Running back Marion Barber #24 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates in the first quarter after scoring against the Tennessee Titans during a preseason game at Cowboys Stadium on August 21, 2009 in Arlington.
Unlike a playground game interrupted by a stray dog, NFL seasons rarely allow do-overs. The Dallas Cowboys may have stumbled into something close.Their season was on the verge of collapse when they left Cowboys Stadium at 0-2. But they return Sunday to play Tennessee feeling good about how things are going. They cleaned up some bad practice habits, then saw it lead to a dominant performance against then-undefeated Houston in a hostile road game. They've kept up that new routine and welcomed more guys into it as everyone is healthy for the first time all season. Nobody in the division has pulled away through it all, nor has anyone in the conference. And now they're going into the softest part of their schedule.
Oh, one more thing. They've won at least three straight games coming out of a bye in every season under coach Wade Phillips. "I think it is a fresh start," Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "If we play like we did against Houston we can win a lot of games in this league. That is what is going to motivate us to play well the rest of the season." The Cowboys (1-2) play three of their next four games at home. None of those foes has a winning record, starting with the Titans (2-2).
Besides, even Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher points out that Dallas wasn't exactly routed in its two losses. Both were decided late and the Cowboys made all sorts of mistakes in both. "We'll get the best Cowboy team to date I'm sure," Fisher said. Phillips, meanwhile, is offering similar praise of Tennessee, noting the Titans lost by only eight to a strong Pittsburgh team and by six last weekend, albeit at home against Denver. "They could easily be 4-0," Phillips said
Tennessee has been in a cycle of win-lose, win-lose. By that measure, it's winning time. There are plenty of intriguing layers to this matchup, like Titans quarterback Vince Young trying to prove it was only a coincidence that both of his team's losses were against 3-4 defenses, like the Cowboys use. There's the 16 sacks by the Tennessee defense, tied for the most in the NFL, against Tony Romo and a Cowboys offense that's allowed a league-low one sack.
"Regardless of whether it's Romo or Johnny Unitas back there," said defensive end Dave Ball, Tennessee's leading sack man with 4½, "we're going to try to get that guy on the ground." Then there's Titans running back Chris Johnson against a Dallas defense that had gone 22 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher before giving up 101 to Houston's Arian Foster. Johnson is coming off a meager 53 yards against Denver. He's going to have to pick up the pace if he expects to reach his goal of 2,500 yards this season. He'll certainly be looking to prove a point to the Cowboys. They had a chance to draft him in 2008, and he wanted to play for them, but Dallas instead went with Felix Jones, a big-play threat who so far this season has only been a threat.
"Oh you think about that," said Johnson, who went to Tennessee just two picks later. "You want to go in the game and do better than that guy, any running back I'm playing I feel like I'm competing against. But that's a special situation playing against them and they picked him over me. ... I'm sure it'll be fun."
But will it be good, clean fun? The Broncos accused the Titans of "playing dirty after the snap." Tennessee leads the NFL in overall penalties and in personal fouls -- nine, all on a defense whose coordinator, Chuck Cecil, was fined $40,000 this week for making an obscene gesture. "Our penalties are high right now," Fisher said. "We have to get them under control and we will." The Cowboys are just hoping to stay in control, to not get baited into doing anything that might draw a flag.
"Once the play is made, we need to get up and get back to our huddle," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "I think that's the best way you nullify guys trying to do extra stuff." While the Cowboys are completely healthy, the Titans aren't. Starting receiver Justin Gage didn't finish the Denver game because of a strained left hamstring. He didn't practice Wednesday.
Tennessee also lost top draft pick Derrick Morgan, a defensive end, for the season, but could replace him with Jacob Ford, who has recovered from his own problem with a right ankle-knee sprain. These teams last met in October 2006, a game that proved memorable for many reasons: then-Tennessee defender Albert Haynesworth stomping his cleats into the face of Dallas center Andre Gurode, Terrell Owens' first game following an accidental overdose and Young's first NFL start. Tennessee also is in the midst of a 10-game winning streak against teams from the opposite conference, including a 29-10 smashing of Dallas' division rival, the New York Giants, just two weeks ago.