FRISCO, Texas – It's a shirt and hat game.
Go up to Indianapolis and get the job done, and you're in the playoffs as the NFC East champions. It's that simple.
Unfortunately, what won't be simple is this streaking Colts team, which is almost as hot as the Cowboys with six wins in the last seven games. The Colts are fighting for their playoff lives, as they are tied with the Baltimore Ravens, the Tennessee Titans and the Miami Dolphins in the fight for the AFC's No. 6 seed.
This likely won't be an easy game, and it won't get any easier with the injury issues the Cowboys are currently facing.
So let's dive into it and figure out what we're looking at as the Cowboys try to finalize their playoff berth.
· I'm hearing some positive things about Sean Lee and his return. Lee has been diligently working with Britt Brown, the Cowboys' associate athletic trainer and director of rehabilitation, these past several weeks just for this opportunity. With Lee now available, I expect we will still see Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith as the starters, with Lee filling in as need be. As in the past, look for the medical staff to monitor the Lee situation as the game wears on in order to get the most out of him. Something else of note here is that Lee understands what Vander Esch and Smith have done in his absence. He's not interested in coming and disrupting what those two have accomplished to this point.
· Zack Martin missed all three practices this week, and the Cowboys have ruled him out of Sunday's game. That means he'll miss his homecoming to Indianapolis. Martin has been playing with a warrior mentality, but I've been told by several staff members that he surely could use a weekend off to rest his knee. In Martin's place, rookie Connor Williams has been taking those snaps in preparation for the start. Williams was the starter at left guard until he injured his own knee six weeks ago. I've been told that Williams has been practicing well working with La'el Collins on that right side. Both Williams and Xavier Su'a-Filo will have their hands full against Margus Hunt and Denico Autry, who have been very productive playing at the defensive tackle spots.
· I will have Tavon Austin on my final weekly inactive list for this game. Like Sean Lee, I was hearing a lot of positive news about the way Austin looked in practice and how well he was recovering from a significant groin injury. Austin played the role of T.Y. Hilton on the scout team and gave the defense an outstanding picture of the speed and quickness which these Cowboys defensive backs are going to have to deal with when facing Hilton. Look for Austin to be back next week against Tampa Bay, filling in potentially as your primary punt returner and maybe a snap or two at running back in certain situations.
· I have a feeling this is going to be an important game for Anthony Brown. If there is one cornerback in this secondary that could potentially handle the speed and quickness of T.Y. Hilton it would be Brown. Hilton will line up all over the formation so all the Cowboys defenders will get a shot to cover him -- but if you just wanted to put your best corner on Hilton to try and match his physical ability, Brown would be that man for me. Hilton not only works underneath, but he can also stretch the field -- which makes him even more dangerous. Brown has better start-stop quickness than Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones and Jourdan Lewis, plus he has the deep speed to go with Holton. That is what you have to have to cover him.
· Colts rookie Braden Smith has done an exceptional job at the right tackle spot, so DeMarcus Lawrence should see a good battle. If I am the Cowboys, the spot I would attack is on the opposite side with Anthony Castonzo. The Colts as a unit don't give up many sacks or pressures, but if they have a blocker that has had some problems with balance it has been Castonzo. I am not sure how much we will see Lawrence taking a snap or two over there, but this could be a great opportunity for an improving Randy Gregory to put bring pressure from that side. I do like what I have seen from Gregory and his pass rushing technique during this winning streak.
· The Cowboys have done a nice job defensively these last few weeks dealing with big-time tight ends. They have to do it again this week, as they'll see Eric Ebron. What is interesting is that it took a move to Indianapolis for Ebron to play the way the Detroit Lions envisioned he would when they drafted him. I expect we'll see the Cowboys handle him the way we have when dealing with these pass-catching tight ends. Jeff Heath will have the primary responsibility, but also look for assistance from the linebackers, as well. Where Ebron is especially dangerous is in the red zone. He has a tremendous feel for not only how to use his body to position up, but also smart enough to find space to operate, as well. Heath will need to be physical in that small area not to let Andrew Luck use him as a target.
· I noticed in my film study of the Colts defense was the problems they had when opponents ran the ball on the edge against them. Look for the Cowboys to see if they can take advantage of some of the struggles the Colts have had when attempting to secure the outside. The Cowboys offensively are big on counters and sweeps when attacking the edge. Their ability to pull their offensive linemen makes it rough on opponents to handle those big bodies in space. Matt Eberflus knows that Scott Linehan wants to call a balanced game, but if he has success running the ball -- especially on the outside -- it's going to force his defense to have to stretch. If Linehan can get them to have to defend that way, then it opens up the opportunities to attack inside with the run or with the boot/waggle passing game.
· My weekly guess at the Cowboys inactives: QB Mike White, WR Tavon Austin, LB Chris Covington, OG Zack Martin, TE Geoff Swaim, DT David Irving, DE Taco Charlton.