Denver Broncos (8-2) at Dallas Cowboys (7-3)
KICKOFF: Thursday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein
SERIES: 9th meeting. The Broncos and Cowboys have split their first eight regular-season meetings. Denver has won the last two, including a 26-24 win at Dallas on Thanksgiving in 2001. The Cowboys beat the Broncos in Denver's first trip to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1977 season.
2005 Rankings: Broncos: offense 4th (2nd rush, 20th pass); defense 17th (2nd rush, 28th pass). Cowboys: offense 14th (13th rush, 14th pass); defense 5th (9th rush, 10th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cowboys can leave a serious mark on the playoff picture if they can win their third game in 11 days by knocking off one of the league's hottest teams. But to do so, QB Drew Bledsoe will have to avoid the poor decisions that have plagued him in Dallas' losses. The Broncos have the ability to stop the run with their front seven, which likely will put the game on Bledsoe's arm to attack a defense allowing 240.4 passing yards per game. The Cowboys can't afford to lose the turnover battle because Denver's offense is playing very efficiently. The Broncos are averaging 4.9 yards per carry and QB Jake Plummer is thriving while feeding off short-yardage situations. If the Broncos can build an early lead and turn the offense over to RBs Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, the Cowboys could be in trouble with a large discrepancy in time of possession.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: CB Champ Bailey has already tied a career high with five interceptions. ... Both losses have come on the road. Cowboys: Five of their final six opponents have winning records. ... Bledsoe has passed for less than 200 yards in three of his past four games and threw for a season-low 110 last Sunday.
--DE Marco Coleman was activated against the Jets because the Broncos needed some more depth at strongside end with Courtney Brown banged up. If Brown's knee is fully healthy by Thursday, Coleman could go back to being inactive.
--LB Al Wilson is having one of his best seasons. He leads the Broncos with 63 tackles and has been very effective as a blitzer. He also is the leader of Denver's defense.
--CB Lenny Walls is still on injured reserve, recovering from a groin injury. Once Walls recovers from the injury he will be placed on waivers and his Broncos career will come to an end.
--OT George Foster will probably continue to rotate with Cornell Green at right tackle. Green has played well enough in his spot duty of Foster to earn his playing time. Foster was bothered by a knee injury early in the season, which prompted Denver's coaches to start the rotation.
--LB Louis Green is second on the Broncos with nine special teams tackles. Green missed some time earlier this season with a hamstring injury, but is showing his value to the team covering kicks. Green and Keith Burns are Denver's top two tacklers on special teams.
--QB Drew Bledsoe wants coach Bill Parcells to open the offense back up. The Cowboys have grown conservative since the injury departure of left tackle Flozell Adams. They have used max protection schemes, sending less receivers in the pass route. Bledsoe has followed suit by passing for less than 200 yards in three of the last four games. All Parcells cares about is winning and Bledsoe understands as much. Parcells said he is doing what he thinks is best for the team. What's also true, according to Bledsoe, is that Parcells would prefer to win running the ball and playing solid defense than with a wide open passing game.
--RB Julius Jones and RB Marion Barber are splitting time in Dallas. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, however, admits being envious of the Denver two-headed ground game with Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson. Bell has rushed for 640 yards and five touchdowns, while Anderson has rushed for 782 yards and eight touchdowns. "I'd actually like to do that pretty much the way they are doing it," Parcells said.
--CB Anthony Henry may or may not start against the Broncos Thursday. But he is making progress after missing the Eagles game because of a partially torn groin. Henry played only in the nickel defense against the Lions last Sunday. Henry said it will take some time before he'll be 100 percent again. He said the injury affects everything and will only get better with rest. Suffice it say, Henry is looking forward to the 10 days off between the Broncos game and the Giants game on Dec. 4 in hopes of being ready to go all out for the final stretch of the season.
--DE Greg Ellis leads the Cowboys with seven sacks. He has recorded a sack and forced a fumble in the fourth quarter in each of the last two games to more than prove coach Bill Parcells right. Remember it was Parcells who predicted Ellis could play in the 3-4 defense and would be more productive getting less snaps. Ellis thought differently before the season, believing he was too small for the more physical 3-4. "Good football players can play in any scheme," Parcells said. "There isn't any doubt about it. Good guys make their own way and the guys that think they have to have a certain thing, they're probably not very good. I think Greg has adjusted well. He's doing a good job. I think he gets it now."
--QB Tony Romo has yet to throw a pass in a game this year. As the Cowboys are making a playoff push they don't know what they have in their backup quarterback if he was forced into action because of an injury to starter Drew Bledsoe. Romo has not been as sharp in practice lately as he was in training camp because of the limited reps. "I think I have a mentally bright, studious guy who now is mature enough as a pro player in his third year to put in the time to prepare himself, regardless of the fact that he may not play," Parcells said. "So I do feel confident about that. Now if he were just thrown into the fray right now, I can't tell you exactly what I think he would do. But I do like the player and I think he's studious and trying to keep up as best he can and trying to be sharp."
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Broncos: When Mike Shanahan got to the office on Monday morning, he didn't bother watching film of the Denver Broncos' win over the New York Jets from the day before. There was no time.
The Broncos have an unusual week of preparation for their Thanksgiving matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. They had three fewer days of preparation than a typical week, which meant some concessions needed to be made.
First was dumping the normal Monday film review -- Shanahan said he'd get to the Jets film after Thanksgiving. Also, Shanahan said he won't be able to go into the Dallas game with his normal large arsenal of plays.
"You don't have the time to probably have a normal game plan," Shanahan said. "You still put in a few wrinkles."
Shanahan had a chance to back out of the game. He was asked by the NFL if the Broncos wanted to play on Thanksgiving -- the Cowboys needed an AFC opponent to accommodate the television broadcast, the only options were Denver and Kansas City -- and Shanahan said he could have passed because the Broncos played on Thanksgiving only four years ago.
But Shanahan wanted the challenge once again.
"You have to play them at home sometime so why not do it now?" Shanahan said.
The Broncos will get a few more days to prepare for a big AFC West showdown at Kansas City on Dec. 4, which might be the biggest benefit from playing in the game.
The tradeoff is a hectic week of preparation. Shanahan said it started for the coaches before they even played the Jets. Instead of going home after Friday's practice and Saturday morning's team meeting, the coaches stayed at the team's facilities and broke down film of the Cowboys.
"It's a little bit different preparing for the upcoming opponent when you haven't finished the game against the Jets," Shanahan said.
On Monday the team concentrated on special teams. Tuesday was spent installing the offensive and defensive game plans, as the Broncos crammed two days worth of practice and meetings into one day. The Broncos needed to review goal-line and short-yardage plays and install the red-zone package during a short practice Wednesday before hurrying to the airport.
The Broncos also have the physical challenge of playing two games in five days, which might be more difficult than the mental aspect of the preparation.
"Your body definitely isn't healed by Thursday, but that's the game," Broncos linebacker Al Wilson said. "That's what the league calls for us to do so we have to do it."
The reason Shanahan wasn't worried about playing on Thanksgiving is he thought his team, which is full of strong veteran leadership, would respond well to the rigors of a condensed week of preparation.
"We've got a veteran team that understands the demands that a short week has," Shanahan said. "Both teams are in the same predicament. The one who handles the elements the best usually wins."
When Bill Parcells joined the Cowboys in 2003, he told them to get their expectations up. Parcells was trying to rid the team of the culture of losing from three straight 5-11 seasons. He said he came to Dallas to turn the Cowboys into winners as he was too old to lose.
With his team 7-3 and sitting in first place in the NFC East, Parcells is still trying to get his team to play up too his standards.
v Considering his hard-to-please nature, even a win against the high flying Broncos (8-2) won't be enough for Parcells.
Beating the Broncos would certainly legitimize the Cowboys as a possible Super Bowl contender, but it will mean more work down the road to Parcells.
"I'm not worried about that because then all we'd have to do is play the Giants after that to legitimize us and then we have a game with Kansas City to legitimize us," Parcells said.
The crusty coach says he wants his team to play with more consistency. He wants the players to understand the big picture.
"I just want my team to be more consistent in its performance that's all," Parcells said. "We are doing some things very well. We are doing extremely well on penalties, comparatively speaking. By and large we've played pretty solid on defense. There are just some areas we have to do better in. It's just the way it is."
Parcells' attitude is a testament to just how far the Cowboys have come since last season's 6-10 campaign.
Riding a three-game winning streak despite not playing your best in the past two outings is simply not good enough anymore.
The last three times they have won three straight games in a season they made the playoffs. Of course, they were one and done each time in 1998, 1999 were just thrown into the fray right now, I can't tell you exactly what I think he would do. But I do like the player and I think he's studious and trying to keep up as best he can and trying to be sharp."
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