GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — There will be another Cowboys Christmas. Dallas will be playing on Dec. 25 for the fifth time, more than any NFL team.
Since they are the Cowboys, there is bound to be a big audience, even if Saturday night’s game pits a 5-9 Dallas team against the 4-10 Arizona Cardinals, whose season has been circling the drain for two months.
The Cowboys have won four of six since Wade Phillips was fired and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett became interim coach. Arizona, meanwhile, has lost eight of nine, most recently an embarrassing 19-12 defeat against what was then a one-win Carolina team.
More than the coaching change, Dallas quarterback Jon Kitna said it was a locker room visit by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that was responsible for the turnaround.
“Jerry Jones came in on the day of the change and put everybody on notice,” Kitna said, “which was `It’s your guys’ performance that cost the man his job and if you don’t think other changes aren’t coming if this doesn’t stop, you’re fooling yourselves.”‘
Dallas went on the road and beat the New York Giants and since have victories over Indianapolis, Detroit and, last Sunday, Washington. The Cowboys blew a 20-point lead against the Redskins before winning on David Buehler’s 39-yard field goal with 50 seconds to play.
The Cowboys’ only losses since the coaching change were against New Orleans and Philadelphia, each by three points.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing our another,”‘ Kitna said when asked to explain the turnaround, “but I think the biggest thing is we’ve been more consistent running the football, which keeps defenses honest. If I had to say one thing, that would be it.”
The Cowboys’ offense has fired on all cylinders despite the loss of quarterback Tony Romo with a broken collarbone. This week, the team abandoned any plans for Romo returning this season, placing him on injured reserve.
The 38-year-old Kitna, who didn’t take a snap last season, has completed 66 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
“We feel really good about Jon,” Garrett said. “We were fortunate to get him a couple of years ago as our backup. He’s a very experienced guy, a guy who we believe goes about it the right way. He’s very competitive. He works very hard at it.”
Big receivers have given the Cardinals big problems this season, so it could be a big night for Dallas tight end Jason Witten, who caught 10 passes for 140 yards against Washington.
“They’ve got a lot of good football players, explosive players on both sides of the ball,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “In the last few games they’ve been playing well. They haven’t been making the mistakes that have cost them and they’ve made some plays, too. Hopefully from watching that we can do a little bit of the same thing, play a little better, make fewer mistakes and make some of those plays.”
Arizona’s quarterback is 16 years younger than Kitna. Rookie John Skelton, just 22, gets his third straight start, returning to the scene of his successful debut in a 43-13 win over Denver two weeks ago, the Cardinals’ only victory since Oct. 10.
Skelton grew up in Texas but was no Cowboys fan.
“Nope, I hated the Cowboys,” he said. “Everyone around me was a Cowboys fan growing up. My friends, my mother was a big Cowboys fan,” Skelton said, “but my dad was from Oklahoma. He couldn’t stand the Cowboys and he installed that on me.”
Derek Anderson, who started nine games at quarterback for Arizona, missed the last two because of a concussion but probably will be cleared to play. He may wind up the team’s third quarterback, with newcomer Rich Bartel the backup to Skelton.
For Arizona, the holiday game is an opportunity to shed some of the awful baggage of a lost season.
“As rocky as this season has been,” running back Tim Hightower said, “you don’t get any better opportunity than this. We’re not going to make the playoffs, but to get a chance to play in that playoff atmosphere-type game, a lot of excitement. A lot of people who don’t even watch football are just going to be sitting in front of the fireplace finding something to watch and they’ll end up flipping to the game.”
There’s plenty of history in this series, mostly in favor of the Cowboys. The teams have met 85 times because both were, despite the geography involved, members of the NFC East for many years. Dallas is 22-8 in the last 30 meetings and had a 13-game winning streak from 1990 to 1996, the longest against a single opponent in Cowboys’ history.
Arizona’s last game against Dallas, also in Glendale, was in 2008. The Cardinals won 30-24 in overtime when Sean Morey blocked a punt and Monty Beisel returned it 3 yards for a touchdown. Cowboys punter Mat McBriar broke his leg on the play — and the Cardinals went on to the Super Bowl.
Arizona’s lone Christmas appearance came in its 1995 season finale at home against Dallas. The Cowboys won 37-13. Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan, who a year earlier came to the desert and said “You’ve got a winner in town,” made a hasty exit to the tunnel before the game’s final play. He was fired the next day.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)