By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Dallas Cowboys find themselves languishing in a state of uncertainty at the quarter-point of this NFL season, having easily handled the softer opponents on the schedule but coming up short when pitted against more formidable foes.
Those recent trends bode well for the up-and-down Cowboys, who will be out to bounce back from a frustrating loss in this Sunday's tilt with the winless Kansas City Chiefs from Arrowhead Stadium.
Dallas finds itself at 2-2 through the first four games of 2009, with those two victories having come at the expense of Tampa Bay and Carolina, teams that are a combined 0-7 thus far. On the other hand, the Cowboys have been dealt defeats by a pair of unbeatens in the New York Giants and Denver.
The Cowboys could take some solace in the fact that they had the opportunity to win both of those games. The Giants handed a mistake-laden Dallas squad a 33-31 setback in Week 2 on a field goal on the game's final play, while Denver needed a rousing goal-line stand in the closing seconds to hold on for a 17-10 win this past Sunday.
Quarterback Tony Romo marched the Cowboys down to the Broncos' two-yard line with nine seconds left to play, but misfired on three straight throws in an attempt to deliver a potential game-tying score.
The Chiefs have far greater problems at the moment, with the team having failed in four tries to get rookie head coach Todd Haley his first career win. Kansas City has been especially futile in its two encounters with NFC East members, having suffered lopsided losses to Philadelphia and the Giants in back-to-back weeks.
Haley's troops weren't very competitive in last Sunday's 27-16 home loss to New York, being outgained by a 429-193 margin in total yards and falling behind by a 27-3 score before coming up with two touchdowns with the outcome already in hand.
Results such as that one have been commonplace for the Chiefs for quite some time. The club enters Sunday's matchup having lost 27 of its last 29 games and is 0-8 against the NFC over that poor stretch.
Dallas will be coming in with some health concerns at a number of key positions. Big-play running back Felix Jones is expected to sit out a second straight contest with a sprained left knee, while the status of both top wide receiver Roy Williams (bruised ribs) and three-time Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode (knee sprain) is uncertain after each sustained injuries against the Broncos.
Dallas has a 5-3 edge in the all-time series with Kansas City, including a 31-28 home victory when the clubs last met, in 2005. The Chiefs won the previous meeting, a 20-17 affair at Arrowhead Stadium in 1998. The Cowboys are 0-2 in Kansas City since scoring their lone win there during the 1970 campaign. The Chiefs began life as the Dallas Texans and spent three years (1960-62) in the city before moving to the Show-Me State.
Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 3-2 in his career against the Chiefs, including 2-2 while at the helm of the Broncos (1993-94) and 1-0 while with the Bills (1998-2000). Phillips is 2-1 lifetime at Arrowhead Stadium. Haley, a Dallas assistant from 2004 through 2006, will be meeting both Phillips and the Cowboys for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas is at its most dangerous when it can overpower the opposition with a high-quality ground attack that's averaging 163.8 yards per game, the third- best mark in the NFL this season. Running backs Marion Barber (244 rushing yards, 3 TD, 4 receptions) and Tashard Choice (133 rushing yards, 1 TD, 12 receptions) were held squarely in check by Denver's tough defense last week, however, which in turn affected the performance of Romo (990 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT). The highly-scrutinized triggerman was sacked five times and threw a costly interception deep in Broncos territory in the third quarter. He probably won't have the services of the ailing Williams (11 receptions, 1 TD) on Sunday, meaning reserves Miles Austin (5 receptions, 1 TD) and Sam Hurd (4 receptions) will be called upon to play a bigger role alongside perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten (23 receptions, 1 TD) and wideout Patrick Crayton (11 receptions, 1 TD) in the game plan. Barber sat out much of the second half of last Sunday's loss with a sore quadriceps that sidelined the bruising back for the team's Week 3 win over Carolina, but should be closer to 100 percent for this one.
Romo will be bombing away at a Kansas City defense that ranks an unwanted 27th versus the pass (250.5 ypg) and was powerless in its attempts to stop Eli Manning and the Giants a week ago. New York's star signal-caller put up 292 yards and three scores before exiting early in the fourth quarter, with wide receiver Steve Smith shredding the Chiefs' secondary for 134 yards and two scores on 11 catches. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali (13 tackles, 2 sacks) did have a sack and forced fumble of Manning in the loss, and the converted end will be counted on to apply pressure to Romo and help protect young cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (14 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Brandon Carr (11 tackles, 6 PD). Expect inside linebacker Demorrio Williams (28 tackles) and veteran strong safety Mike Brown (27 tackles, 1 sack), the top two tacklers of a group that's just 23rd overall against the run (128.5 ypg), to again be busy in trying to contain Dallas' potent ground game.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City has been a mess on the offensive side of the ball as well, having converted a league-worst 17.6 percent of third-down conversions while ranking next-to-last in total yards (246.5 ypg). A below-average offensive line has struggled to sufficiently protect intended franchise quarterback Matt Cassel (458 passing yards, 5 TD, 2 INT), who's been sacked an alarming 10 times in three starts, and open holes for running back Larry Johnson (189 yards, 7 receptions). The two-time Pro Bowl honoree is averaging an anemic 2.6 yards per carry. Cassel would be helped out by a return to full health from wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (10 receptions, 2 TD), who was hardly a factor against the Giants due to a tender hamstring that kept him out of the previous week's loss to Philadelphia. Journeyman tight end Sean Ryan (11 receptions, 2 TD), a one-time Cowboy, is coming off a good game, having posted career-bests of five catches and 58 yards along with a touchdown versus New York. Kansas City went just 2-of-15 on third downs in its most recent loss, one week after going 0- for-11 in that situation against the Eagles.
The Cowboys have been rather suspect in defending the pass, having surrendered a subpar average of 256.3 yards per game via the air (28th overall) and giving up a late 51-yard touchdown catch to the Broncos' Brandon Marshall that provided the deciding margin in last Sunday's setback. Dallas also comes in a bit short-handed in the secondary, with starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh (18 tackles) out indefinitely after breaking his right thumb in the Denver game. A lack of pass rush from a unit that led the NFL in sacks last season has been part of the problem, with Dallas having produced just six over the first four games and All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (16 tackles) shut out in that category so far while drawing constant double-teams. The proven playmaker topped the league with 20 quarterback takedowns in 2008. The Cowboys have been generally solid against the run and are pretty strong along the interior, as nose tackle Jay Ratliff (7 tackles, 1 sack) can be a disruptive force and inside linebackers Keith Brooking (26 tackles) and Bradie James (26 tackles, 1 sack) are sure tacklers.
Other than the injured Roy Williams and Jones, give the green light to all of Dallas' primary offensive weapons in Sunday's clash with the porous Chiefs. The reports gave been good on Barber in regards to his quadriceps, so feel free to use the touchdown machine in what looks to be a very juicy matchup. Romo and Witten are must-plays as well, while Hurd becomes an intriguing waiver-wire pickup with Williams likely on the shelf. Kansas City's obvious protection issues even make the disappointing Dallas defense a good choice for this week. Bowe offers the best potential among a weak crop of Chiefs skill players, although Ryan's recent outings give the relatively unknown tight end some value as a bye-week fill-in. With the Chiefs probably forced to throw often and the Cowboys having struggled against the pass, Cassel wouldn't be a bad selection at the quarterback position.