Cowboys look to keep surging vs. beleaguered Browns
At the midway point of the NFL regular season, the Dallas Cowboys already can taste the playoffs.
The Cowboys have won six straight games since a season-opening loss, have the league's two most dynamic rookies and are clicking on all cylinders.
The Cleveland Browns just want to taste what it's like to win a game. At 0-8, the league's only winless team is sputtering toward a date with history as the fifth club to fail to emerge victorious in a regular-season game. The other four teams are Dallas (1960), Tampa Bay (1976), Baltimore (1982) and Detroit (2008).
The Browns face a tall challenge to crack the win column on Sunday (1 p.m., ET) when they play host to the Cowboys at FirstEnergy Stadium. The game will be broadcast on Fox.
Dallas' offense is ranked fourth overall and its defense is 12th.
If the task was not daunting enough for the hapless Browns, the Cowboys have won five of their past seven road games and on Wednesday were anointed as the second-best team by Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Dallas has been installed as a 7-to-1 favorite to win the Super Bowl, only behind the 8-to-5 New England Patriots.
According to cbssports.com, Football Outsiders pegs the Cowboys as having a 94.5 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 64.3 percent chance of landing a bye.
At the rate the Browns are going, they will have 100 percent chance of landing the top pick in next year's draft. If they do, they can take a lesson from owner/general manager Jerry Jones and his staff, because it's the play of two rookies that has lifted Dallas to elite level.
Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick out of Ohio State, leads the league with 799 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Elliott gives the Cowboys attitude out of the backfield, toughness between the tackles and deceptive breakaway speed that has helped the team average a shade under 165 yards rushing a game.
Elliott's sidekick, quarterback Dak Prescott, has high praise for his fellow rookie.
“He has been good because of the way he practices every day throughout the week. It transfers on Sunday. He is a guy that he goes to score a touchdown every rep of practice,” Prescott said. “He works hard in the weight room, in the film room and it just all pays off on Sundays.”
Prescott remains entrenched as the Cowboys' quarterback. All he's done since taking the helm of the offense when Tony Romo went out in the preseason with a compression fracture in his back is complete 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,773 yards and nine touchdowns.
Prescott, Dallas' fourth-round draft pick, is coming off his first sub-par performance on Sunday when he was tested but still able to rally the Cowboys to a 29-23 overtime victory against the Philadelphia Eagles.
When it counted most, Prescott played with poise and came through. His 22-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant tied the game with three minutes left. He completed all five pass attempts in overtime, including a game-winning 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten.
Prescott didn't let his early struggles get to him with the game on the line.
“I'm not going to stop,” he said. “I don't care how bad I play early on, I don't care really what I do, I'm not going to give up.”
This was supposed to be the week when Romo would return, but he was ruled out by both Jones and head coach Jason Garrett.
“My opinion is that we want him to have some more strengthening work done,” Jones said earlier in the week. “He's really doing well — probably as well as at any time last year, as far as aspects of strength in his back is concerned. But he's got some more to do.”
The earliest Romo could return would be Nov. 13 at the Pittsburgh Steelers. But neither Jones nor Garrett were tipping their hand.
The Browns only wish they had a similar decision. Six players have taken snaps for Cleveland this year. They have combined to throw nine touchdowns and nine interceptions.
From Robert Griffin III to Josh McCown to rookie Cody Kessler with a sprinkle of Terrelle Pryor Sr., Charlie Whitehurst and Kevin Hogan, Cleveland surprisingly has been competitive.
Kessler went 0-5 as a starter before a concussion knocked him out and elevated McCown back into the starter's role against the New York Jets last week.
The Browns blew a 20-7 lead only to lose 31-28 to the Jets. McCown completed 25 of 49 passes for 341 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He threw both interceptions in the second half.
Coach Hue Jackson wasn't ready to commit to either McCown or Kessler.
“I think guys need to practice,” he said Wednesday “Cody has not done much for a week or so, but he practiced well today. Until you know a guy gets through practice, gets moving around and all that and the stress of practice do you know exactly where they are. I am not in a rush to make a decision there, but we will make it when we need to.”
If Kessler does get the start, it will pit two close friends against each other.
“Yeah, that is my boy. Me and Cody have known each other since junior year of the Manning Camp, junior year of college,” Prescott said. “He is a great guy, fun to just hang out with, a fun guy to just be around. He is probably one of the better friends I have at the quarterback position throughout the league.”
Whether it's McCown or Kessler, they will have to try to survive a swarming Dallas defense led by linebacker Sean Lee (69 tackles) and Tyrone Crawford (3.5 sacks).
A big boost to the offense should be the return of rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman. In two games, Coleman had 173 yards and two touchdowns. He broke his hand in practice the following week and has not played since.
“Everything is perfect, healed up just the way we wanted it to,” Coleman said Monday. “I am excited to get back out there with the guys. I know they have been working extremely hard trying to get a win, so I am happy to be back out there.”
Rumors swirled around a number of Cleveland veterans as the trade deadline came and went on Tuesday. Veteran left tackle Joe Thomas was still with the team, as was the Browns' best defender, cornerback Joe Haden.
The Browns did make a deal that raised eyebrows around the league and sent a conditional third-round pick to New England for Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins, who said he wasn't fazed by the trade.
“I'm good. I'm ready to move on,” he said. “I am a workaholic. I am going to give you what I have every game and every day regardless. You are going to get my plays.”
Collins will be counted on to shore up the league's worst defense. The Browns give up 29.8 points per game and give up the second-most yards on the ground per game at a shade under 144 yards.
If the Cowboys have a weakness that the Browns might be able to exploit, it is in the defensive backfield where both safety Barry Church and cornerback Morris Claiborne are out.
For the Browns, Pryor (hamstring) and Thomas (knee) both missed Wednesday's practice and are listed as questionable.