Redskins-Cowboys Preview

While the first-place Dallas Cowboys have major aspirations and the last-place Washington Redskins continue to have questions, none of that matters to the participants in one of the league’s fiercest rivalries.

Dallas and Washington meet for the first time at the new Cowboys Stadium on Sunday, with the Cowboys looking to maintain their division lead and the Redskins entering off a rare victory.

The fact that Dallas (6-3) is on top of the NFC East and Washington (3-6) is at the bottom doesn’t seem to matter, especially since the Redskins have won five of the last eight meetings. Washington angered many Dallas fans with its 26-24 win last year in its final visit to Texas Stadium.

“Regardless of who it is, what better team to get one on and that’s Dallas,” Redskins receiver Santana Moss said. “And so it makes that week special regardless of what the situation is, as far as the lineup or what we’re going through.”

The Cowboys had a four-game win streak snapped with last week’s 17-7 loss at Green Bay. They’re one game ahead of Philadelphia and New York in the East, and this game is crucial because of division tiebreaker ramifications.

“Nobody really cares about the records and we always want to beat each other,” Dallas guard Leonard Davis said. “It’s just the NFC East and every divisional game is important.”

This edition of the rivalry provides the first meeting between Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and Cowboys center Andre Gurode since Gurode was cleated in the face by the then-Titans tackle three years ago.

Haynesworth publicly apologized to Gurode days after the incident that drew him a five-game suspension and says the two have seen each other at the Pro Bowl the last two years. Haynesworth says the two “are cool.”

Dallas needed a last-minute touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Roy Williams last week to avoid its first shutout since Nov. 16, 2003. The Cowboys had a season-low 61 yards rushing.

“You can fight hard and play hard, but you’ve got to execute,” coach Wade Phillips said. “We went all the way down the field late in the game, but we needed to do that early in the game.”

Romo will be facing the top-ranked passing defense in the league as well as one of the NFL’s most improved pass rushes. The Redskins had 24 sacks last season to tie for the third-worst mark in the league, and have already matched that total.

Linebacker Brian Orakpo, the No. 13 overall draft pick, leads all rookies with seven sacks and veteran Andre Carter has eight. Last season, the Redskins failed to sack Romo.

“Last year I felt we had some QBs feel very comfortable in the pocket,” coach Jim Zorn said. “And this year we are making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.”

That pass rush could be even more potent with Doug Free expected to make his first career start Sunday at right tackle for Dallas in place of Mark Colombo, who had started 57 consecutive games. Colombo had surgery after he broke his left leg and suffered ligament damage in his ankle against Green Bay.

The Cowboys considered moving Davis to tackle but opted to keep the Pro Bowl guard at his regular spot.

Washington won’t have Clinton Portis available for the second straight game. Portis suffered a concussion in a loss at Atlanta on Nov. 8 and had his streak of 40 straight starts end in last Sunday’s 27-17 win over Denver.

Ladell Betts replaced Portis last weekend and was outstanding, rushing for 114 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown. He has started once against Dallas.

“It’s intense. Everything is a little bit more magnified as far as assignments and techniques,” Betts said. “Because this means a lot to this city and this whole area. So we’re going to try to get a ‘W’ for everybody around.”

Moss has excelled in past meetings with Dallas, amassing at least 115 receiving yards four times in his last seven games. He’s topped that figure twice in his last 21 games overall and has two touchdowns this season.