ARLINGTON, Texas — Their playoff hopes all but gone, the Dallas Cowboys still can prove some things the rest of this season.
By continuing to play hard after a 1-5 start and while missing injured quarterback Tony Romo, they could show that they care. That, better late than never, they can stop making costly mistakes. That coach Wade Phillips isn't too soft, that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett does know what he's doing.
Then again, it's not like the Cowboys are going to sneak up on anyone.
If anything, their upcoming foes are probably giddy about kicking them while they're down.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are a perfect example.
Jacksonville (3-4) visits Dallas on Sunday looking for some healing of its own after losing the last two games by 22 and 27 points. The Jags could use a mood-lifter going into their bye and beating the heavily hyped Cowboys in their $1.2 billion stadium could be a perfect remedy. For guys who feed off negative motivation, they can think about being the team that loses to a creaky Dallas club now led by 38-year-old Jon Kitna.
"It's going to be two teams that are going to be feeling desperate, where they got to get a win," Jaguars quarterback David Garrard said. "We can't worry about the issues they're having, we got to worry about what we're doing."
Kitna likely will have the job for six to eight weeks while Romo's broken left collarbone heals. Don't be surprised if he has the job the rest of the season. Either the losses will continue to pile up and there will be no reason for Romo to risk another injury, or he'll be playing so great the Cowboys will want to continue riding it out.
Kitna hasn't started a game since 2008, hasn't won since 2007 and is 1-11 in his last dozen starts. But he spent 21 games getting familiar with the Cowboys' system and players, and he's as fresh as he is going to be the rest of the season. He's even got a little momentum built up — two touchdowns in the final 3:17 against New York on Monday night. (OK, so the Giants were up by 18 and probably not trying their hardest. But, still ...)
"Guys in this locker room know you have to be a professional each week and approach it like that and do your job," Kitna said. "We have 10 weeks left in this season, but the most important thing is that we need to stop the bleeding, so to speak, and get a win as soon as possible. That would be this week."
The blueprint for stopping the bleeding against the Giants was to get more turnovers, commit fewer penalties and improve on special teams. Well, the Cowboys did it all — getting five turnovers after having four all season, totaling a season-low five penalties and sparkling on special teams (93-yard punt return for a TD, 41-yard punt return and the longest return they allowed was 16 on a kickoff, 12 on a punt). And they still were down by 18 in the final minutes.
"They just haven't made the plays when they've had to make them," said Troy Aikman, the former Cowboys star turned Fox analyst. "That's what separates them from a lot of the other teams. Good teams generally make those plays or at least make your share of them, and they haven't really made any."
Both teams would love to get their running games going.
The Cowboys are averaging 86 yards per game, near the bottom of the NFL. They had only 13 attempts in the last game (four by starter-in-name-only Marion Barber and nine by new main man Felix Jones) and will need far more to help ease the load on Kitna. It also would help keep the clock running while their defense is resting on the sideline.
Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio is asking his run-stoppers to "give the kind of commitment to the nastiness that you have to have to be good at it."
"There's only one way," he said. "You can't be timid in stopping the run. You can't misfit it and stop the run. You've got to fit it properly and you've got to go with attitude. All of the great run defenses in the history of this league have had those common denominators."
Maurice Jones-Drew is halfway to 1,000 yards, but is well off his pace from last season. He'll be running behind a new starter at right tackle, and he'll be running against a defense that's gone from rarely allowing a 100 yards to one player to doing so nearly every week.
"It's another opportunity to show what we can do," Jones-Drew said. "I think it gives us a chance to get back on our feet and make some plays."
When the quarterbacks drop back, each will be keeping an eye out for trouble.
Garrard has never faced Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware, but he's seen enough highlights to know that he wears No. 94. Ware has eight sacks, only one-half off the league lead.
"You don't want to let him disrupt the game, you don't want to let him take the tempo of the game," Garrard said.
For Kitna, the guy to watch is Aaron Kampman. He has four sacks in seven game — and 5½ sacks of Kitna in his career, his most against any quarterback.
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