IRVING (AP) – Both coaches get questions about their job security. Both quarterbacks have to answer to unsightly interception numbers.
Other than that, Dallas and Cleveland are in very different places going into Sunday’s game at Cowboys Stadium.
The Cowboys (4-5) made it through the difficult, road-heavy part of their schedule with their playoff path barely navigable, but navigable nonetheless. Tony Romo and company now get five of the season’s final seven games at home, and only one of those opponents — Pittsburgh — has a winning record.
The Browns (2-7) have more reason to think about next season than postseason as they come off their bye week. After the Cowboys, Cleveland and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden still have the Steelers twice and a visit to Denver against Peyton Manning.
“I think you try to stay away from the schedule, whether it’s good or bad,” Dallas tight end Jason Witten said. “You really can’t worry about what’s outside, and what record, and who’s playing who. You’ve got to worry about your opponent that upcoming week. This league’s too hard to try to do anything else other than that.”
Two weeks ago, Romo was far ahead of Weeden and the other four rookie NFL starters with 13 interceptions. But Weeden and some veterans are closing in after Romo had consecutive turnover-free games against Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Cowboys didn’t beat the Falcons, but they rallied past the Eagles sparked in part by a Romo scramble and completion that kept Dallas from trailing going into the fourth quarter.
Dallas fans have always wondered what would happen if Romo ever combined risky magic acts with stingy ball protection, and they might find out in three straight home games ending with a Philadelphia rematch Dec. 2.
“Every week he’s going to be challenged the same way,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We never want to get to the point where he’s got it down pat. He doesn’t have it down pat. Nobody does. That position is too challenging. So you’ve got to make sure you’re thinking about it the right way every week, you’re taking care of the ball every week and you pick your spots every week.”
Every week seems to bring on new issues for Garrett. He spent the week before the Cowboys beat the Eagles addressing questions of whether suspended New Orleans coach Sean Payton would take his job after a report that the NFL had voided his contract with the Saints. He also had to answer criticism from his old coach, Jimmy Johnson, about whether the Dallas practice facility was a “country club.”
On the day of the Philadelphia game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to respond to a report that ousted Cleveland president Mike Holmgren was interested in Dallas after he said he might return to coaching when the Browns let him go. It’s no secret that Jones and Holmgren are close, but Holmgren emphatically said he would never show interest in somebody else’s job while they still had it.
The Philly win quieted the chatter, but a loss to last-place Cleveland wouldn’t help Garrett.
“All your focus has to be on this week and getting one win,” Witten said. “I thought we did a good job of that amongst the distractions outside.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur has a stronger case for distractions than Garrett. He has a new owner, a new president, and a 6-19 record in his second season. His roster is young and promising, starting with rookies Weeden, an older-than-usual newcomer who has 12 interceptions but is showing improvement, and receiver Josh Gordon, who leads first-year receivers with 417 yards and is tied for first with four touchdowns. Trent Richardson is third among rookie running backs with 575 yards.
Whether playing for Shurmur or playing for pride, the Browns say they’ll play.
“Playoffs or not, when you’re out there, you never want to get beat,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. “People in here … rock, paper, scissors, you don’t want no one to beat you. It’s just the nature of the NFL, that no matter when you’re out there, you’re fighting to win.”
If Shurmur doesn’t keep his job, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could be a candidate to replace him. Ryan was the defensive coordinator in Cleveland for two seasons prior to coming to Dallas, and the reunion has been a hot topic this week.
Ryan’s first season in Dallas wasn’t good, but the Cowboys are holding steady at eighth in total defense despite losing star linebacker Sean Lee and safety Barry Church for the season, along with extended absences for several other key players.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to take a whole lot away from his time here because really, I mean, the personnel is nearly, totally different,” said Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas. “I know guys on the defense love playing for him. He’s a guy who’s tough to prepare for because of how detailed he is and how he calls his games.”
While the Cowboys prepare for a rare rash of home games, there is debate about whether cavernous Cowboys Stadium is much of an advantage. Dallas is 1-2 this season and 14-13 since the $1.2 billion showplace opened — with just two November wins. Local radio chatter is filled with complaints that the place people go to worship the Cowboys is about as loud as a church on Sunday.
“That’s all on us,” said cornerback Brandon Carr, who had his first interception for the Cowboys and his first career touchdown on the return against the Eagles. “We have to create the atmosphere. We’ve got to defend our home turf. Once you start doing that, then the fans will take some pride in us playing at home.”
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