IRVING (AP) – At its best, the Dallas Cowboys’ offense can do whatever the defense dares them to do.
Want to pack the secondary and take away Tony Romo’s favorite receivers? Then DeMarco Murray will ram through a thinned front line.
Want to slow Murray and pack that front line? Then Romo will take aim at a weakened secondary.
Every team tries doing the same thing, of course, but the Cowboys feel they are among the few teams that have the talent to pull it off. And those chances seem to be improving just in time for their Sunday night game against the New York Giants, which also is a showdown for first place in the NFC East.
Star receiver Miles Austin and battering-ram fullback Tony Fiammetta returned to practice Wednesday and are expected to play Sunday. Austin has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury, and Fiammetta the last three with an undisclosed illness.
“We’re encouraged to see them back out there playing football,” coach Jason Garrett said.
The Cowboys went 2-1 in the three games those guys missed. But the two wins came on game-ending field goals, and the loss was in overtime after missing a potential game-winning field goal.
Maybe having Austin and Fiammetta back will revive the offense enough to avoid another tense finish.
“We feel like we have a rejuvenated offense,” said Laurent Robinson, who has emerged as the team’s top-scoring receiver in Austin’s absence. “We’re excited about this week and the challenge ahead of us.”
Austin, a 1,000-yard receiver each of the last two seasons, was slowed earlier this season by an injury to his left hamstring. He missed two games, played two, then hurt his right hamstring on Nov. 6.
The passing attack has been propped up by Robinson, Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten. Things should only get better for everyone with Austin out there, too.
“Miles is a Pro Bowl receiver and a very versatile guy,” Garrett said. “He can make plays down the field, he can make plays on shorter catches — break catches and beat you that way. He’s also a very good blocker at the receiver position. So I think whenever you have a guy like that out there, teams know about him and will decide to do something to him or not. Guys like that give you an opportunity to open up other parts of your offense.”
How important is Fiammetta?
Look at the numbers. Murray’s numbers.
In the four games that he ran behind holes opened by Fiammetta, Murray averaged 150 yards. In the last three games, all without Fiammetta, Murray had a total of 198 yards, an average of 66 per game.
“He’s done a nice job for us in the time he was in the lineup,” Garrett said. “We’re excited about the possibility of getting him back.”
The Cowboys (7-5) could have been playing to wrap up the division title had they not blown their last game.
Now they’re facing these stakes: Win and take a two-game lead with three to play, or lose and fall into a tie for first, with the tiebreaker favoring the Giants (6-6).
Either way, the teams meet again in two weeks.
New York comes in on a four-game losing streak, but having narrowly lost to the unbeaten Packers in its last game. Plus, the Giants could be on an emotional uptick akin to the Cowboys’ lift from the return of Austin and Fiammetta, with New York buoyed by the return of running back Ahmad Bradshaw and the reopened division race.
“It’s going to make for good television, I’m sure,” Romo said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)