It's 'showtime' for Redskins, Cowboys

Updated: November 1, 2003, 3:04 PM ET

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins are once again meeting with a lot on the line.

OK, so it's not a heavyweight battle from the days of coaches Tom Landry and George Allen, or Jimmy Johnson and Joe Gibbs, the kind that often meant first place in the NFC East or home-field advantage in the playoffs.

But it is a crucial midseason game for both, one that could be a defining moment for the regimes of Bill Parcells and Steve Spurrier. Fox thought enough of the matchup to move kickoff back from noon CST to 3:15 p.m.

Parcells' Cowboys are 5-2 and first in the NFC East, a surprisingly strong debut. Yet they're coming off a 16-0 loss at Tampa Bay in which the offense couldn't run or throw, ending a five-game winning streak so resoundingly that it raised questions about weaknesses being exposed.

"We lost the first game, then ran off five. We lost another game, hopefully we'll win five more," running back Troy Hambrick said. "That's the attitude we've got around here and we're going to try to keep it."

It won't be easy as Dallas is going into the teeth of its schedule: five games in 25 days; four are against teams with winning records, two of those division leaders.

Washington (3-4) is the only team Dallas plays that has a losing record until ... Washington again, on Dec. 14.

"It's showtime," Parcells said. "Either you've got it or you don't have it. And when this month is over, I'll know a lot more about the Dallas Cowboys, the people on the Dallas Cowboys and where the future will be for some of those people."

Such a statement is a major change for Parcells, who has talked ever since he arrived about week-by-week improvement. The adjustment is because of how much Dallas has improved. Its next victory will top the win total for each of the past three seasons.

"We're a first-place team now," Parcells said. "We have an opportunity to do some things here that maybe going into the season not that many people, maybe including the players, thought we had a chance to do. ...

"They're at a time, too, with their team where they got to find where they're going."

Washington has lost three straight and four of five, and is going into a rough stretch. After Dallas comes Seattle (5-2), Carolina (6-1) and Miami (5-2).

The Redskins are at least coming off a bye week. They needed the down time to heal injuries to their best offensive players, and to collect themselves after weeks of questions about Spurrier's leadership and whether players have quit on him.

Owner Dan Snyder has added to the distractions by seeking advice from Joe Bugel and Foge Fazio and having Spurrier to his house to eat dinner and discuss strategy.

The on-field problems are basic: second-year quarterback Patrick Ramsey is getting sacked a lot and Washington is in big trouble if he goes down as none of his backups have ever thrown a pass in the NFL. Penalties are a problem, too. The Redskins are tied for the most flags and the most yards.

"If we're good enough to win games, we'll find out, but the way we've played, we've not given ourselves a good chance the last couple of weeks," Spurrier said. "If we can go play our best this week against the Cowboys, we've got a chance to turn things around."

Few things could boost Spurrier's stock, at least with Snyder and longtime fans, as much as a victory over the archrival Cowboys and their hotshot new coach.

Parcells, after all, has been viewed as an enemy since he coached the New York Giants from 1983-90. An indication of how tense things were: Parcells' teams won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990; the Skins won the following season both times.

Washington and Dallas haven't been at that level lately, with only one winning season between them since 1999. The Cowboys were worse, but somehow managed to beat the Redskins 10 straight times -- the most by either team in series history -- until Spurrier broke through in last season's finale. He presented Snyder the game ball, fulfilling a pledge from the day he was hired.

"It hasn't been a rivalry until we renewed it last year," Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "We've got to try to continue to make it a rivalry. In a rivalry, there are wins and losses, not just wins for one side all the time."

The game also could feature a return for two players who've been out of action for a long time.

Dallas this week added Adrian Murrell to try putting a twist into one of the league's least-efficient running games. While the Cowboys are 11th in yards, they've needed the second-most carries to do it.

Whether he plays, and how much, depends partly on fullback Richie Anderson, who has shoulder and back problems. On Thursday, Parcells called Anderson "highly questionable." The 33-year-old Murrell hasn't played a regular-season game since 2000, when he was a backup on the Redskins.

Washington's reclamation project is defensive tackle Darrell Russell, out for 1{ years for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Spurrier hopes the 1998 and '99 Pro Bowler can upgrade a defensive line that has struggled stopping runners or pressuring passers.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index