Falcons eye 8-0, Cowboys need a save - NBC Sports

Falcons eye 8-0, Cowboys need a save
Dallas faces a must-win to save its playoff chances, Atlanta tries to stay unbeaten
November 4, 2012, 7:11 pm

We'll find out tonight when the Cowboys play the Falcons in Atlanta for Sunday Night Football (8 p.m. ET on NBC and livestreamed on NBCSports.com).

The Cowboys (3-4) are fighting for their season. Another loss, especially one in the NFC, could spell doom for their playoff chances. They are tied for ninth with four other teams in the conference and trail the Vikings and Packers (5-3) by 1.5 games for the final wild-card spots.

Dallas knows where it is.

"There is a tremendous amount of urgency," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said after Sunday's 29-24 loss to the Giants. "Every game is critical."

Said defensive coordinator Rex Ryan: "We need to win now. We've got to win this week and we know it and we're going to."

The Falcons are the polar opposite as the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team at 7-0.

After squeaking out three victories by a combined 12 points, the Falcons are coming off a dominating 30-17 road victory at Philadelphia and are playing with supreme confidence. Atlanta is fifth in scoring offense (28.7 points per game) and seventh in scoring defense (18.6).

COWBOYS
Get physical with the receivers
In Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and nickel corner Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys possess a trio of terrific and physical cornerbacks that can match up with Falcons receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas.

This is not the Falcons of the past two years that started with the power running of Michael Turner and had quarterback Matt Ryan manage the game. This is a pass-first offense with Ryan an MVP candidate completing 68.7 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns against six interceptions.

If the Cowboys limit the receivers and contain tight end Tony Gonzalez, who leads the team with 46 receptions, they have a good chance.

Take care of the ball
Dallas has been a disaster with a minus-11 turnover ratio, including Tony Romo's 13 interceptions - four in the loss to the Giants. Receiver Dez Bryant is questionable with a hip injury, and it might be OK if he sits out altogether. Several of Romo's interceptions have come off of bad decisions by Bryant, and the Cowboys might be better off with players that actually know what they're doing.

If Bryant does play and finds himself against cornerback Asante Samuel and his extensive coverage cushion, the Cowboys must attack it with short passes to make Samuel do something he'd rather not: tackle.

FALCONS
Take away Jason Witten
Romo targeted the veteran tight end 23 times against the Giants, and Witten had 18 catches for 167 yards. If the Falcons can make Romo look away from his security blanket, they'll be successful defensively.

The Falcons do a good job of defending the tight end (five receptions and 52 yards on average). It starts with outside linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon carrying the tight end up the field with tight coverage. However, Weatherspoon is out this week, so Akeem Dent or Mike Peterson will have to pick up the slack. And safeties William Moore and Thomas Decoud defend over the top very well.

Limit the outside linebackers
The Cowboys have two very good edge rushers in DeMarcus Ware (7.5 sacks) and Anthony Spencer (three). The Falcons are likely to give left tackle Sam Baker some help against Ware with a tight end or a running back chipping out of the backfield.

That will leave right tackle Tyson Clabo in a lot of one-on-one battles against Spencer. If Clabo wins a majority of those, then Ryan should be able to find the time to spot an open target.

Run and then play-action
The Cowboys' defense ranks 28th against the run and is allowing 4.0 yards per attempt. The Falcons haven't run the ball that well, but they should have some opportunities against Dallas, especially with the team down to their third inside linebacker in journeyman Ernie Sims.

Starter Sean Lee is out for the season, and backup Dan Connor will miss the game as well. Sims is small and can be overwhelmed if a lineman can get out on him. If the Falcons can establish the run, that should enable an effective play-action game to Gonzalez over the middle.

Sims. second-year inside linebacker Bruce Carter, strong safety Danny McCray and free safety Gerald Sensabaugh should be ripe for the picking.