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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 17, 2011 at 11:22 AM

You probably know that the Dallas Cowboys are currently tied for first place in the NFC East with the New York Giants. And, you probably know that there's little margin for error for the Pokes in the playoff race as they head into Saturday Night's nationally televised game at Tampa Bay.

Were you aware that:

  • Dallas has been a pointspread DISASTER in recent weeks, going 1-6 ATS the last seven games, and 3-8 ATS the last 11 games?

  • The main reason for that disaster has been a fading defense that seems to get more vulnerable with each passing week?

In the past few seasons, the Cowboys world has tended to revolve around Tony Romo. If they won, he was the hero who would get hyped on ESPN like he was the next coming of Brett Favre. If they lost, he got all the blame...because it was usually a high profile screw-up at the hands of Romo that cost the team the game. He didn't deserve all the praise during the best of times, and he didn't deserve all the blame during the worst of times.

With the addition of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator in Dallas, it was now assumed that the defense would be playoff caliber. Any losses would HAVE to be blamed on Romo because any Ryan coached defense is going to be great!

The 2011 Cowboys have basically been hiccupping their way through the season. They're seen as a playoff caliber team, and therefore priced that way in Las Vegas. But, they've been flip-flopping between wins and disappointment since losing the Jets, beating San Francisco, beating Washington, and losing to Detroit in the first month of action. That yo-yo has helped to hide from the mainstream media the fact that the Dallas defenses is in a downward spiral.

Let's briefly run through the defensive lowlights of the last seven games...picking up with the loss in Philadelphia that followed the complete shutdown of St. Louis (in a year where just about EVERYONE is shutting down St. Louis!).

  • Philadelphia just abused Dallas 34-7, averaging 7.1 yards-per-play on almost 500 yards of total offense. Michael Vick passed for over 250 yards with just seven incomplete passes...fooling the world into thinking he had found the best form of his prime. A horrible performance from the Dallas defense.

  • Seattle moved the ball surprisingly well in a 23-13 loss in Dallas, gaining 6.2 yards-per-play on the way to 381 yards of total offense. Both of those numbers are high for Seattle. But, three turnovers helped keep the Seahawks off the board. The 10-point scoreboard win helped disguise the defensive flaws in a game that few watched on television.

  • Buffalo was in the early stages of their second half collapse when they visited Dallas. You'll recall the Cowboys won that won 44-7, and established in the minds of many their playoff bonafides. It wasn't realized yet how bad Buffalo had become. Dallas was 5-4 in the standings, but coming off a couple of double digit victories.

  • Washington gained over 5.0 yards-per-play thanks to 276 passing yards by Rex Grossman. This has largely been a poor year for Grossman, except when he gets to throw against Dallas! The Cowboys would win 27-24 in overtime to move to 6-4 on the season. But, their pass defense was exposed again.

  • Miami suddenly looked like an offensive threat after a year of dormancy (that would ultimately get their head coach fired). The Dolphins topped 5.0 yards-per-play and 300 total yards, while scoring three times on drives of 60 yards or more. Those aren't big numbers in terms of the whole league. But, we're talking about Miami here. Dallas was showing a distressing tendency to boost an opponent's stats. Miami, Seattle, and Washington got better...Philadelphia made a run at 500 yards.

  • Arizona kept the storyline going with 5.9 yards-per-play and three more scores on long drives. You wonder what would have happened if the Cowboys hadn't kept running into crappy offenses!

  • The New York Giants brought a good offense to Dallas last week. You probably watched the Sunday Nighter on NBC where Eli Manning passed for 400 yards, and led his team past 500 total yards in a 37-34 thriller. In terms only of the Dallas defense, this was basically a replay of the Philadelphia debacle.

Total Yards: Philadelphia 495, NY Giants 510
Yards-Per-Play: Philadelphia 7.1, NY Giants 7.7
Drive Points: Philadelphia 24, NY Giants 24
Total Points: Philadelphia 34, NY Giants 37

Rob Ryan's defense was invisible vs. top offenses...and consistently let lesser offenses exceed their norms. THIS is the story that the media hasn't been telling very well. The Cowboys enter the final three games of the season with a fading defense that can't be trusted, and a challenging schedule that could ultimately keep them out of the 2011 playoffs.

Tonight: at Tampa Bay
Next Week: vs. Philadelphia
Finale: at NY Giants

Two of the last three games are against the teams that gained about 500 yards against them! And, Tampa Bay at home has a chance to make the game interesting at the very least. This has been a disappointing season for the Bucs. You would expect peak intensity for a big TV game like this though, with "America's Team" coming to town.

So, as you watch the game Saturday Night on the NFL Network, keep an eye on that Dallas defense. That's where the December Drama may truly lie from this point forward.

Now...onto our standard indicator numbers.

Dallas: 13.5 on offense, 12.1 on defense
Tampa Bay: 8.7 on offense, 16.0 on defense

These are points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. Note that Dallas is at 14.4 only counting the games we've outlined above. They started the season well...but have faded badly with time. Of course, Tampa Bay has been bad all season! So, it's possible that Dallas will still have the edge in this category Saturday Night. Dallas clearly has the better offense. Josh Freeman of Tampa Bay has been a disappointment this season, as has the whole team up and down the roster. Those are the Drive Point stats of a 4-12 caliber squad.

Dallas: 39% on offense, 39% on defense
Tampa Bay: 35% on offense, 39% on defense

This is one of our favorite stats. It's telling that Dallas DOESN'T look like a playoff caliber team in these numbers. The league average is down to around 38% this the offense is actually slightly above average, while the defense is slightly below. Still, the championship caliber teams impress in this stat. Dallas doesn't. Tampa Bay has really struggled offensively.

Dallas: +5 (23 takeaways, 18 giveaways)
Tampa Bay: -10 (21 takeaways, 31 giveaways)

That Rob Ryan defense has picked up the slack a little in this department. And, Tony Romo has significantly improved his play in this regard after a shaky start to the season. Dallas lost the ball 15 times in their first eight games, but just three times in the five games since. We could probably say that Tampa Bay's offensive collapse is one of the un-reported stories of this season too. It's just that the Bucs fell off the radar a few weeks ago and aren't getting any national coverage for anything. What was supposed to be the offense of a playoff contender can't move the chains and is constantly turning the ball over. DISASTER!

JIM HURLEY is working very closely with his on-site sources to determine the mindset of the Bucs. If they DO show up with a bowl game attitude because there's nothing left to play for outside of a big TV game vs. a marquee team...then the dog +7 is going to make a lot of sense. That's much higher than this line would have been two months ago...with the same players on the field. But, if the Rays have thrown in the towel after losses the last two weeks by margins of 27 and 19 points to Carolina and Jacksonville (ugly!), then Dallas can name the score. Don't forget that Houston won on this field 37-9 five games ago. The Bucs lose BIG when the wheels come off.

You can purchase this NFL Saturday Night Special along with our BOWL TRIPLE CROWN right here at the website with your credit card. Or, sign up for the rest of football at great rates and start things off with this super Saturday card. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back with your Sunday to preview Baltimore-San Diego and look at the AFC playoff picture. Monday we'll preview Pittsburgh-San Francisco, with or without Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. Tuesday it's back to the bowls as the full bowl bonanza starts to take shape. Fasten your seat belts...A FOOTBALL FRENZY IS ABOUT TO BEGIN

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