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Spagnola: Hawks To Test Cowboys' Goodness

16 May 2018:   Views
during the Dallas Cowboys at the Reliant Home Run Derby charity competition at the Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas.  Photo by James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys
16 May 2018: Views during the Dallas Cowboys at the Reliant Home Run Derby charity competition at the Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas. Photo by James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

IRVING, Texas – A lot of noise.

         Noise about how noisy it is at CenturyLink Field, where the hometown Seattle Seahawks have won 17 of their last 18 games.

         Noise about that 12th Man of theirs, how they find a former player to raise the flag that detonates the crowd, and there is a strong hint The 12th will be Jordan Babineaux this time, just another little tweak of the Cowboys' nose since he's the guy who took down Tony Romo on the infamous bobbled snap in the final minute of that 2006 season playoff game the Hawks won, 21-20.

         Noise about the 3-1 defending Super Bowl champs taking on the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys, 3:25 p.m. (CDT) Sunday, downtown Seattle.

         Noise about the Cowboys parlaying this four-game winning streak into their best season-opening record since the start of the 2008 season, unofficial national rankings having them as high as the sixth-best team in the NFL, while a local ranking has them fourth. But most importantly, they currently are tied for first in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, the only ranking that counts.

         Noise about the Legion of Boom defense up there, currently the No. 5 defense in the National Football League (No. 1 against the run) colliding with the league's No. 1 rusher, the Cowboys DeMarco Murray, who is trying to match Jim Brown's best start to a season for any running back in league history with his sixth consecutive 100-yard game.

         Noise about what could be a titanic collision between Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, some considering him the best in the NFL, and Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, some considering him on his way to becoming the best receiver in the NFL.

         Noise about the last time the two teams hooked up at The Link, a 27-7 knockout of the Cowboys when they began the game fumbling away the opening kickoff, going three-and-out on the next possession, leading to a blocked punt Seattle recovered for a touchdown, and getting intercepted on the very next possession, giving the Hawks a 10-0 lead before five minutes were gone. In a game that despite all that, the Cowboys hung in for a half, trailing just 13-7 at intermission. But, just a half.

         Why, enough noise out there for FOX to dispatch its No.1 broadcast crew to the scene where eardrums might be in serious jeopardy.

         Instead of a coin toss, you half-expect a weigh-in.


         Now, we shall remind this is only the sixth game of a 16-game season, not even the halfway point. But for the Cowboys, consider this an early mid-term exam after acing the previous pop quiz by summarily dispatching the New Orleans Saints when they came snooping around.

         Of course there are those losing perspective over this Cowboys' 4-1 start, and there are those still a tad skeptical, not quite ready to go all in on a team stuck in 8-8 neutral these past three seasons, although maybe the team's competitive level in this game will impact the number of tickets available to be bought for the following Sunday's game against the New York Giants at The AT&T.

         That's exactly why, as Cowboys offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan says, "It's a great barometer game for us. You're going to be challenged with a championship team. A great test for us, and we're excited about that."

         A test for sure, but not a final exam. Let's remember, of the 53 guys on this roster, 34 didn't have a hand in that traumatic experience up there two years ago. And there are only three of them left from the last playoff horror story up there: Tony Romo, Jason Witten and L.P. Ladouceur, so not a soul on the defense, just two of the 11 starters on offense and one special-teamer. In fact, the only person currently on the coaching staff with the Cowboys from back then is assistant special teams coach Keith O'Quinn, then a first-season pro scout.

         Ignorance could be bliss.

         Does no good to live in the past, and certainly does no good to live in the what-ifs of the future, if you've been paying attention to the day-to-day world of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.

         "This game is about us," Garrett said this week, trying to make sure his very young team doesn't get caught up in the hype of playing the defending Super Bowl champs or playing in that eardrum-busting environment of The Link, where the locals I'm sure are taking it personally that the Kansas City fans recently broke their decibel-level record for a football game. "It's not about them. Every week it's about us. So you don't want to get caught up in things that distract you from being your best."

         Sure would help the Cowboys to be their best if linebackers Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter were available to play on Sunday, not to mention the long-gone Sean Lee and recently gone corner Morris Claiborne. But hey, that's football, and while Carter will not play Sunday, McClain's game-day status is likely to be drawn out until 90 minutes before kickoff. No sense giving the Seahawks an unnecessary early scouting report.

         So if this showdown truly is "about us," then "us" can't be turning the ball over three times – two of those in the red zone – as the Cowboys did this past Sunday against the Texans and still expect to win. If the game indeed is "about us," then "us" can't fall behind 21-0 as the Cowboys did in the first 24 minutes against the St. Louis Rams. And, yes, if this game is "about us," then "us" can't be giving up 10 consecutive points in the final nine minutes of a game you're leading by 10 or allow Marshawn Lynch to average 6.8 yards a carry as "us" allowed Houston and Arian Foster to do last Sunday.

         And when you are going to take a test, sure, everyone knows to bring two No. 2 pencils and that Blue Book for essays. But in this particular one for the Cowboys, consider these two essentials making the pass-fail difference.

         First down.

         Getting Lynched.

         While the Cowboys lead the league in third-down conversions, 55.6 percent, the most important down in this game with be first down. Ask Garrett. Ask Romo. Ask Witten. They know there is no way they can function if they are constantly behind the chains. First down must be AA positive, because the last thing you want is to be second- or third-and-long. Not suggested against this defense. Not when the Hawks can further crowd the line of scrimmage and unabashedly come after Romo.

         Remember, the Cowboys are playing the NFL's No. 5 total defense and No. 1 rushing defense. They must manage down and distance.

         Then there is Lynch. Last time around, he rushed for 122 yards, just pounded away at this Cowboys defense. If he does that again, that makes quarterback Russell Wilson that much more effective, allowing him to do all his razzle-dazzle stuff outside the pocket, which includes running the ball.

         Can they? Not sure, but by the end of the week there seemed a better chance McClain would be able to play in this game, working on a limited basis Friday and his Sunday playing status listed as "questionable" on the official NFL injury report. If McClain does play, that certainly enhances the Cowboys' physical presence absent last time around the two teams met. If so, then it's about the Cowboys' ability to get pressure on Wilson, something that has been lacking since finishing without a sack in two of the pass three games.

         So here we go, one of those special early season matchups, one a big to-do is being made of, Cowboys-Seahawks. We think we know what the Seahawks are because of what they have been. No one really is sure of what the Cowboys are, how good they might be, that clouded by their string of 8-8 finishes in the past.

         "One game isn't going to define your season," Romo cautions, knowing full-well the commotion this game is creating in but Week 6. [embedded_ad]

And maybe he knows a little Cowboys history, going back to that Week 4 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1992, both teams coming into the Monday night game at The Vet 3-0, one being billed as a clash of titans. Well, the Cowboys wilted in the spotlight that night, not quite ready for primetime, getting creamed 31-7 while turning the ball over four times, Troy Aikman getting sacked four times and intercepted three times.

But you know what? After that game the Eagles lost five of their next eight games and the Cowboys went on a five-game winning streak, which included a 20-10 victory over Philadelphia in the rematch four weeks later to help them win the NFC East. And who should the 13-3 Cowboys draw their first-round of the playoffs that season? Yep, the same Philadelphia Eagles, ripping them Iggles apart at Texas Stadium, 34-10, in the NFC Divisional Playoff game, heading off on their merry way to winning Super Bowl XXVII.

Just sayin' the mid-term is not necessarily the final grade, but as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says, if the Cowboys would win, "I think it could really change the psyche of what we're doing here."

In any case, time to get it on.

"This game will be a great test," Romo said, echoing Callahan's point of view, "and we'll see how we stack up. … I'm anxious to see how we do."

So are the rest of us. Time to close them books … and begin.

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