Rivalry Renewed

IRVING, Tex. - The more things change, the more things stay the same. At least that's the case, according to tight end Jason Witten, when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys' preparation for any game against their longtime rivals, the Washington Redskins.

The NFC East foes find themselves in the unusual position of facing each other in a December matchup that almost certainly will have absolutely no bearing on the NFL playoffs. At 4-9, the Cowboys know they're not headed to the postseason. With a record of 5-8, Washington's playoff chances are not necessarily dead, but they clearly are on life support.

"It's still the same when we play the Redskins — it doesn't change at all because of the records," Witten said. "We could be tied for first place or tied for last, and when we get together, there's a special feeling to it.

"Any time you play a division opponent, it's different than other games. You see them every year — twice every year. You know them, they know you."

Much has been made this season about the Cowboys' offensive players who have been lost to injuries: starting quarterback Tony Romo and wide receivers Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree are done for the remainder of the season. Running back Marion Barber returned to the practice field Wednesday, but head coach Jason Garrett said no determination has been made about how much (if at all) Barber will play Sunday against the Redskins.

But it's not like the Cowboys are the walking wounded and welcoming a healthy Redskins team to Arlington. The banged up Dallas offense will be challenging a Washington defense that will barely resemble the unit that lined up in the season opener, a 13-7 Redskins victory Sept. 12. Cornerback Carlos Rogers has missed three of Washington's last four games because of a hamstring injury, but returned to practice this week on a limited basis. Whether he returns is not yet known. Also missing will be LaRon Landry — perhaps the league's best safety this year before suffering an Achilles tendon injury that ended his season prematurely, and the world's biggest (literally) human headache: part-time defensive lineman Albert Albert Haynesworth whose understanding of the word "team" got him suspended for the rest of the season.

Witten said that despite the absence of at least two of the Redskins' best defensive players, the Dallas offense won't change the way it gets ready for Sunday's game.

"I don't know that our preparation changes," Witten said. "Landry is a really dynamic guy who was having an unbelievable season before he got hurt, a real breakout year."

Wide receiver Miles Austin said it's not even fair to speculate about changes in the Dallas offense.

"The coaches didn't say what we would have done if those guys were in there," Austin said, "so we don't know how our game plan is going to be different."

Austin agreed with Witten that Landry had an exceptional season for the Redskins, but also said the Washington defense has adequate replacements.

"If (Landry) isn't back there, that hurts, because he's a big-time player," Austin said. "But (backup Reed) Doughty does a good job, too."

Witten and Austin agreed that although the Cowboys and Redskins both almost assuredly will miss the playoffs, there should be no lack of intensity when the teams meet Sunday.

"It's a big game, a Sunday game, and it's against the Redskins," Austin said. "It's still a rivalry. It's the Redskins — that's all we need to hear."

The fact that free agency has allowed players to move from team to team, and many players from different teams know each other through off-field activities or things like a shared agent, Witten said the notion that teams no longer dislike each other is not accurate.

"There's still some of that," he said. "The neat thing about this division is that each team has its own rivalry with the others. I'm sure different guys dislike different teams in the division, but yeah, games against teams like the Redskins are always important, no matter what our records are."

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