- Guard Kory Lichtensteiger and tackle Trent Williams have to have a solid game protecting Donovan McNabb's blind side. (Photo: Associated Press)
Update 12:24 -- Now that Donovan McNabb has been benched in favor of Rex Grossman, the line has been moved to seven points. And I'll change my original prediction of Dallas 24-17 to Cowboys 28, Redskins 13.
Published 8:41 a.m. -- Back at the start of the season, few -- if anybody -- would’ve expected that this matchup between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys to have so little riding on it. The Cowboys had Super Bowl aspirations, and the Redskins thought that they’d be in the playoff hunt under the direction of Mike Shanahan.
Instead, these two teams are fighting to avoid the NFC East basement.
How do they stack up against one another? Washington owns a 5-8 record while Dallas is 4-9. The Redskins own a 2-2 record in the division while Dallas is 1-3. The Redskins are 3-3 on the road, and the Cowboys are 1-6 at home. The Cowboys can score, averaging 24.7 points a game while Washington musters only 18.3 points an outing. But the Cowboys can't stop anyone, giving up an average of 28.2 points a game. Washington's defense can't either, though, and gives up 23.8 points an outing.
This no longer is an all-out rivalry -- and some would say it's not a rivalry at all -- but the games usually are pretty compelling. The odds makers seem to think that won’t be the case this time, and have picked the Cowboys as a six-point favorite. We’ll see.
Here are the key matchups for this game.
LT TRENT WILLIAMS vs. LB DEMARCUS WARE
Williams kicked off his career with the task of fending off Ware and did quite well. From there, he has faced a long list of Pro Bowl caliber pass-rushers, forcing him to grow up quickly. Williams need to have another strong outing against Ware. The linebacker has 9.5 sacks this season and will do his best to get to Donovan McNabb on his blind side. But if he doesn't have much luck against Williams, don't be surprised to see him switch to the other side of the line and go after right tackle Jammal Brown.
LB BRIAN ORAKPO vs. LT DOUG FREE
The Cowboys were without Free the last time around, and Alex Barron struggled mightily against Orakpo. His hold at the end of the game kept Orakpo from sacking Tony Romo, but it also negated what would’ve been a game-winning touchdown pass. The Cowboys will see if Free can do any better against Orakpo, who has 8.5 sacks on the season despite frequent holds and double-teams. John Kitna isn’t as talented as Tony Romo, but if he has time, he can be productive. Orakpo needs to get to him often to disrupt the Cowboys’ plans on offense.
RB RYAN TORAIN vs. LB BRADIE JAMES
Torain had a career game last week, rushing for 172 yards (all but 24 of them coming in the first half) against Tampa Bay. Can Torain have another monster game in his second game back from injury? James will be keying on Torain, trying to keep him in check. Even if Torain isn’t as dominant as he was last week, the Redskins need a steady dose of the second-year back -- in both halves -- to ensure balance on offense and to help set up the passing game.
LBs LONDON FLETCHER/ROCKY MCINTOSH vs. TE JASON WITTEN
The Redskins have frequently used Fletcher and McIntosh in pass coverage on tight ends, and the two will have their hands full this week. Fletcher has done well in coverage, but McIntosh has had his struggles. Like last week, he can stay with his men, but has trouble judging the ball in the air and gets turned around. Lorenzo Alexander also could draw the assignment of trying to limit Dallas’ second-leading receiver, and safety Kareem Moore will likely have to help as well.
CB DEANGELO HALL vs. WR MILES AUSTIN
Austin this season is averaging 14.2 yards a catch and has five touchdowns. He seemingly always has good games against the Redskins. Last time out he had 10 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown, which is his second-most productive outing of the year. Hall needs to hold Austin in check, and that likely will require help from safeties Moore and Reed Doughty. Hall this season boasts eight turnovers (six interceptions and two forced fumbles). The Redskins can benefit greatly from another Hall turnover or two this week.
> GET PLAYMAKERS INVOLVED -- The Redskins haven’t been able to consistently get Chris Cooley and Santana Moss involved at the same time this season. They either go to one and seemingly forget the other, or, both will get open, but Washington fails to capitalize as McNabb either overthrows or underthrows one of his top targets. For Washington’s offense to have a chance, they need both weapons.
> GET ORAKPO HELP -- Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was asked what Brian Orakpo can do to remain productive despite the repeated holds and double-teams, and Haslett replied, “Get some pressure on the other end,” meaning linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Andre Carter need to do a better job of providing some pressure. Defensive linemen Vonnie Holliday and Jeremy Jarmon also need to get into the backfield on Nickel packages.
> EXECUTE ON SPECIAL TEAMS -- Special teams play was what did the Redskins in last week. Had Graham Gano been able to make two field goals, Washington would’ve needed to only make a field goal at the end of the game to seal the win against Tampa Bay. Or, the touchdown pass to Santana Moss would’ve won the game and an extra point wouldn’t have even been needed. Teams are kicking away from Brandon Banks and instead to Chris Wilson and Mike Sellers. Those two need to be sure-handed and worry more about securing the ball than getting in a return.
There’s no reason to feel good about the Redskins’ chances. They still haven’t been able to consistently execute in any facet of the game. They show flashes, then take steps backward. And there is always some off-field drama, wearing down the mental state of this team. As if the always-distracted Redskins needed another twist, they haven’t been able to practice fully this week. Mike Shanahan -- trying to find some type of positive -- is hoping that means they come out fresher. We’ll see. The Redskins are on a three-game losing streak while Dallas is 3-2 in their last five. The thing Dallas can do is score, and Washington cannot. My pick: Dallas 24, Washington 17.