Schrager’s Week 13 Cheat Sheet: Give it up for Jason Garrett

Jason Garrett and the Cowboys have done an amazing job this season.

Brandon Wade/AP

On Nov. 24, 1994, the Cowboys broke out their white "Double Star" alternate jerseys for the first time and were still very much the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. This was the dawn of the Barry Switzer era. Jimmy Johnson was already gone, Norv Turner was coaching Heath Shuler in Washington, Ken Norton, Jr. was a 49er, and the Cowboys had the country’s most popular player — some guy named Favre — and the upstart Green Bay Packers in Texas Stadium for a greatly anticipated Thanksgiving Day showdown.

And the hero of that game? A red-headed, third-string quarterback out of Princeton.

Of course, Jason Garrett was never more popular in Dallas than the day he filled in for an injured Troy Aikman and an injured Rodney Peete, and led the Cowboys back from a 24-13 third-quarter deficit to wallop the Packers 42-31 on Thanksgiving. He hit Alvin Harper on a deep one in the third, and followed that with a 35-yard touchdown strike to Michael Irvin in the fourth. Sterling Sharpe scored four touchdowns that afternoon, but it was a consolation prize.

The kid out of Princeton was the MVP and the Cowboys, 20 years after Clint Longley did it to the Redskins in relief of Roger Staubach, had found a way to do it again. And though the Cowboys would lose in the NFC Championship Game to the 49ers a few months later, Garrett was a Cowboys legend forever with that one win.

Well, guess what? He’s pretty darn popular again.

No, they’re not hoisting Garrett off the field on their shoulders just yet, but after years mired in mediocrity and what feels like nearly a lifetime spent on the all-important sports radio "chopping block" Jason Garrett is having a Coach of the Year-like campaign in 2014.

It’s about time he gets recognized for it.

The offensive line’s been tremendous, Tony Romo’s playing like a savvy veteran no longer prone to errors or miscues, the running game’s on fire, and the defense is stout on the ground and against the pass. But make no mistake — this is a very, very well coached team.

Few pundits had the Cowboys being relevant in Week 13, let alone tied atop the NFC East, before the season began. But Garrett’s team has done more than exceed expectations in the standings. He’s got them playing a disciplined brand of football that’s been missing in North Texas the past few seasons and has a mix of personalities meshing as one. They’re even starting to sound like him.

"We’re focused on playing winning football, whether it’s road or home," cornerback Orlando Scandrick told reporters last week. "Take care of the ball. Don’t commit turnovers. Minimize penalties."

When told he sounded like Garrett by a writer at the Dallas Morning News, Scrandrick responded: "But that’s the formula, though, the recipe for winning. He preaches that. And I bought in. I’m all in. That formula helps you win anywhere."

If the offensive and defensive line play isn’t enough of a sign, the team’s ability to win on the road shows a certain toughness that’s unique to this Cowboys team, too. Dallas is 5-0 on the road, marking the best start the team has had away from home since 2007, and making the Cowboys the only team in the NFL with less than two losses outside their own building.

It’s hard to imagine Jason Garrett ever being more popular in Dallas than he was 20 years ago on Thanksgiving Day. But if the Cowboys keep on playing like they have through their first 11 games, he could come pretty close.

Considering how far this team has come in the matter of a year, and just how far Garrett’s come in the court of public opinion this season, and it’s hard to argue — anything is possible.  

WEEK 13 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK

Matt Forte is one of two players in NFL history to record 800 rushing yards and 40 catches in each of his first 7 NFL seasons. Who is the other player to do so?

THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK

Each week, we give you a throwback jersey you should probably purchase. I just mentioned the 1994 Cowboys’ "Double Star" jerseys. With the NFL 75th Anniversary patch on the chest, it’s one of my favorite duds ever worn. Here’s Michael Irvin’s.

Now, on to my picks.

NFL POWER RANKINGS

Week 12 Record: 9-6

THURSDAY

Chicago at Detroit: You can hear it in faint, nervous whispers on the Lions fans message boards online and in conversations around the league. There’s chatter from the X’s and O’s community — "Joe Lombardi doesn’t use Calvin Johnson the right way" …  "Stafford’s missing too many windows …" And the worst one of all … the one that really stings … "Same old Lions." Two straight losses in which the offense has looked anemic is certainly reason for concern, right? Not quite. Both the Cardinals and the Patriots games were on the road, against the top teams in each conference. The offense will get Reggie Bush back, Eric Ebron will continue to evolve, and having the home field in the next three games will cure Detroit’s ills. I think. For Lions fans, I hope.

The Pick: Lions 27, Bears 19

Philadelphia at Dallas: The last time Mark Sanchez played in a Thanksgiving Day game, well, you know what happened. Let’s ignore the "Butt Fumble" and focus on what might be Chip Kelly’s biggest national TV audience ever. I’m not a TV ratings guru, but I’d think more eyeballs — though perhaps not television sets — are watching a Thanksgiving late-afternoon game against the Cowboys with the NFC East lead on the line than either the Oregon-Auburn BCS Championship Game in 2011 or the playoff game last year versus the Saints. Expect some bells. Expect some whistles. I think the Cowboys take care of business, winning on a last-second Dan Bailey field goal, setting the stage for an epic rematch on Sunday night in Week 15.

The Pick: Cowboys 31, Eagles 30

Seattle at San Francisco: Arizona had seven sacks and 11 tackles for a loss last week versus Seattle last week. If Russell Wilson wasn’t a magician on the run, it could have been a lot worse. "We had all kinds of problems," Pete Carroll said after the win. "We got beat 1 on 1, we had some scheme issues, and we held the ball too long. To have that kind of an onslaught it took a lot of stuff." Aldon Smith is still shaking off the rust and is just getting started. He should have a field day on Thursday evening. The new 49ers stadium doesn’t have the same effect on visiting teams as Candlestick once did (sorry, but free Wi-Fi and sushi delivered to your seat doesn’t quite spell i-n-t-i-m-i-d-a-t-i-o-n), but even the wine and cheese Silicon Valley types will be rocking for this one.

The Pick: 49ers 24, Seahawks 16

SUNDAY

Washington at Indianapolis: Seeing things now, in 2014, it’s crazy to think that Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck was still a debate worth having after their first NFL seasons. Now, RGIII is on the bench, Luck is on pace to lead his team to its third straight playoff appearance, and the Redskins could be thinking quarterback come April’s Draft.

The Pick: ‎Colts 27, Redskins 16

Tennessee at Houston: Ryan Mallett’s done for the season, leaving the Texans’ 2014 fate in the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 10-year veteran, Thad Lewis, a street free agent who was just brought on, and raw Tom Savage. The Titans’ 2014 campaign is all but over, but it’d make their season if they could knock their rivals off on Sunday. Regardless of how Fitzpatrick plays, I don’t see J.J. Watt and that defense letting it happen.

The Pick: Texans 23, Titans 16

Cleveland at Buffalo: Find me a Bills or Browns fan who wouldn’t have answered "Where do I sign?" if I told them back in April that the two teams would be playing in a game with huge playoff implications for both teams in Week 13. The numbers are astounding, really. Buffalo hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999, when Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie were the quarterbacks and the Music City Miracle did them in. The Browns, of course, have not won a playoff game since 1995. Both squads are in the hunt. I like the Bills, back at the Ralph, riding high on the emotion of a big win in Detroit and a home crowd that will be downright craving something to bring them out of their houses and together again.

The Pick: Bills 23, Browns 16

San Diego at Baltimore: After the game in New Orleans on Monday night — the Saints’ first loss in primetime in 14 contests — I asked Joe Flacco if he had any comfort in the building because he’s won there before in Super Bowl XLVII. In classic Flacco fashion, he smiled, shrugged, and told me that they were in different locker rooms this time around, so, you know, it wasn’t really all that similar. I am an unabashed Flacco supporter, I know. I think he was at his best on Monday. Calm, patient, and in control. This Ravens season has some eerie similarities to the one two years ago. No one is talking about them, some strange mid-season losses, and a bit of under-the-radar catching fire at the right time. After the performance I watched in person on Monday, I’m not picking against them at home this weekend. Not to the Chargers, and maybe, not to anyone.

The Pick: Ravens 30, Chargers 20

New York Giants at Jacksonville: Hey, did you happen to see Odell Beckham, Jr.’s catch on Sunday? That’s me being a sarcastic wiseguy. Yes, the grab was awesome, but with the amount of coverage it got (in a Giants loss) this week, I’m surprised they didn’t get a comment from Jennifer Lawrence or Kate Middleton on it. I think the ball had dinner at Lavo Monday night, hung with the Kardashians on Tuesday, and punched a photographer outside the 40/40 club on Wednesday. Nice grab, yes, but as any Giants fan would tell you — they’d rather have the win. The Jaguars have struggled this year, but I think this is their second win. My guy to watch? Another rookie wide receiver. I think Marqise Lee, who showed some flashes last week, will have a big day.

Gallery: Looking back on Will Smith's football career

The Pick: Jaguars 27, Giants 20

Cincinnati at Tampa Bay: My second upset special of the week. Tampa Bay hasn’t lost to Cincinnati in 25 years. If the Bucs can keep their six-game winning streak over Cincy going beyond Sunday, they will have their first seven-game winning streak against any opponent in franchise history. Hey, it’s an upset pick. It could be way off, but I’m feeling good about this one.

The Pick: Buccaneers 24, Bengals 20

Oakland at St. Louis: I’m still chuckling at Sio Moore and Khalil Mack’s celebration from last Thursday night. Play of the year. You can have your Odell Beckham, Jr. I loved that one. Some folks say the Raiders should be better than 1-10. I’m not so sure about that. I do know that the Rams should be better than 4-7.

The Pick: St. Louis 28, Oakland 6

New Orleans at Pittsburgh: The Saints started an undrafted player out of Jacksonville State, Pierre Warren, at free safety last week. Not only had Warren not taken an NFL snap before Monday’s game, but he was with the Vikings practice squad for most of the season. In short, this isn’t your father’s Drew Brees/Sean Payton Saints. And you know what? They still are my pick to represent the division in the playoffs. Even with a loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The Pick: Steelers 34, Saints 23

Carolina at Minnesota: "I don’t believe he’s a starter in the NFL," former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said on ESPN Radio this week. "I believe that Teddy Bridgewater  — and this isn’t meant to be a shot on him, I was a backup quarterback — I think he’s a good backup quarterback. I think he’d have a nice long career as a backup." I respect Hasselbeck’s opinion (Tim does the work), but I think Bridgewater’s better than that. Bridgewater’s always going to have his doubters for some very obvious reasons. He’s not built like most traditional drop-back quarterbacks, he’s not an incredibly vocal young man, and he’s not someone who jumps off on tape. But oh, he’s 21-years old. Carolina’s defense got a very much needed bye week, but I’m not sure that offense will travel too well to the frigid St. Paul weather. I’ll go with Bridgewater, career backup or not.

The Pick: Vikings 21, Panthers 17

Arizona at Atlanta: I’m not jumping off the Cardinals bandwagon just yet. Vegas isn’t too high on them, but that’s fine. I’m not really a big Las Vegas guy, anyway. You can have your Tiesto and all-night dance parties. I’ll ride with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Pick: Cardinals 22, Falcons 16

New England at Green Bay: Here’s your game of the year. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this week will be the first matchup at Lambeau Field in Week 13 (or earlier) that features two teams with eight-plus wins since the Packers played the Bears on Dec. 9, 2001. Adding an odd quirk to this one — Sunday will mark the first matchup between Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and Patriots QB Tom Brady as starters. If I’m filling out my MVP ballot this week, Brady’s No. 1 and Rodgers is a close second. They are both in the top five in the NFL in passing touchdowns, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and touchdown/interception ratio this season. So, who wins? If the game was in Foxboro, I might have a different take, but I just can’t see Green Bay losing at home this weekend. Consider this — the Packers have outscored their opponents 128-9 in the first halves of the last four home games. They won’t blow the Patriots out right from the get go, but I think this locomotive isn’t being stopped at Lambeau this year.

The Pick: Packers 37, Patriots 32

Denver at Kansas City: I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Berry over a dozen times and you won’t find a more pleasant young man. News that he has been placed on the season-ending non-football illness list after doctors found what team officials believe is lymphoma — a form of cancer — is devastating. I speak for everyone in the NFL sports writing community when I wish him all the best in his courageous fight. Winning in Kansas City is tough enough, but doing so on Sunday night? I don’t see it. In the rare "Lose to the Raiders one week; beat the Broncos the next" swing, I’ve got Alex Smith and Kansas City finally beating Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

The Pick: Chiefs 32, Broncos 26

MONDAY

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: How Percy Harvin — completely healthy — can just get 1 reception for 2 yards last week is mind-boggling. Miami’s playing too well of late to lose this one. Expect the boo birds to be out en masse if things don’t go well early for Rex’s boys. I have a feeling it won’t.

The Pick: Dolphins 33, Jets 14

READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK

Peter,

Happy Thanksgiving. What’s your favorite part of the holiday season, besides the copious amount of endless food and football, of course?

Jeff,

Tempe, Arizona

Jeff,

First and foremost, I’m not a big turkey guy. In fact, I think Big Turkey is one of the more dubious lobbying groups in our country. If we just came together and all agreed that pizza on Thanksgiving would make everyone so much happier, well … that’s for another time. As for Thanksgiving, I always got a kick out of the holiday during my college years. That first Wednesday night back in the hometown meant a mini high-school reunion of sorts at a local bar or restaurant. Everyone shows up, one by one, and it’s like a TV show. The little guy who was bullied arrives in a T-shirt with giant fraternity letters and stories of 50 new friends. The guy who was the bully in high school shows up and he’s oddly wearing the same clothes he did a year ago and still hanging out at the high school parties. The girl everyone had a crush on now has pink hair, only listens to Neko Case, and reads Sartre. That was always fun. But for me, it’s all about family, friends, football, and food. Pizza, not turkey.

WEEK 13 NFL CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER

In addition to Matt Forte, LaDainian Tomlinson is the only other player in NFL history to record 800 rushing yards and 40 catches in his first 7 seasons.