owens getting the ball in this situation", "Why isn't Terry Glenn getting more looks on the slant pattern?" or "Why did the Cowboys suddenly abandoned the running game?" The Cowboys offense works perfectly when Jones gets enough carries, and then Barber does his job on third down or near the goal line. Once that is established, then Romo will have more opportunities to get the ball to his receivers down the field.
Dallas' defense has cost them down the stretch, and that's part of the reason I think that their offense has been in disarray. Before Dallas' slide, people were talking Super Bowl because they had enough of the defensive ingredient required to reach the Super Bowl. They still have the players, but now they need put everything together. They'll be happy to see a struggling Seattle offense, but I'm sure that's the same thing they thought against the Lions last week.
We know Matt Hasselbeck has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFC over the past several years, but since his injury, he has made some throws that make you wonder what in the world he is trying to do. Part of that may be the fact that he's trying to force the ball to his receivers a little too much, seeing as they haven't been able to catch the easy ones. Hasselbeck may be inclined to go to Darrell Jackson often, but he can't lose faith in his other receivers. The Seahawks have no shot at winning if the receivers continue making the big drops, but they also have no shot at winning if they don't at least spread the field and let it fly.
Shaun Alexander has had enough weeks to get himself back into game form. He may not be able to run for 150 yards against a tough defense like he would a year ago, but Seattle's offensive gameplan never seems to abandoned the run. That's a very wise thing for Seattle to do, because although he's started off slow in several games this season, he ends up breaking a big one later on while wearing out the defense at the same time.
If the Seahawks have one strength this season on defense, it's the fact that numerous guys can get to the quarterback. Although Julian Peterson leads the team in sacks, Seattle has multiple defenders with three or four sacks on the season. Although I've mentioned the fact that Dallas has had their offensive troubles, it won't be easy for Seattle to stop Romo and the Cowboys from putting points on the board, even if they did force turnovers. Owens will get his way in the playoffs against a mediocre Seahawks secondary.
AFC Wildcard Prediction
Winner - Seattle Seahawks
This is honestly the toughest game in the Wild Card Playoffs for me to decide on, but I have to go with Seattle. Dallas has certainly been a team getting a lot of recognition this season, but you can't count of the fact that Seattle has been flying under the radar. The Seahawks finished with a .500 record, but when you consider the amount of injuries they had to deal with all season long and the fact that not many Super Bowl teams even make the playoffs the next season, they haven't done too bad. I envision this being a very tight game, with the Seahawks playing as tough as they did in a losing effort to the San Diego Chargers back in Week 16. I don't expect a letdown from either team, with the exception of the Cowboys being eliminated from the playoffs despite a well-played game on the road. Final Score: Seahawks 28, Cowboys 25.