(Sports Network) - The Dallas Cowboys have played some decidedly unspectacular football over the past two weeks. If recent history is any indication, however, Wade Phillips' club will find their antidote when the Oakland Raiders visit Big D for the Cowboys' traditional Thanksgiving Day contest.
The Cowboys have won four of their last five on Thanksgiving, including three straight, and have outscored their opponents by a composite of 106-22 over the last three years. Dallas routed Seattle, 34-9, on the holiday last year, and also has decisive victories over the Jets (34-3) and Buccaneers (38-10) to serve as positive recent reference points.
Such a dominating performance would be welcomed for Dallas on Thursday, in the wake of back-to-back listless efforts against the Packers (a 17-7 loss) and Redskins (a 7-6 win), games in which the Cowboys failed to score a single point over the first three quarters.
When hated Washington visited last week, Dallas needed a touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Patrick Crayton with less than three minutes to play to come up with the one-point win.
Romo, who was playing through a back injury suffered when trying to make a tackle on an interception earlier in the game, was a pedestrian 15-of-27 for 158 yards with the TD and pick for a team that was just 3-of-11 on third-down conversions.
The Dallas defense was a bigger credit to the cause but still allowed 140 yards on 20 touches to Washington third-string running back Rock Cartwright.
Despite the recent sketchy play, the Cowboys (7-3) remain in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, one game ahead of the close-pursuing Eagles (6-4) and Giants (6-4) and four clear of the Redskins (3-7).
The visiting Raiders also come off a narrow Week 11 victory that required late heroics, though the degree of difficulty in Oakland's triumph was considerably more impressive than that of Dallas.
Against the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals, a two-loss team that had just come of impressive back-to-back wins over the Ravens and Steelers, Oakland rallied late to win, 20-17, and halt a three-game losing streak.
Making his first start as a Raider, journeyman Bruce Gradkowski completed 17- of-34 passes for 183 yards, two touchdowns, and just one interception in the victory, leading a gritty 11-play, 80-yard drive culminating in a 29-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy to tie the game at 17-17 in the final minute.
Moments later, after the Bengals' Andre Caldwell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Sebastian Janikowski drilled a 33-yard field goal to lift Oakland to an upset that gave the team a head of steam heading into a difficult two-game road swing against the Cowboys and Steelers.
Oakland (3-7) enters Week 12 in a tie for third place in the AFC West along with Kansas City, and four full games behind the division-leading San Diego Chargers.
The Raiders last played on Thanksgiving in 1970, when they dropped a 28-14 decision at the Detroit Lions. Oakland is 3-2 all-time on the holiday, with their last such win coming in 1968 against the Bills.
The Cowboys' most recent Thanksgiving Day loss occurred in 2005, a 24-21 overtime decision against the Broncos.
Oakland has a 6-3 lead in its all-time regular season series against Dallas, and extended its win streak in the series to three with a 19-13 home win in the last meeting, in 2005. The Raiders are 3-0 in road games with the Cowboys all-time, and were 13-12 winners when they last visited Big D, in 1998. Dallas' last win in the series came in Oakland in 1995. The Raiders haven't lost a meaningful game in Dallas since 1962, when they dropped a decision to the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) there.
The teams also met during the 2009 preseason, with the Raiders coming up a 31-10 winner on August 13th in Oakland.
Dallas head coach Wade Phillips is just 1-6 in his career against the Raiders, including 0-5 while with the Broncos (1993-94) and 1-1 while with the Bills (1998-2000). His total with Denver included a 42-24 loss to the then-Los Angeles Raiders in a 1993 AFC Wild Card matchup. The Raiders' Tom Cable will be meeting both Phillips and the Cowboys for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Gradkowski's play last week vindicated all of those who had been calling for the team to bench JaMarcus Russell for weeks, as the Toledo product doubled the Raiders' touchdown-pass output on the season from two to four, also completing 50 percent of his passes, which Russell failed to do four times in his nine starts. Gradkowski (346 passing yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) has experience against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, having opened the Buccaneers' 38-10 loss to Dallas back in 2006. The then-rookie was 10-of-20 for 120 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in that game. The quarterback's directive this week will be to get the ball into the hands of wideouts Murphy (17 receptions, 2 TD) and Chaz Schilens (5 receptions), along with trusty tight end Zach Miller (34 receptions, 2 TD). Miller led the Raiders with five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals. Oakland would also like to get its three-headed rushing monster of Michael Bush (377 rushing yards, 2 TD, 14 receptions), Darren McFadden (182 rushing yards, 1 TD, 10 receptions), and Justin Fargas (336 rushing yards, 2 TD, 13 receptions) untracked. The trio combined for 84 ground yards on 18 carries last week, with Fargas leading the way with eight totes for 32 yards. Despite last week's effort, the Raiders are last in the league in total offense (227.3 yards per game), scoring offense (10.8 points per game), passing offense (125 yards per game), completion percentage (48.3), touchdowns scored (9), touchdown passes (4), and fumbles lost (12).
While the Cowboys offense has sputtered, the team's defense has kept Dallas in the game in each of the past two weeks. Though the unit allowed plenty of yards between the 20s and had just one sack and one turnover against the Redskins, the Cowboys' ability to keep Washington out of the end zone for the entire day was the difference in the win. The strength of the Dallas defense is a pass rush, led by outside linebacker Demarcus Ware (39 tackles, 7 sacks), which has generated 25 sacks on the season. The pass rushing effort could be especially critical against the Raiders, as a defense that ranks just 20th in the league in passing yards allowed (229.3 per game) could be missing safety Ken Hamlin (ankle) and cornerback Mike Jenkins (elbow, head) due to injuries. The Cowboys are seventh in the league against the run (100.6 yards per game), with Jay Ratliff (26 tackles, 4 sacks) and Marcus Spears (14 tackles, 2 sacks) leading the charge up front and inside linebackers Keith Brooking (73 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bradie James (73 tackles, 1 sack) doing much of the cleanup behind them. Brooking and James had eight stops each against the Redskins last week. Dallas is tied for last in the league in takeaways (12) along with Washington.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Clearly, much of the focus on Thursday will be on a Dallas offense that has averaged 11.3 points over its past three games, on the heels of piling up a total of 75 in wins over the Falcons and Seahawks. Romo (2624 passing yards, 15 TD, 7 INT) must reclaim his chemistry with the receiving corps, which has seen top wideouts Miles Austin (35 receptions, 7 TD) and Roy Williams (24 receptions, 3 TD), along with tight end Jason Witten (54 receptions, 1 TD), be conspicuously silent. Austin hasn't crossed the 50-yard receiving plateau in his last three games, Witten in his last four, and the much-discussed Williams went without a grab for the second time this year last week. That said, Dallas might be better off going to a run-heavy approach against an Oakland defense that has given up its share of big plays this season. Running backs Marion Barber (572 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Felix Jones (353 rushing yards, 1 TD) combined for 148 yards on 30 combined carries last week (4.9 per rush), though Barber's lost fumble was concerning. The Cowboys o-line has surrendered 23 sacks of Romo this year, and will have to protect the former Pro Bowler well given his injury concerns on Thursday.
One Oakland player of whom Romo and the Cowboys will certainly be aware on Thursday is pass rusher Greg Ellis (21 tackles). Ellis, who recorded his team- leading fifth sack of the year against the Bengals last Sunday, posted 77 sacks as a member of the Cowboys from 1998 to 2008. Ellis will represent one major problem for Romo, and the other will be a secondary, led by cornerback Nnadmi Asomugha (24 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Tyvon Branch (81 tackles, 1 sack), which made life difficult for Carson Palmer and the Bengals receivers last week. Asomugha posted his first interception of the season in the win, while Branch had a huge day with 12 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. As mentioned, the Raiders have had some trouble against the run, including last week when Cincinnati piled up 177 ground yards in the absence of leading rusher Cedric Benson. The team's front, led by end Richard Seymour (30 tackles, 4 sacks), will have to be active against Barber and Jones at the point of attack, while linebackers Kirk Morrison (84 tackles) and Thomas Howard (58 tackles, 2 sacks) attempt to make plays in the next line of defense. Oakland is 30th in the NFL against the run (157.7 yards per game), last in the league in rushing touchdowns allowed (16), and is one of four NFL teams without a defensive or special teams touchdown this season (Browns, Jaguars, Redskins).
With the possible exception of the tight end Miller, who always seems to contribute something to the proceedings, fantasy owners should still consider the Raiders to be more or less radioactive. None of the team's backs or receivers gets the kind of touches you'd want out of a starter, and the Dallas defense is solid to boot. If you're desperate to use a Raider, make it Janikowski, who has quietly had a solid season.
Romo has frustrated fantasy owners with his performances of the past couple of weeks, and though his back injury is concerning, it's a little too tempting to leave him on the bench against a hit-or-miss Raiders defense. The same goes for Barber and Jones, who could gash a soft Oakland front seven. Among the receiving corps, Austin and Williams are bound to wake up at some point, and though he's been invisible at times, this matchup has breakout potential for Witten. Dallas kicker Nick Folk is a decent play here despite a rough couple of weeks, and the Cowboys defense - which has played extremely well of late but been overshadowed by the struggling offense - should get the nod against Gradkowski and the Raider attack.
It's difficult to put a finger on the Cowboys' offensive struggles of the past couple of weeks, but it seems unlikely that Dallas, with a bevy of talented weapons on offense and one of the best-regarded play-callers in the league in Jason Garrett, is going to be kept at bay much longer. The Raiders, who have some talent on defense but not quite enough of it, won't go lightly against Romo and company but figure to give up some big plays. On the other side of the ball, Gradkowski's late heroics last week partially masked the fact that the offense committed three turnovers and was just 4-of-11 on third-down, and there's little reason to expect the journeyman to have Oakland running up and down the field this week. Look for the Cowboys to continue their Thanksgiving Day dominance, and for Dallas to remain ahead of the posse in the NFC East for at least another week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 31, Raiders 7