In NFC, improved Cowboys could prove match for Bears

ON THE NFL

Monday Morning Qb

Gameday

November 20, 2006|By KEN MURRAY

Maybe the NFC finally has a team that can challenge the front-running Chicago Bears. It won't be the Philadelphia Eagles, who lost Donovan McNabb for the season. It doesn't look good, either, for the Seattle Seahawks, who still don't have Matt Hasselbeck.

The New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers, a pair of injury-depleted teams, might have a shot if they get healthy.

But the team that probably has the best chance to beat the Bears in Chicago is the one that dispensed with the Indianapolis Colts yesterday, squeezed three turnovers out of Peyton Manning and terminated all talk about a perfect season.

Remember the Dallas Cowboys?

At 6-4, the Cowboys still trail the Giants (6-3) in the NFC East, at least until tonight. But their 21-14 victory over the previously unbeaten Colts at Texas Stadium confirmed what has more or less become obvious:

Cowboys coach Bill Parcells saved his season by replacing shaky Drew Bledsoe with unproven Tony Romo last month. Since taking over four weeks ago, Romo has won three times, including a win over Carolina in his starting debut.

Even without a big running game, Romo was able to guide the Cowboys past the Colts. He threw for 226 yards and had two turnovers, but his 19-for-23 throwing performance suggested that he wasn't awed by the big-game atmosphere.

Dallas' defense in the red zone was pretty good, too. Manning was just 20-for-39 in his first visit to Texas Stadium and almost had four turnovers. For the first time all season, Manning wasn't able to rescue the Colts in the fourth quarter.

Even Parcells was buoyed by the hard-earned win.

"We've played our best football the last month," he said during his post-game news conference. "We've got six to go; there's a long way to go, but if we keep playing like this, I think we're going to have a chance to do something."

Misery in Cleveland

There were four more upsets in Week 11, but no loss was more dispiriting than the one suffered by the Cleveland Browns and their coach, Romeo Crennel.

The Browns blew a 20-10 lead in the final 10 minutes against the Pittsburgh Steelers after investing a lot of energy and emotion against their fiercest AFC North rival. In particular, the Browns wanted to make amends for a 41-0 drubbing they took last Christmas Eve against Pittsburgh.

Yesterday, they intercepted Ben Roethlisberger three times in the first half to get the early lead. But then the Steelers quarterback tore them up in the fourth quarter, throwing for 224 yards and the game-winning touchdown, a 4-yard shovel pass to Willie Parker as the pocket was collapsing on him.

The 24-20 loss was the Browns' sixth straight at home against the Steelers, who have won 12 of their past 13 games against Cleveland. Bad, bad omen for Crennel, who already has had to dump his offensive coordinator this season.

More bad news

Two other disturbing losses were inflicted on the Eagles and Green Bay Packers.

The Eagles lost McNabb when he tore a right knee ligament scrambling toward the sideline in a 31-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Kyle Vanden Bosch barely gave McNabb a shove at the sideline, but McNabb landed awkwardly after throwing an incompletion and the damage was done. So is the Eagles' season.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia played reasonably well for someone who had thrown only one other pass this season. But the Eagles went 2-5 when McNabb missed the final seven games last season after a sports hernia surgery. And they've got a meat grinder of a schedule down the stretch, playing four of the next five on the road.

Similarly, the Packers got a pretty good idea of what life without Brett Favre is going to look like in a 35-0 loss to the New England Patriots. Favre suffered nerve damage in his right elbow on a second-quarter hit by Tedy Bruschi and didn't return. He was only 5-for-15 when he left, but things quickly went downhill from there.

Aaron Rodgers, a first-round pick in 2005, was just 4-for-12 for 32 yards. Favre's streak of 251 consecutive starts may be in jeopardy, but he has an extra day because the Packers are in the Monday night game next week.

One-dimensional Saints

Add the New Orleans Saints to those teams that have become too one-dimensional this season. It's more than a passing fad.

Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 1,605 yards the past four games -- including 510 in a 31-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday -- but the Saints have lost three of them to go from a 5-1 playoff contender to a borderline 6-4 hopeful.

Those three losses came against AFC North opponents -- the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals. The Saints lost 12 of their 20 turnovers in those games.

AFC rules the day

In a big interconference day, the AFC went 5-2 against NFC teams. Only the Bears, beating the New York Jets, and the Cowboys won for the NFC.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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