*WHAT: Dallas Cowboys (7-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9)
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 17, 7:20 p.m. (CT)
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TELEVISION: NFL Network and KDAF The 33 in Dallas/Fort Worth (Brad Nessler, Mike Mayock and Alex Flanagan)
Josh: How about the matchup between Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman and Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan? Freeman has thrown 18 interceptions on the year, which plays right into Ryan's game, as he loves to disguise pressure packages and coverages to force quarterbacks into mistakes. Or, Freeman could avoid those mistakes and shred the Cowboys secondary similar to these other passers of late. It could go either way.
Nick: The Cowboys have a habit of letting No. 2 receivers go off for big plays here lately. Guys like Jabar Gafney, Brian Hartline, Andre Roberts and Victor Cruz have been a problem in the last month or so. that's why the match-up between Terence Newman and Bucs wide reciever Arrelious Benn is worth watching. Benn leads Tampa Bay with a 15.2 yard average per catch and if the Buccaneers are going to stay in the game, they'll need plenty of big plays.
Rob: Assuming he's ready to go, DeMarcus Ware (neck) is facing one of the league's better left tackles in Tampa Bay's Donald Penn. Penn struggled in last week's 41-14 loss to Jacksonville, allowing a sack that led to a fumble return for a touchdown. The Cowboys are monitoring Ware's workload, and he needs help with the pass rush anyway, so watch Anthony Spencer on right tackle Jeremy Trueblood when they're matched up together.
- Don't Forget ...
Rob: Fumbles have been a problem for Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount. Four of his nine career fumbles (losing three) have come in the last three games. Blount is an effective rusher when he holds onto the ball; he's averaging 4.4 yards per carry (737 total) with five touchdowns.
Josh: Just because the Buccaneers have lost seven games in a row doesn't mean they're Glass Joe. Remember, the Giants had lost four in a row and came into Arlington and shocked the Cowboys at the end. These Buccaneers are playing at home on national television, and reportedly are playing for the job of their very popular head coach. Don't take the losing streak as a guarantee for a Cowboys victory on Saturday. Remember, the Cowboys have lost two in a row themselves, and were very lucky to win the two weeks before that.
Nick: The team that nearly signed LT Doug Free just before the start of camp was Tampa Bay, which offered Free considerably more than the $8 million per year contract he received in Dallas. Free will be looking to play well, especially against pass-rusher Adrian Clayborn, who leads Tampa in both sacks (6.5) and quarterback pressures (24).
- Cowboys Win If...
Nick: If they cut out the funny business, meaning flukey turnovers and big plays on special teams, the Cowboys should win this game by two touchdowns. They should, at least. Then again, this team has had a problem of playing to the level of their competition. But if the Cowboys do what they do – stretch the field vertically, be aggressive on defense and play solid on special teams, it shouldn't be close.
Rob: The Cowboys have shown they can move the ball week to week, and Tampa Bay is allowing the fourth-most yards per game (388.5). Everyone says the offense will rely solely on Tony Romo's arm without DeMarco Murray, but Felix Jones must provide some sort of balance. I think he can, particularly with Tony Fiammetta blocking up front. Romo also has been sacked 13 times in the last four games. Way too many.
Josh: They've got to avoid turnovers and clean up the problems in the secondary. Freeman isn't having his best season, but the Cowboys have made a lot of quarterbacks look good here lately. He may not have a huge day, but a fumble here or a tipped-ball interception there for the Cowboys' offense could make this game a lot closer than most people are expecting.
- Bucs Win If...
Josh: Tampa does have some offensive weapons who can play. Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow are legitimate threats for the Cowboys' secondary, and if one or both has a huge day, there's no reason to think the Buccaneers can't simply outscore the Cowboys with a few stops here and there by their defense. If LeGarrette Blount gets rolling at the same clip Brandon Jacobs did last week, look out.
Nick: The Bucs have lost seven straight games and with the world watching and the head coach reportedly under fire, they'll pull out all the stops. Trick plays, gadget plays, you name it and the Cowboys will probably see it. If Tampa can connect early on these big plays to give their players some hope and the fans a legitimate chance to get into the game, then it could be a long day for the Cowboys. And if it gets to the fourth quarter, we've seen too many times what can happen there.
Rob: Tampa Bay will have a chance if they eliminate turnovers. Seven against Jacksonville? Even a losing Jaguars team capitalized and won by 27 points. Quarterback Josh Freeman has faced far too much pressure lately, but if the Bucs can counteract the Cowboys' rush they might have some opportunities downfield. The Cowboys absolutely must remain assignment sharp on defense. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is taking blame for any communication problems.
- Gut Feeling
Rob: Beware another primetime road game against a struggling opponent (see: Eagles). The Cowboys are like Notre Dame; whether they're rolling or struggling, they'll get everyone's best shot. Maybe the Bucs are due after seven straight losses, but they haven't been playing well in any area. The Cowboys should win a pretty competitive game and maybe regain the NFC East lead if Washington can knock off the Giants.
Josh: You would like to think the back-to-back losses to the Cardinals and Giants would shock the Cowboys back to life, especially the way they let the Giants game slip away, but I don't believe they're good enough to simply flip a switch and dominate just because they want to in any given week. Something about the rainy weather the Cowboys practiced in on Wednesday and Thursday makes me think the team will be kind of sloppy in this one. If their focus was slipping during the week of practice, and Tampa comes out with a lot of pride, the Cowboys could have a real battle on their hands. I think they'll win it, but I imagine it won't be pretty.
Nick: This shouldn't be close, but that doesn't mean it won't be. The Cowboys are just better. Maybe not a lot better, but enough to put this team away early. I know the Cowboys haven't been that step-on-the-throat team all year, especially on the road. I think it changes this week and the Cowboys expose the Bucs' secondary with the big play. I see Dallas scoring a lot and don't think the Bucs will be able to score enough to keep up.