Previewing Washington

The Dallas Cowboys look to strengthen their hold on a playoff berth today against their archrival.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/18/05
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 92nd meeting. Dallas holds a 54-35-2 series lead. The Cowboys have won 14 of the last 16 meetings. Washington won earlier this season 14-13. Dallas has defeated Washington more times (54) than any other team. The Cowboys have faced only one team (Philadelphia -- 93) more times than the 91 times they've faced the Redskins. The Cowboys won a series-high 10 consecutive games from 1997-02.

2005 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 13th (14th rush, 14th pass); defense 10th (13th rush, 13th pass). Redskins: offense 14th (5th rush, 19th pass); defense 9th (12th rush, 11th pass).

PREDICTION: Cowboys 20-13

KEYS TO THE GAME: Every down counts for two teams who have both had 10 of their 13 games decided by seven points or less, including Washington's 14-13 victory in Dallas in Week 2. While RB Clinton Portis has come on strong for the Redskins by averaging 113 rushing yards over the past five games, WR Santana Moss has just three catches of at least 30 yards the past seven weeks because of the lack of a complementary threat. Lacking the big play, Washington must control field position and time of possession. The Cowboys' running game has been inconsistent, but it is the key to setting up the downfield passing attack. QB Drew Bledsoe will want to test the Redskins secondary, which has its top three cornerbacks banged up. But that won't be easy with big question marks at both tackle positions and the Redskins likely to bring a variety of blitzes.

FAST FACTS: It has been nine years since both teams finished better than .500 in the same season. Cowboys: WR Terry Glenn needs 21 yards to become the franchise's first 1,000-yard receiver since Raghib Ismail in 1999. Redskins: Coach Joe Gibbs is 54-18 (.750) in December. ... Seek first season sweep of series since 1995.

PERSONNEL NEWS: Cowboys: --DE Chris Canty did not practice Thursday but remains probable with a sprained ankle. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells hopes Canty will be able to practice on Friday. But he said Canty will have to demonstrate he can function at some point before he can play against the Redskins on Sunday.

--WR Patrick Crayton hasn't caught a pass in two games since returning from ankle surgery. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said Crayton has been rusty.

"I think this is a guy - I'm pretty sure I'm not misjudging this, now - I think this is a guy that has to practice," Parcells said. "He grooved himself a certain way. I think some guys can just get back and be right on it. I don't think he did that very well, so I don't think it has anything to do with the physical. It's just getting in tune with the game now."

--CB Anthony Henry did not look like the same player against the Chiefs last Sunday as he did earlier in the season, when he was considered the most valuable player on defense. It was Henry's first game after missing three of the previous four with a strained groin. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has told Henry he is waiting on the guy who played for the Cowboys before he got hurt, not the one that wearing No. 42 now.

--QB Drew Bledsoe said he came to Dallas in the off-season to play meaningful games in December as a part of a playoff contender. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells is counting on Bledsoe's experience in big games and his motivation to win to serve as an example for the younger players on the team.

"That is the fun part of this game, really," Parcells said. "And I think the older you get or the more you've been in it or the more you've done it, the more you appreciate that. He's been in a couple of Super Bowl chases and in the playoffs several times and I think that's the thing that's probably driving him... This game is a test all the time for all of us, but just because you've failed the test every once and a while doesn't mean you don't enjoy that part of it, because you do. You don't enjoy not succeeding in some respects, but you do enjoy the process of playing to do it. That's what he's really saying."

Redskins: --CB Shawn Springs didn't practice again Thursday because of the back and groin injuiries that knocked him out of the second half of last Sunday's game at Arizona. However, Springs said he will start this week against Dallas.

--CB Carlos Rogers didn't practice again Thursday because of the left biceps he injured against the Cardinals. Rogers maintains that he'll play on Sunday.

--CB Walt Harris, who missed the Arizona game, didn't practice again Thursday, but plans to be ready for Sunday.

--DE Renaldo Wynn rested his sore hamstring for a second straight day Thursday but said he'll start his team-high 62nd straight game on Sunday.

--T Chris Samuels, who sprained his right knee and right ankle against the Cardinals, returned to practice Thursday and will start against the Cowboys.

--S Matt Bowen, who bruised a knee against Arizona, returned to practice Thursday and should play on Sunday.

--WR Santana Moss returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday with a sore hamstring and will start against the Cowboys.

INSIDE THE CAMPS: Redskins Santana Moss came to Washington from the New York Jets in March with a reputation as a speedy but inconsistent receiver. The Redskins had acquired Moss for the more proven Laveranues Coles, who had averaged 87 catches the previous three seasons. Moss had never caught more than 75 passes in any of his four seasons and had averaged just 49 catches the previous three years.

Moss had just five catches in the preseason and four more (albeit one for 52 yards) in the season opener against Chicago as the Redskins won without scoring a touchdown. And with less than four minutes left in Week 2 at Dallas, Moss had just three more catches for 50 yards.

Trailing 13-0 and facing fourth-and-15 at the Dallas 39, Moss got free of cornerback Aaron Glenn and safety Roy Williams on a combination of inside and outside moves to catch a touchdown pass from Mark Brunell that closed the gap to 13-7. And on the second play after Washington got the ball back, Moss blew past the secondary on a post and hauled in a 70-yard bomb from Brunell in stride for the game-winning touchdown.

In just 71 seconds, the Redskins had ended a decade of defeat in Dallas, showed that the somnolent offense could hit big plays for touchdowns, resurrected Brunell's career and jump-started that of Moss.

"That game helped me so much, coming to a new city with a lot of expectations, to really get off on the right foot," Moss said. "People had that little if in their heads: 'Do you think he can do that?' That game gave that sense of, 'This is what he can do.' "

Or as Brunell put it, "It was kind of a coming-out party for Santana."

The Redskins, who had only acquired Moss because Coles wanted out, were hopeful that he could make that kind of an impact. But they weren't really sure until those two touchdowns made the 5-foot-10, 190-pound former champion sprinter into "Santana the Cowboys-slayer."

"We couldn't buy a deep ball last year, and what those two plays did for us was give us two big ones in a crucial game," coach Joe Gibbs said. "Since then, we've been much more productive. As much as anything, it was confidence for us. Certainly Santana made a real statement in that game and he continued it with every game. When we make big plays, it's almost like Santana makes big plays."

Those big plays have been much harder to come by since No. 2 receiver David Patten was lost for the year before the Oakland game on Nov. 20, and No. 3 receiver James Thrash was hurt against the Raiders.

But Moss is still enough of a presence that defenses have to focus on him, which diverts their attention from stopping running back Portis. Despite the paucity of big plays of late, Moss leads the league in third-down catches heading into Sunday's rematch with Dallas. And he still has 1,167 yards, second in the NFL, and 73 catches, tied for sixth.

Only five Redskins - Charlie Brown (1983), Art Monk (1984, 1985, 1989), Gary Clark (1986, 1989), Henry Ellard (1994) and Coles (2003) - have ever had more catches and yards in the same season than Moss, and he still has three games to go. And at 26, there is plenty of football - and big plays - ahead of him.

Cowboys: Defensive end Greg Ellis saw it coming in the off-season.

At 280 pounds, he knew he wasn't a good fit for the 3-4 defense. He was too small to take the pounding on an every-down basis. He knew the Cowboys would eventually be looking in another direction. He said as much, causing a controversy in the preseason.

Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said it was much ado about nothing and that Ellis would continue to have a big role with the Cowboys.

Well, 13 games into the season, Ellis is pretty much a backup to rookie defensive end Chris Canty.

Canty has started the past two games, primarily, Parcells said, because the Cowboys were facing run-oriented offenses and Canty gave them a better chance of stopping the run because of his size. But while Ellis had started the previous 11 games, his role has been the same as it was the last two weeks. He has averaged about 25 plays a game, playing mostly as a nickel pass-rusher.

Ellis, who led the team in sacks in each of the past four years and leads in 2005 with eight, understands what's happening but refuses to make a big deal out of it.

"This is not a disappointing thing to me," Ellis said. "The main objective is to win football games. If the Dallas Cowboys feel like this gives us our best chance to win, then that is what we are going to do. I have no problem with that."

Due a $500,000 roster bonus in March and a $3 million salary next year, Ellis also understands that what is good for the Cowboys this year might not be acceptable in 2006. He said is very well aware of the future implications but can only worry about this year right now.

"We are just trying to hold it together, win as many as we can this year and move on from there," Ellis said.

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