Remember that day when the Cowboys went into Three Rivers
Stadium and crushed the Steelers 37-7? Seems like two years ago,
doesn't it? Well, it's only been a month and a half since that
flamboyant showing, and you have to wonder what ever happened to
that Dallas team.
What are its trademarks now, in the wake of the 20-17 loss to a
severely crippled Giants outfit? Long drives that end in field
goals. An offensive line that tires badly at the end of games. A
running attack that lacks punch. Only one receiver, Michael
Irvin, who seems on the same page with the quarterback.
And let's talk about the quarterbacking. In his first two years
in the league Troy Aikman played on bad teams and got
slaughtered every Sunday. Then the Cowboys got good. Norv Turner
arrived to take over the offense, and everything was precise,
everything was in rhythm. People were where they were supposed
to be, and if they weren't, they didn't last long. When things
got tough, there was always a frenzied little runner named
Emmitt Smith to bail out the offense. Aikman got used to this
way of life, but in the last couple of years he's had trouble
adjusting to the downside.
Turner is gone; this week he'll be coaching the Cowboys'
Monday-night opponent, the Redskins. The old Emmitt is gone. Oh,
he'll still get decent yardage, but Dallas can't close out a
game with him anymore. And Aikman is a quarterback who isn't
very good in the Brett Favre improvisational style. He threw two
bad interceptions on Sunday, one of which cost the Cowboys seven
points when he tried to jam the ball into Irvin, who was tightly
bracketed, and the Giants' Tito Wooten ran it back for a score.
But the Cowboys are still 3-2, and if they win in Washington,
they'll move ahead of the Skins for the NFC East lead. The
Redskins, crippled by injuries on the defensive line--and after
Sunday's thrashing in Philadelphia, on the offensive line,
too--certainly look vulnerable. Washington was whipped in every
phase of the game except special teams, but the Eagles never win
that battle. The Redskins were flat. Gus Frerotte was out of
sync with his receivers. The Eagles' pass rush, which hadn't put
pressure on anyone this season, looked ferocious. The Skins made
Eagles defensive tackle Rhett Hall look like another Jerome
Brown. The Washington defense? Don't even ask. Two flawed teams
will be going at it, and I like Washington on emotion and
Turner's ability to find the soft spots in the Dallas defense.
Look for the Cardinals to beat the Giants in the Arizona steam
bath. New York's defense performed heroically against Dallas,
especially when you consider it was on the field for more than
40 minutes, but I think there will be a carryover effect here,
and the Giants will tire in the desert heat.
A Ray Rhodes-coached team can be very good or very bad, and you
never know which one will show up; you have to play psychiatrist
and try to gauge the intensity. I think the Eagles will be on a
downer in Jacksonville. They're usually way up for division
games, especially at home, and way down for AFC games on the
road, losing three of four of them under Rhodes. The only win
came by one point against the Jets last year, and they tried to
lose that one, but the Jets wouldn't let them. Call it
Jacksonville by a touchdown.
The Jets put together a decent first half against winless
Indianapolis on Sunday, then closed up shop and let the Colts
and their backup quarterback, Paul Justin, make a run at them.
Trailing 16-10 in the final minute, the Colts had a
fourth-and-two at the New York 25 and, if they had converted,
could have sent the Jets into the dumper. Won't Bill Parcells
have fun this week reminding his players of the near disaster.
So I think New York will come out smoking against the Dolphins,
and I like the Jets to win it, but I'd feel a lot better about
this pick if I could figure out what's up with wideout Keyshawn
New York's favorite author seems to be regressing, and he is
becoming less and less a part of the offense. He caught one of
the four passes aimed his way on Sunday, for 11 yards, and on
one of those plays he let cornerback Carlton Gray nudge him out
of bounds and intercept the ball, which set up the Colts' only
touchdown. I also noticed Johnson logging more bench time than
is seemly for a man of his self-proclaimed talents. This club
desperately needs a big-play receiver, and so far, this guy
simply hasn't been it. Watch him catch eight passes for 150
yards on Sunday against a team the Jets always seem to play
tough at the Meadowlands.
Down 21-3 to the Packers, the Buccaneers kept their poise,
climbed back into the game and stopped Green Bay on all five of
its second-half possessions. And they rushed for 217 yards in
the game. Look for Tampa Bay to bounce back big at home against
Detroit, especially if the Lions' left offensive tackle, Ray
Roberts (sprained knee), is out. A tackle tandem of Larry Tharpe
and Juan Roque is not an offensive line coach's dream.
Here's a tricky one. Cincinnati can pass but can't stop the run.
Tennessee can run but can't stop the pass. All logic points to
the good running team, especially at home, but this game is just
quirky enough to lead me toward the upset pick, which means
Bengals in a squeaker.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Johnson needs to step up his production for the Jets. [Keyshawn Johnson in game]