Saddled with problems, Cowboys try to ride it out


November 14, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

This is what it has come down to for the Dallas Cowboys.

The team that once set the standard for excellence is selling the idea that most teams are struggling the way it is.

"I think it's probably the same way around the league," said quarterback Troy Aikman. "It's pretty consistent. I don't know who you might consider the top teams in the league, but whoever they are, they've had some of the same struggles."

Aikman managed to gloss over the fact that 14 teams have better records than the 5-5 Cowboys.

But Dallas, for all its problems, is still alive.

If the Cowboys can beat the 6-4 Washington Redskins on Sunday before making their long-awaited trip to Green Bay next week, they will have a playoff shot because of their finishing schedule: the Oilers and Panthers at home, a road game against Cincinnati, a regular-season finale with the Giants at Texas Stadium.

That's why owner Jerry Jones dreams of what he calls a "storybook" finish.

"We've got a chance to do something that they write books about," said Jones, who has spent the past couple of weeks denying that he'll fire coach Barry Switzer before the season is over.

Of course, you already could write a book about the Cowboys' turbulent season, but just when it seems time to finally write them off, they make a comeback.

After last week's victory over the Arizona Cardinals, wide receiver Michael Irvin said, "The heat was on the head coach. The heat was on the team. Do me a favor and keep it on, because we need the heat on."

It will certainly be on when they face the Redskins in a game that was switched to 4 p.m. so it could get more exposure with Fox-TV's top announcing team of John Madden and Pat Summerall.

The Redskins-Cowboys series, of course, was one of the NFL's hottest rivalries dating to the days when George Allen turned it into a life-and-death struggle.

It has cooled considerably in recent years, especially since Redskins coach Norv Turner is a former Dallas assistant and is close friends with some of the Cowboys.

But the stakes, as usual, are high. If the Redskins can repeat their 21-16 victory in October and sweep the series, even the Cowboys might not be able to recover.

Best of the rest

Patriots at Bucs: What are the odds of two teams that won by 31-10 last week meeting this week? Well, that's what will happen when the Patriots play the Bucs for the first time since 1988. The game is more important for the Patriots because they're a disappointment at 6-4 coming off a Super Bowl season, and a loss will restart talk that Pete Carroll is no Bill Parcells. The Bucs are a surprise at 7-3, and victory will ensure their first non-losing season since 1982.

Bills at Dolphins: The Monday night contest is a rematch of the game in Buffalo two weeks ago, when the Bills won, 9-6, after Dan Marino went out with an injury and coach Jimmy Johnson decided not to bring him back. Coach Marv Levy holds a 15-8 edge over the Dolphins, though the games tend to be close. Three of the past four were decided by three points or fewer. The Dolphins will have a 25th anniversary celebration of their undefeated 1972 team, as they remember the way things used to be.

Worth a look

Broncos at Chiefs: This is one of only three games on the schedule that matches teams with winning records. But quarterback Elvis Grbac's injury has taken much of the drama out of it. The Broncos beat the Chiefs in the opener in Denver, 19-3, and should be able to repeat that against Rich Gannon. Marty Schottenheimer, 7-13 against Denver, has enough trouble beating John Elway even with his top quarterback. The Chiefs need a stiff defensive effort if they're to pull an upset.

Oilers at Jaguars: The Jaguars, who beat the Oilers, 30-24, at Tennessee two weeks ago, try to end the streak in this series in which the visiting team won the first five games. A Jacksonville win, combined with a Pittsburgh victory over Cincinnati, would give the Jaguars and Steelers a three-game lead in the AFC Central and set up a two-team battle for the division title.

Vikings at Lions: This game will pit Brad Johnson's arm against Barry Sanders' legs. The Lions have lost three straight and are virtually out of the playoff race in coach Bobby Ross' first year. This will be a test of how Ross can keep the team together. The Vikings have won six straight since losing back-to-back games to Tampa Bay and Green Bay and have done it despite the controversy of Dennis Green's book and the uncertainty about the team's future in Minnesota.

Filling out the schedule

Eagles at Ravens: The Ravens, who were 4-6 (6-4 against the spread) as an underdog, are favored for the first time this season because the Eagles are giving quarterback Bobby Hoying his first NFL start. Hoying has the burden of playing behind a shaky offensive line, but the Eagles have to start to find out if he can play. The key for the Ravens is to avoid turnovers and take advantage of the Eagles' poor special teams.

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