- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The Redskins' 26-24 victory over the Cowboys in Week 4 was Jason Campbell's graduation party.
He turned the corner in Week 2 when he hit tight end Chris Cooley with a 23-yard pass after a sack, sparking Washington's comeback victory over the Saints. Redskins players were convinced: Campbell is the real deal. Two weeks later, he was efficient for four quarters in beating the Cowboys at Texas Stadium.
Now Campbell must do it again. The Redskins host the Cowboys on Sunday, one of the Skins' three remaining home games against NFC East foes. If the Redskins win those games, they'll position themselves nicely for a wild card and have an outside chance of catching the Giants for the NFC East lead.
Campbell and the Redskins played that first game against the Cowboys as underdogs. Now they must adjust to being front-runners, and that hasn't been easy for this team. For some unexplained reason, the Redskins lost home games to the Rams and Steelers. Their offense has also been slowed. Over the past four games -- three of them at home -- the Redskins have averaged only 15.5 points a game, which isn't good enough for a team with playoff aspirations.
Of course, those are minor concerns compared to the Cowboys. Since Tony Romo broke his right pinkie a month ago, the Cowboys have looked terrible, losing three of their past four. Brad Johnson looked old as Romo's replacement. The offensive line, which was shaky before Romo was hurt, got worse. Injuries affected a defense that had been struggling for months. The ultimate embarrassment was a 35-14 blowout loss to the New York Giants in Week 9.
Romo will most likely return this weekend, and Dallas is hoping he'll resolve all of its offensive ills. He's supposed to return the offense to its 30-point-a-game level. Without him, the Cowboys averaged less than 14 points. He's supposed to get the running game going again. He's supposed to make the line blocking better. He's supposed to inspire the defense.
At the very least, he should make Terrell Owens happy. During Romo's three-game absence, Owens has had only 12 catches for 99 yards. It was after the Redskins game in Week 4 that Owens made those ridiculous comments about not getting the ball enough. Eighteen passes were thrown in his direction during that game. In fact, Romo was trying to get T.O. the ball so much in the second half that it threw the offense out of sync.
On Wednesday, Owens didn't call this game a must-win for the Cowboys, but he knows it's important. At 5-4, the Cowboys aren't going to catch the Giants, so they have to look for a wild card. Even if they lose Sunday, they still have a chance to win five of their last six and maybe get to 10 wins. The Cowboys have home games against the 49ers and Seahawks that should give them momentum going into a tough December stretch that includes meetings with the Steelers, Giants, Ravens and Eagles.
If anything, this is a must-win for the Redskins. A loss could cripple their playoff chances. Coach Jim Zorn won't know until game time whether he'll have Clinton Portis in his backfield because of a
sprained MCL in his left knee. Even if he does play, Portis won't be as effective. More pressure falls on Campbell to pull off this victory.
1. Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers:
Both teams enter this game with weaknesses that the other might not be able to exploit. Protection problems continue to get worse for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was pounded by the Vikings in Week 10. The good news for Rodgers? The Bears can't pressure the quarterback. Quarterbacks are throwing 41.6 passes a game against the Bears, and Chicago averages less than two sacks a game. Against the Titans in Week 10, the Bears blitzed on the run, so QB Kerry Collins threw 41 passes. He wasn't sacked until the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Kyle Orton is expected to return for the Bears despite a sprained ankle. The Packers' defense has been horrible in stopping the run and, like the Bears, has struggled to pressure the quarterback. Going into the season, the Bears were widely predicted to be the third-place team in the NFC North, but a victory here could put them two games ahead of the Packers and make Green Bay fans wonder if trading Brett Favre was the right thing.
2. San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers: This will be a great test for the Chargers' revamped defense under new coordinator Ron Rivera. In his debut against the Chiefs in Week 10, Rivera simplified some of the plans and added a few new wrinkles. His biggest fix was leaving LB Shaun Phillips near the line of scrimmage and not dropping him in coverage as often as Ted Cottrell did. With Shawne Merriman out, Phillips is the team's best pass-rusher, and it was driving everyone in San Diego crazy watching him run away from the line of scrimmage. The Chargers gave up 19 points to the Chiefs, but their defense made the key stop on the two-point conversion to preserve a shaky victory.
The Chargers head to Pittsburgh knowing Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is struggling with a shoulder separation. If the Chargers can pull off the win, they could look forward to a three-game homestand to make their playoff push. Of course, the Steelers don't want the embarrassment of losing back-to-back games at home.
3. Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons: Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler must feel as though he's back at Vanderbilt heading into a game against Georgia. The Broncos are undermanned in the backfield and on defense because of injuries. More is falling on Cutler's strong arm to keep the Broncos in the playoff race.
4. Baltimore Ravens at N.Y. Giants: Joe Flacco has been unflappable as the Ravens' starting quarterback. Despite being a rookie, Flacco has the Ravens at a 6-3 start, and he has only seven interceptions and one lost fumble. But over the next six weeks, Flacco and the Ravens face five top-11 defenses, including every team in the tough NFC East. He enters this stretch with a 62.1 completion percentage and a 79.7 quarterback rating.
The Ravens, who boast the league's second-best run defense, will try to take away the Giants' biggest strength -- running the ball on first down. The Giants average better than 5 yards a carry on first down. Giants QB Eli Manning gets to manage some of the easiest second-down plays in football thanks to Brandon Jacobs and New York's other runners. This game should be one of the weekend's more physical contests.
5. Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Coach Brad Childress will be trying to change the Vikings' recent tradition of losing to the Bucs. The Vikings have lost four of their past five games against the Bucs, but their most recent meeting was in 2005, the year before Childress arrived. The Vikings come into this game with a lot of concerns. Quarterback Gus Frerotte is throwing too many interceptions. He has 11, including eight in his past three games. Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin remains a master at frustrating quarterbacks with his Cover 2 scheme. Quarterbacks are completing only 57 percent of their passes and have a 72.4 rating against Tampa Bay. Kiffin's biggest challenge is stopping halfback Adrian Peterson; the Bucs are allowing less than 100 rushing yards a game, and their defensive starters are well-rested coming off a bye.
6. Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills: Browns RB Jamal Lewis thought some of his teammates quit during last Thursday night's loss to the Broncos. Bills quarterback Trent Edwards is having a hard time getting started. Something has to give in this Monday night game that means little to the Browns and everything to the Bills.
Because defenses are taking away the run and double-teaming WR Lee Evans, Edwards is on a three-game losing streak in which the Bills' offense is scoring only 14.3 points a game. He's been sacked nine times in those three games, and he has thrown five interceptions compared to two touchdown passes. Even though Shaun Rogers has been dominating at defensive tackle, the Browns have had a difficult time taking away running games. Coach Romeo Crennel is making changes in the linebacking corps to adjust.
7. Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: The Texans saved the Colts' season in Week 5, when they imploded in the final four minutes and handed Indy a 31-27 win. No one can forget Sage Rosenfels' dumb decision to launch his body toward the first-down marker and lose a fumble that led to a 68-yard return by linebacker Gary Brackett. The Texans' season has been one of constant shuffling at quarterback. Once again, Rosenfels is filling in for an injured Matt Schaub. Combined, the quarterbacks have been responsible for 19 of the team's 21 turnovers. At 5-4, the Colts are building momentum toward a run at a wild-card spot. They can't afford to lose this home game with a tough trip to San Diego coming up in Week 12.
8. Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars: These teams' meeting in Week 1 was a preview of coming attractions. The Titans, who won 17-10, played their physical, low-scoring style that has led to a 9-0 start. The Titans' Chris Johnson established himself as one of the best rookie finds with his quick, explosive runs. Kerry Collins came off the bench to replace an injured Vince Young and did enough at quarterback to win the game. Tennessee's defense, led by Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, pounded Jaguars quarterback David Garrard in what he considered his worst physical beating since high school. The Titans limited Jacksonville to 33 rushing yards on 17 carries -- a sign of things to come for the Jags' struggling running game. The Jaguars have been plagued by injuries along the offensive line and haven't been able to recover.
9. New Orleans Saints at Kansas City Chiefs: The young Chiefs could be without five defensive starters, but they will have Larry Johnson available for some backfield duty. With QB Tyler Thigpen running some spread option offensive plays, the Chiefs' offense has been slightly revitalized, and Kansas City has become competitive of late. The Chiefs almost upset the Chargers in Week 10. The Saints come to town desperate to turn around a disappointing 4-5 start. Quarterback Drew Brees will try to take advantage of the depleted Chiefs defense.
10. Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins: Let's see: Since taking over as interim coach of the Raiders, Tom Cable has cut cornerback DeAngelo Hall and benched wide receiver Ronald Curry, safety Michael Huff and offensive tackle Kwame Harris. He's also taken the play calling away from offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. The result has been four losses in five games, and the Raiders have been outscored 70-13 in the first halves of the past five games. Under former coach Lane Kiffin, the Raiders outscored opponents 30-24 in the first half, but they had trouble closing out games. Under Cable, the Raiders get off to horrible starts and can't recover. Now they play an East Coast game in which Raiders body clocks will be at 10 a.m. Don't you think there's a chance the Dolphins might jump on them early?
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
14hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo