Neither football pundits nor fortune tellers predicted the stunning and rapid demise of the Dallas Cowboys.
Widely touted as Super Bowl contenders, with the possibility of playing in the big one in their own palatial park – Cowboys Stadium hosts Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 6 – the club cratered.
Beaten 13-7 by the Redskins on opening day, the Cowboys skidded to a 1-7 start that led to the firing of coach Wade Phillips and the elevation of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to an interim post. The Cowboys won the NFC East last year with an 11-5 record that included a sweep of the Redskins.
They've righted themselves a bit since the shakier days of the early season, winning three of five under Garrett and with backup quarterback Jon Kitna starting the last seven games with Tony Romo (shoulder) out. Kitna, a 14-year veteran, saw plenty in his travels around the NFL and he said the results of any given season should never be viewed as surprising.
"You never get to pick up where you left off the season before and every year is different in this league," he said the other day by phone from the Cowboys' training facility in Irving, Texas.
"I don't know that you could be surprised. I think disappointed is more the word I would use, you're disappointed that it went that way, that you kind of put yourself behind the 8-ball in the football season. Disappointing, certainly. I wouldn't say surprising because to say surprising would mean you could never have seen it happening and that would be a little bit naïve."
Phillips' firing and the promotion of Garrett changed the tenor of the Dallas season. With the Cowboys 3-2 since the switch. Still, hardly in line with the grandiose expectations of the summer.
"Well, I don't think it is the time to be impressed by anything," Garrett said. "We are not looking back on anything and we are not looking too far ahead. We are just trying to make this day great and that is something we try to express to our players on a daily basis."
The 4-9 Cowboys host the 5-8 Redskins in what amounts to a battle for third place in the NFC East. Both teams have been eliminated from playoff contention but Kitna, 38, disregards all but what lies ahead.
"We've got three games left. Playing in this league and competing at the highest level is something I don't take for granted, so I'm looking forward to these last three games," he said.
As are the the Redskins. They would like to snap a three-game losing streak and sweep the season series from their hated rivals for the first time since 2005.
"It's Dallas," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "You said it all."
QUOTABLE: "I like to play in the cold. I don't like to practice in it but I'd rather play when it's 40 degrees than 90. If it's cold, you can always put on more clothes." – Redskins tight end Chris Cooley. ... "He really is a good person who made a dumb mistake." – Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini on suspended New York Jets strength coach Sal Alosi. Alosi, who tripped Miami Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll on the sidelines Sunday, was originally hired by Mangini. Alosi was suspended for the rest of the season and fined $25,000. ... "If I got a dollar for all the naysayers and doubters that I've encountered in the last two, three years, I'd be a very wealthy man." – Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake, who leads the NFL in sacks with 14. Wake went undrafted out of Penn State in 2005, was cut in training camp after signing with the New York Giants, spent a year as a mortgage broker and then played in the Canadian Football League before signing with the Dolphins last year. ... "The first two drives of the last three games have resulted in 30 points – three touchdowns, three field goals. Not good." – St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, talking about his defense's recent slow starts. ... "We have no room for error. Everyone else in the NFC East is keeping pace and playing very well. We can't afford any setbacks now." – Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. By everyone else in the NFC East, he means the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom the Giants are tied at 9-4. They play Sunday at New Meadowlands Stadium.
AROUND THE NFL: When Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely ran five yards for a touchdown on a fake field goal against the Denver Broncos, he became just the fourth kicker since 1970 to score a touchdown. Tim Seder of the Dallas Cowboys did it last in 2001 and also done it the season before. The two others: Phil Dawson of the Cleveland Browns in 1999 and Jess Atkinson of the New York Giants in 1985. Feely also kicked five field goals and his 25-point day was the second highest total ever by a kicker, behind the 26 notched by Rob Bironas of the Tennessee Titans in 2007. Feeley accounted for 22 consecutive points in that 43-13 whipping and earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. ... Browns running back Peyton Hillis rushed for 108 yards against the Buffalo Bills, giving him five 100-yard games this season. That's a first for the Browns since Jamal Lewis posted six in 2007. ... The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost two more starters in their victory over the Redskins. Rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (triceps) and linebacker Quincy Black (broken arm) are out for the season. If they go on injured reserve, the Bucs will have 12 players on IR, having lost six starters in their last three games. That's going to make their playoff run a little tougher. They're 8-5 but the schedule seems relatively favorable with home games against the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. Then, though, comes a roadie against the New Orleans Saints, who are 10-3 and among their competition for a wild-card berth. The Atlanta Falcons lead the NFC South at 11-2. The Bucs started five rookies on offense and a second-year quarterback in the 17-16 win over the Redskins. ... The Kansas City Chiefs (2,150) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2,052) have rushed for more yards than the Carolina Panthers have passed for (1,964). Panthers rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen has thrown one touchdown pass and seven interceptions. … The Chiefs and New England Patriots are tied for the league low in turnovers with nine each. The Giants have the most (33). ... The Eagles have won 12 of their last 13 games played in December and they've beaten the Giants five in a row. "A couple of years ago it went back and forth and the Giants had the upper hand on us," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said. "I won't say we have their number."
Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.