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Spagnola: Must get on edge to create separation


FRISCO, Texas – These two teams are mirror images of each other. Facsimiles.

Cowboys 10-4. Dolphins 10-4.

Cowboys in first place in the NFC East. Dolphins in first place in the AFC East.

Cowboys, if taking care of themselves, need to win out to have a chance of beating out the Eagles for the division title and preventing them from becoming the first team to repeat as East champs since they did so from 2001-04. Dolphins knowing winning out would keep the Bills off their tails for their first division title since 2008, the Patriots winning the title the next 11 years after that and the Bills the past three.

The Cowboys struggling away from home, losing their four games this year all on the road. The Dolphins not much better, three of their four losses occurring on the road.

The Cowboys the No. 2 scoring team in the NFL, averaging 30.8 points a game. The Dolphins the No. 1 scoring team, averaging 31.5 points a game, with the help of that 70-point effort against Denver the third game of the season.

Want me to continue?

The Cowboys the No. 6 total offense in the NFL and No. 6 passing offense. The Dolphins the No. 1 total offense and the No. 1 passing offense, against thanks to the 726-yards of total offense against Denver.

The Cowboys the No. 6 NFL team in total defense. The Dolphins No. 5.

The Cowboys No. 2 in point differential, at plus-167, having scored 431. The Dolphins No. 4 at plus-147, having scored 441 points and beating Denver by the inordinate amount of 50.

The Cowboys, by the way, with 40 quarterback sacks, ranking tied for 10th. The Dolphins No. 2 with 48.

See what I'm talking about?

So all this week the talk around here has been all the Cowboys have to worry about when facing these Dolphins on Christmas Eve, 3:25 p.m. at Hard Rock Stadium, from inconsequential to me playing on grass – hey, the Cowboys practice almost every day on grass – to having to face Vic Fangio's defense – what, the Dolphins aren't worried about Dan Quinn's defense? – to dealing with Mike McDaniel's offensive scheme – as if suddenly what Mike McCarthy is doing calling plays this year hasn't been a factor in these 10 wins.

This game might be the very definition of "even-steven."

"We know this is going to be a dogfight, a close game," Cowboys running back Tony Pollard said. "We're ready for it."

Said CeeDee Lamb, "This is a test for us."

Talk on the Miami Herald Dolphins podcast pointed out, "This is going to be a tremendously interesting game."

Or as McDaniel said, "We're going to get their best shot."

You bet. And the parallels continue.

Talk here surrounds the speed and talent and threat of the Dolphins' roadrunner of a wide receiver Tyreek Hill. My gosh, how will the Cowboys cover this guy terrorizing NFL defenses, having caught 97 balls for 1,542 yards and 12 touchdowns and appears headed the right way after missing this past game with an ankle injury. And then there is Jaylen Waddle, too. No slouch. No tugboat.

"We got to get to them," Micah Parsons said, "before they get to their speed."

OK, fine. But don't the Dolphins have to worry about Lamb? In fact, CeeDee has more receptions than Hill, his 103 second in the NFL to just Chargers Keenan Allen's 108. And he does have 1,306 yards receiving, third in the NFL behind Hill and just eight yards behind A.J. Brown.

Then there is outside linebacker Bradley Chubb's team-leading 9.5 sacks, named this week's Defensive Player of the Week. Well, don't the Dolphins have to worry about Parsons, tied for second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks.

There has been a lot of Tua talk, too, Tagovailoa's steady improvement this year elevating the Miami quarterback into MVP status with his 106.0 QB rating, No. 2 in the NFL thanks to 25 touchdowns and averaging 8.56 yards per attempt. Well, what about Dak Prescott? He's right behind Tua with a 104.0 rating and has thrown for more touchdowns at 28, second in the NFL to only Brock Purdy's 29.

There also has been a lot of Jalen Ramsey talk, the Dolphins' veteran corner who has been known to shadow top receivers, especially lately with Miami's other starting corner, Xavien Howard, having missed last week's game and still on the injury report with a hip injury. Going to be Ramsey vs. Lamb.

Fangio said this potential matchup will be "worth watching – two really good players. Jalen is one of the top corners in the league. Wish I had popcorn and was sitting home and watching it."

Well, not sure how the Cowboys will match up defensively, but the Dolphins must have some concern throwing DaRon Bland's way, too, only the NFL's leader with eight interceptions, three more than anyone else. Plus, if not Bland, then veteran Stephon Gilmore also has been noted to follow top receivers, see the likes of DK Metcalf, Brown and even Stephon Diggs this past Sunday.

But if we are to find one huge disparity between these two teams, we need only turn to the run game: The Dolphins' fourth-ranked running attack vs. the Cowboys' 19th-ranked defense that was shredded this past Sunday by Buffalo for 266 yards, mostly thanks to James Cook going for 179, a touchdown, and maybe most troubling, 7.2 yards a carry.

Now, the Cowboys running attack has been, well, OK, averaging 116.5 yards a game. Pollard is closing in on a 1,000-yard season, something he said he wasn't not aware of, having 848 yards and five rushing touchdowns.

But as far as Miami, and this was somewhat shocking to me, Raheem Mostert has rushed for 966 yards with an impressive 4.9 yards a carry. The guy has rushed for 18 touchdowns, 18 now, already breaking Ricky Williams' previous team record.

Why, that's five more than the Cowboys have rushed for … as a team. And only four TEAMS have rushed for more touchdowns so far this season. And when adding in De'Von Achane's seven rushing touchdowns and his bloated 8.5 yards a carry, well, the Cowboys best not come out of this game with the season-high 17 missed tackles. They better not get run over as they did with Arizona rushing for 222 yards in that road loss or San Francisco going for 170 in that road loss.

And on top of all that, the Cowboys will be without their running-game anchor, defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, at least one more week with that high ankle sprain.

McCarthy knows that as concerning as Hill, Waddle and Tua are, this Miami running attack likely has him sleepless in Frisco.

"They are going to run the ball," McCarthy assured. "I'm just trying to think back through the years. I don't think I have seen a team get the ball on the edge as much as they do. I think their ability to attack the C-gap and wider is extensive."

And that would be the biggest "oh, no" concern for the Cowboys in this game. See Buffalo. See how the Bills ripped a Dallas defense at times far too conscious of chasing quarterbacks by running off the edges. The defensive ends must make a point of setting the edge, trying to turn everything back inside.

The Cowboys defense must come to South Florida with their big-boy pants on, no beach shorts allowed. Maybe even by employing an extra linebacker at times instead of playing their big nickel that includes three safeties, or even four if we count Markquese Bell playing linebacker in the absence of Leighton Vander Esch (IR).

"We've got to come off the snap flying," Parsons said of facing the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing offense (139.6 a game). "This week the emphasis is setting the edge."

Darn well better be. Otherwise, this team averaging nearly 31 points a game might need to hit 40 to win this one. And realize the Cowboys haven't done that on the road since the season-opening 40 against the Giants. In fact, the 33 scored at Carolina is the most scored over their other six road games, averaging just 16 points a game and coming off those humble 10 against Buffalo. Why, three times the Cowboys have scored no more than the 16 points on the road than they did losing at Arizona (28-16).

No wonder Dak came out saying this week about the need for an otherwise potent offense to shift into high gear, knowing just because the defense gave up 31 at Buffalo is no excuse for the offense sputtering around with just 10 points, seven of those in garbage time:

"It's important, understanding how explosive they are, all the speed they got on that side of the ball. It's important our offense is flying and comes out hot."

Likely red hot to create a difference in what could be a division race-deciding game. That is, of course, for both teams.

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