This is it! Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins: Five key match-ups

Mike Shanahan Redskins

This is it!!! Much the aptly named Michael Jackson title, this really is it - With both the NFC title and post-season football on the line.

Win, and it’s a world of possibilities. Lose, and it’s very much a case of spending Sunday evenings on the couch wondering what could have been.

With such an enticing and decisive encounter looming large, I wanted to take a look at five match ups pivotal in deciding the outcome of this winner takes all showdown:

1. Dez Bryant vs. DeAngelo Hall

Despite concerns in some quarters over his capacity to consistently read routes, Bryant stands on the verge of producing something quite special as we head into 2013, fashioning 12 scores from 88 receptions; 10 in 7 only serving to emphasize his serge in form.

Bryant’s most impressive display coming in Dallas’s recent overtime loss to the Saints, a game in which he racked up 224 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

A colourful character that often divides opinion, Hall often attracts attention for what he says off the field rather for what he does on it. Thankfully this season, his consistent production has left the focus firmly on his football; picking off four passes and chalking impressive 92 tackles. Despite a propensity for chancing it, Hall has, as suggested by the aforementioned statistics, been a far more solid performer than in previous campaigns. Even so, with Bryant in such electric form, he can ill afford to take chances.

Verdict: Bryant. Despite a 38 - 31 loss on Thanksgiving Day, Bryant still produced impressive numbers, hauling in eight catches for 145 yards and two scores, and despite suffering from a fractured left finger (sustained against the Bengals in week 14), expect the Romo - Bryant act to wield another big day against a pass defense ranked 30th against the pass (287.7 yards per game).

2. DeMarco Murray vs. London Fletcher

Murray may not be yielding the awesomeness of his contemporary in D.C, but he gives the Cowboys offense a balance that was dearly lacking in the Week 12 clash between these two teams. Since his return from a six game absence in week 14 against the Bengals, Dallas with Murray back in the fold has accumulated an impressive 1,149 yards of total offense.

Murray's ability to articulate advancements on first downs will be massive come Sunday , especially when facing a defense that though ranking 28th overall, are 5th against the run; conceding on average 95.5 yards per game.

Fletcher, like other seasoned veterans, such as Denver’s Champ Bailey remains a stellar example of professionalism and dependency and despite being very much in the Indian summer of his career, 37-year-old Fletcher has tallied 128 tackles and picked off five passes through 2012.

Verdict: Fletcher. Despite notable improvements in offensive balance since his return, Murray has yet to break the 100 yard mark since his 131 yard effort against the Giants on opening night, and against a defense ranked 5th against the run, he still may not.

3. Pierre Garcon vs. Morris Claiborne

Since his return in Week 11, the Redskins haven't lost a single game, going 5 and 0. He represents the perfect foil to Santana Moss. Not only does he have the capacity to stretch the middle of the field, but he's also a dynamic runner extending plays after the catch. He had a decent game in the first meeting between these two teams in week 12, hauling in four catches for 86 yards and one touchdown.

Claiborne on the other hand has been decidedly erratic. The former LSU star possesses the ideal intangibles for the Cornerback position; strong, athletic and runs well. However, over enthusiasm can sometimes get the better of him.

Verdict: Garcon. Given his overly excitable nature, this is a matchup the Redskins will look to exploit early and often Sunday night; especially given Claiborne’s propensity for incurring penalties, as evidenced by the concession of five against the Eagles in week 9.

4. Trent Williams vs. DeMarcus Ware

Williams has shown this season why the Redskins acquired him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 draft, as he’s played an integral role in taking an offensive line that’s gone from 22 nd in 2011 to 15th in 2012. He's been outstanding as both a power run blocker and finesse pass protector, thus allowing the combination of RG3 and Alfred Morris (2, 165 rush yards and 30 touchdowns) to flourish (most notably through the ‘stretch play’).

A Hall of famer in waiting, Ware is arguably one of the finest pass rushers in the game today, an assertion ably supported by a career total of 111.0. Even more impressive is the fact that despite battling a combination of hyperextended elbow and a shoulder injury that in all probability will require post season surgery, Ware has still racked up 11.5 sacks this season.

Verdict: Williams. Under most circumstances despite the impact of Williams, logic would suggest Ware has the edge in this contest, but given the impact injuries that have had of late on his productivity (2 sacks in his last 6 games), Williams has a clear advantage in providing his dual threat quarterback with the time and space needed to wreak yet more havoc on this Dallas defense.

5. Kyle Shanahan vs. Rob Ryan

Ryan sees himself as a defensive guru, but there has been nothing mercurial about the Dallas defense since he was officially named as defensive Cowboys defensive coordinator on January 19, 2011. Following an 8 - 8 finish, the Cowboys missed the playoffs again, a major factor being a mediocre defense, ranking 14th in yards allowed per game and 16th in points allowed per game.

This season has seen scant improvement as Dallas are still ranked 14th in yards allowed, 21st in pass yards allowed, an even more worrying 23rd in points allowed, while only ranking 16th in QB sacks, and most recently gave up a shocking 34 points and 562 yards to the New Orleans.

“We’ve been competitive,” Ryan said. “Maybe we’re not going to be great, but we need to be better than we’ve been. Need to keep the points down, and that’s how you win, you know, as a team. Our strength is definitely offense right now, but we don’t want to be a second-class citizen. We played that way last week, and it showed against a great offense and a talented quarterback in Drew Brees. We need to bounce back, have a great game here and be a part of this.”

Keeping the points down will once again be paramount, especially against a Washington offense that left Ryan utterly befuddled as Kyle Shanahan’s adventurous game plan, executed to lethal effect by RG3 and Alfred Morris, shredded Ryan’s defense to the tune of a combined 437 yards and 38 points. 

Verdict: Shanahan. Once again the Dallas defense is in serious trouble against an offense ranked 5th in the league, putting up 408 points to date.

Overall verdict: Romo and Bryant will ensure Dallas put points on the board, and they should do against a pass defense ranked 30th in the league, the problem will be keeping them out the other end; an all the more daunting proposition when taking on the number one ranked rushing attack (an attack that’s putting up on average 162.3 yards per game) in the league with a defense ranked 17 th against the run.

With all things being considered, Romo will keep the Skins within his sights, but Shanahan’s imaginative schemes that allow him to mix things up in a manner that Dallas, ranked 31 st in rush yards (despite the greater balance that Murray gives to the Dallas offense) cannot, may prove enough for Washington to edge Garrett’s Cowboys. So, expect a closely fought contest that goes right to the wire, with the Redskins eventually prevailing 34 - 27.

Footnote: No Ryan led defense has ever made the play - offs.

image: © Keith Allison