1. Keep giving Sammy Watkins plenty of opportunities.
Cornerback has been a weak spot for the Cowboys since Orlando Scandrick tore his ACL during training camp. Scandrick is Dallas’ best defensive player, and has proven difficult to replace. The Cowboys went more than a full season without a cornerback registering an interception until Terrance Mitchell picked off the Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick last week. Starters Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have both battled injuries this season. Watkins, meanwhile, is making a push toward his first 1,000-yard season. He needs 173 yards over the final two games to get there. With Robert Woods out for the year, the Cowboys will likely double team Watkins on every play in an effort to force Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor to go somewhere else with the ball. Even if that does happen, Taylor has to try and get Watkins involved as much as possible. At this point, there’s no harm in trying to force it to him from time to time, and it could be a good way to prep for next season, when Watkins again will be the focus of opposing defenses.
2. Dallas’ offensive line has paved the way for a resurgent Darren McFadden.
Since losing Tomy Romo to a broken collarbone twice this season, the Cowboys’ passing offense has predictably went in the tank. Dallas ranks 29th in passing yards per game (205.2) and dead last in interception rate (4.32 percent), going 1-9 in games started by either Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel. Not surprisingly, they’ve made the switch to Kellen Moore for this week. One area the Cowboys are competent on offense, however, is running the ball. Led by three Pro Bowlers on the offensive line (left tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin, center Travis Frederick), veteran Darren McFadden has gained 898 yards on 208 carries. As a team, Dallas ranks 10th overall in rushing and seventh in yards per rush. The Cowboys’ offensive line will be a big challenge for the Buffalo front seven.
3. A battle of weaknesses.
If you’re coming to Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, don’t expect to see much pressure on the quarterbacks. Both the Cowboys and Bills have struggled to establish much of a pass rush this season. Dallas ranks tied for 23rd in the NFL with 27 sacks. Rookie Randy Gregory has earned more playing time recently, but is still looking for his first sack, while embattled edge rusher Greg Hardy has 5.5 sacks this year. Dallas has gotten a boost lately from DeMarcus Lawrence, who has six sacks in his past six games. That’s more than anyone on the Bills, who have just 20 sacks, which ranks 30th in the league. Defensive coaches love to tell people that sacks can sometimes be overrated, but Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News pointed out this week that the average number of sacks for Super Bowl champions is 43. Both the Bills and Cowboys are miles from that.
4. Get it done if it’s close.
Taylor’s failures to pull games out in the fourth quarter this season have hurt the Bills, but Dallas is even worth in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys are just 2-6 in games decided by eight points or less this season, a winning percentage of .250 that is 31st in the NFL. Dallas has blown four fourth-quarter leads this season. The Bills, meanwhile, aren’t much better in close games, with a 2-5 record in games decided by eight points or less. Buffalo has blown one fourth-quarter lead. Getting Taylor more experience playing in a tight game, even if it is meaningless, would be good for the Bills.
5. Get a look at the young guys.
Bills coach Rex Ryan said the right things about playing to win the final two games of the season, but the reality is the outcome doesn’t matter. If anything, the team would be better served losing to get a higher draft pick. More important for the Bills is to use these two games as an opportunity to evaluate younger players, to see if they can play a role in the coming seasons. Ryan called it a “possibility” that some younger players will get that opportunity. Right tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, tight end Nick O’Leary, wide receiver Dez Lewis, nose tackle T.J. Barnes and linebacker Kevin Reddick are among the young players who could use more of an evaluation. In order to get them more playing time, the Bills are doing the right thing by playing it safe with players like tight end Charles Clay and linebacker Nigel Bradham, both of whom are dealing with injuries. There is no sense in getting them hurt again in a meaningless game.
Both teams have talented rosters and have been disappointed by seasons that have fallen far short of expectations. The biggest reason that happened in Dallas is Romo’s injury. Their quarterback situation is substantially worse than Buffalo’s at the moment, which should be the difference Sunday.
Buffalo 24, Dallas 20