Cowboys - Falcons Preview & Prediction

What the Falcons have to do in order to pull off a critical upset doesn't play to their strengths. Offenses that have given the Cowboys trouble this season have been able to connect on several big plays with Dallas' safeties struggling in deep coverage.

KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:00 ET

GAMEDATE: 12/17/06

SURFACE: FieldTurf

TV: NFL Network, Bryant Gumbel, Dick Vermeil

SERIES: 23rd meeting. The Cowboys lead the series 14-8. Atlanta has won the last two meetings.

2006 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 4th (10th rush, 7th pass); defense 11th (6th rush, 19th pass). Falcons: offense 10th (1st rush, 32nd pass); defense 21st (10th rush, 31st pass).

PREDICTION: Cowboys 27-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: What the Falcons have to do in order to pull off a critical upset doesn't play to their strengths. Offenses that have given the Cowboys trouble this season have been able to connect on several big plays with Dallas' safeties struggling in deep coverage. But Falcons QB Michael Vick isn't highly accurate and his receivers drop far too many passes. Making life even more difficult is the possibility of the Falcons' top-ranked running game playing without injured RBs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, limiting Atlanta's ability to set up shots downfield. It adds up to the Falcons needing to generate a few momentum-changing plays defensively. Cowboys QB Tony Romo has come down to Earth the past few weeks. Dallas needs to make a more concerted effort to run the ball early to avoid sticking Romo in difficult long passing situations.

FAST FACTS: Cowboys: Clinch playoff spot with a victory and losses by Minnesota and Carolina. ... WR Terrell Owens has 16 receptions for 295 yards and three touchdowns in his past two games against Atlanta. Falcons: Vick needs 35 rushing yards to break Bobby Douglass' single-season NFL record for a quarterback of 968 set in 1972 for Chicago. ... Atlanta is on pace to rush for 3,163 yards as a team, which would fall two short of the all-time record set by New England.

Cowboys: --WR Terrell Owens said he remains frustrated by the snitches in the locker room, and after the season he plans to confront the people whom he believes have been leaking his every transgression. Right now, he said, he doesn't want to be a distraction to the Cowboys' playoff run.

--FS Tony Parrish still has not been cleared to play against the Falcons. Parish, acquired last week off waivers to give the Cowboys a veteran presence in the secondary, hasn't exactly wowed the team in practice the past two days.

--QB Tony Romo will not get a contract extension at the end of the season. Owner Jerry Jones said Romo has played well enough to show he can be the team's quarterback of the future, but Romo is signed through 2007, and Parcells said there is no need to redo his contract.

--WR Damarius Bilbo has been simulating Michael Vick in practice this week. Bilbo, a member of the Cowboys practice squad, has also been working at safety. The Cowboys are contemplating a position switch for Bilbo and are currently cross-training him at receiver and safety.

--FB Oliver Hoyte (knee swelling) practiced Thursday but did not look good. Coach Bill Parcells doubts that Hoyte will play against the Falcons.

Falcons: --CB DeAngelo Hall sat out practice again with a sore left knee that he injured against the Buccaneers. Hall is listed as probable, but he'll definitely play against Dallas. Hall said, "They'd have to put a gun to my head" to keep him out, and that he'd play "with one leg, no legs ... or rolling down the field in a wheelchair" to go up against Terrell Owens in prime time.

--CB Jason Webster returned for a second consecutive practice session Thursday, the first time he's been able to do that in over a month since tearing a groin muscle in a workout session. Webster did most of his work with the scout team, and he said he experienced a limited amount of tightness. He's listed as questionable, but he isn't expected to play Saturday night. A more likely return could come next Sunday against the Panthers.

--K Morten Andersen needs two points to surpass Gary Anderson and become the NFL's all-time leading scorer with 2,435 points. However, he needs only one point to break a tie with Anderson for the fifth-most points ever scored against the Cowboys, and three to pass Lou Groza for fourth place.

--LBs Keith Brooking and Ed Hartwell were back out on the field Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's practice session with sore knees. It was the first time Hartwell has missed practice since returning to action three games ago following rehab on his surgically repaired knees.

--WR Ashley Lelie was back working out Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice with a thigh bruise. Also returning were C Todd McClure (back) and T Todd Weiner (knee).

--DT Grady Jackson sat out for a second consecutive day with a knee injury. He is listed as probable.

Cowboys: Right now it's personal to every member of the Cowboys defense.

And it should be, because the team's hopes for the playoffs were damaged when the defense gave up 536 yards in a 42-17 blowout loss to the Saints. It was Dallas' worst performance of the season, and it came at the wrong time.

The Cowboys have three games left, starting Saturday against the Falcons, and the defense must step up. It won't be easy with quarterback Michael Vick on the other side of the field.

Although the Falcons don't have a multifaceted attack like the Saints, Vick might be the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

"He brings the same things to the table as (Saints running back) Reggie Bush," linebacker Akin Ayodele said. "But the difference is he has the ball on every play. He is more dangerous with his feet than with his arm."

Said safety Roy Williams: "He's a unique player. He's phenomenal. We can't let him break free because he's going to have a field day on us."

Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said he doesn't know if there is a key to stopping Vick. He said opponents have to pressure him and limit open space for him to run through. Parcells wants his defensive players to be aggressive, yet they must rush him under control.

"He creates problems because there's always the uncertainty that he's going to catch you with your back turned down the field in a space situation," Parcells said. "That's where the problems arise, the majority of them. If you're playing zone and you've got a lot of guys underneath in the coverage and he scrambles, there's a good chance the reaction will be good enough to keep him hemmed in. But it's when you get into a man-to-man situation, where people are running with receivers and really aren't aware of sometimes what's going on in the pocket, that you really have to be careful. Those are the things you worry about. But even in doing a good job, every once in a while he's going to get loose. It's just if you can keep that from being the plays that beat you. That's the main thing."

Falcons: The Falcons got some good news Thursday when one half of their running back combination returned to practice.

Rookie Jerious Norwood took part in the workout with the rest of his teammates after missing Wednesday's session with a right knee strain that occurred in Sunday's victory at Tampa Bay. Norwood seemed unimpeded going through his paces and carrying the football, displaying only a slight limp when he walking.

Norwood's injury -- the second time in the last month that he has hurt the same knee -- came just four plays after starting tailback Warrick Dunn went down with a bruised left calf, forcing starting fullback Justin Griffith to move over and play halfback.

Griffith, who set career highs with 12 attempts and 57 yards along with a 21-yard touchdown run while picking up the slack last Sunday, split carries with Norwood at halfback Thursday, and he also got in work at his regular fullback position.

Meanwhile, Dunn missed his second consecutive practice, but there remains the possibility he could work Friday. Dunn is just 3 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season and the fifth time in his 10-year career.

Norwood and Dunn are both listed as questionable on the latest Falcons injury sheet, and coach Jim Mora said it'll be a game-time decision if either will play against the Cowboys.

On Wednesday, Atlanta signed five-year veteran running back Jamal Robertson, who has seen duty with the 49ers and Panthers. The move was an insurance policy, providing a backup for Griffith in the event that both Dunn and Norwood can't suit up in a must-win game for the Falcons (7-6), who are in the thick of the NFC wild-card race with the Eagles, Giants and Panthers.

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