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This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Dallas Cowboys in a game brimming with playoff implications for both teams. A Steelers-Cowboys match-up really needs no added incentive. Steeler fans hate the Cowboys, Dallas fans detest Pittsburgh. Even though the two teams only play each other once in a blue moon, it doesn’t dissipate the level of animosity and anticipation between the fan bases.

The Cowboys have adopted the moniker of “America’s Team.” No two words inspire more bile to well up in the stomach of Steeler Nation. The fact Jerry Jones and his merry band of miscreants have adopted that as both marketing slogan and credo will never cease to anger us. Usually these rivalries mean more to fans than they do to the players but it seems that isn’t always the case.

Ben Roethlisberger gave an interview on Wednesday where he was asked about the “America’s Team” moniker. Ben suggested if the Cowboys represent American, perhaps the Steelers should be referred to as the “World’s Team.” Not the cleverest bit of trash talk although you have to admire that Ben’s heart is in the right place. Certainly no team has a larger or more passionate fan base be it in the US or around the world than do the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bragging right are all well and good but that’s a secondary concern come Sunday afternoon. As I said, both teams are in the thick of a playoff race. Both teams need a win to keep pace. A loss at this juncture could severely cripple their post-season plans. In fact, a loss could very well wind up knocking a team out of the picture altogether.

STEELERS DEFENSE vs COWBOYS OFFENSE

Tony Romo continues to be Tony Romo. What that means is you always have to take the good with the bad. The good is when he’s on, he can be a very competent passer with the kind of arm capable of making all the throws. The bad is he’s still prone to boneheaded mistakes. Romo has throw for 4,000 in every season he’s been healthy and started and he’s less than 100 yards away from eclipsing that total once again. Unfortunately, coming off a year where he posted a career best TD/INT ratio (31/10) he’s fallen back to old habits this year, nearly balancing his stat sheet with 20 TD against 16 INTs.

One bit of good news for Romo and company is that his best target, WR Dez Bryant, is adamant about playing this Sunday despite suffering a broken finger. Bryant is currently 10th in yardage and has caught 9 of Romo’s TDs so his presence would definitely be missed. How effective he’ll be catching balls with a broken finger remains to be seen. Mike Wallace can’t catch balls with two perfectly manicured hands so maybe having all your fingers operational isn’t that big a deal.

The Dallas packing attack remains strong with TE Jason Witten continuing to be one of the most dangerous pass catching targets in the game. He and Bryant are complemented by Miles Austin, whose 2012 campaign has been beset by injury. Perhaps to their detriment, the Cowboys don’t run as much as they should although Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray remain threats out of the backfield.

I’m not gonna lie, Dallas’ passing game scares the heck out of me. Coming off an utter dismantling at the hands of Phillip Rivers (who really didn’t even play that well) and a crew of utter no-name receivers, this game has the potential to get real ugly real fast if the Steelers’ secondary doesn’t play a helluva lot better. To that end, the Steelers have already decided Curtis Brown, who was about as useful as tits on a giraffe against San Diego, will ride the pine in favor of Josh Victorian. Victorian, who spent the entire season on the practice squad, didn’t exactly shine in his brief stint last Sunday but I can safely say it’d be nearly impossible to play worse than Brown did.

LaMarr Woodley has been practicing and it appears the Steelers will have their oft-injured LB back for the game. Of course, the Football Gods have deemed it unfair for us to have both Woodley and James Harrison together for any length of time so look for one (or both) to leave after a handful of plays. On paper, it looks like the defense will be formidable with both Woodley and Troy Polamalu back after extended absences but I think we’ve seen enough of Troy to know he’s playing at half speed. Whether that’s good enough for him or Woodley or Harrison to force another big game-changing turnover remains to be seen.

STEELERS OFFENSE vs COWBOYS DEFENSE

Big Ben and company better bring their A-game or else last week’s anemic offensive effort is gonna look like an ArenaBall game by comparison. I don’t know what has gone wrong with Todd Haley‘s offense but something clearly has. Going back to the game against KC, the offense has been sputtering to a standstill even with Ben at quarterback.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is because nothing seems to work. The running game doesn’t move the chains. The passing game creates opening only for passes to CLANG harmlessly off the receivers’ hands. The short quick routes still end with Ben running for his life. And the end result is a team with a load of offensive talent on paper struggling to score points.

The offensive line will look different yet again with rookie first rounder David DeCastro finally getting a start at RG. Ramon Foster will slide over to the left while Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey remains in the middle. Whether this line-up will open up some holes for the running game is anybody’s guess. It will certainly help matters if Jonathan Dwyer and iRed can get something going on the ground.

The Cowboys boast perhaps the fiercest pass rush we’ve seen all year. OLBs Demarcus Ware (11 sacks) and Anthony Spencer (8.5) will eat Ben up if the team becomes one dimensional. Corners Brandon Carr and Maurice Claiborne aren’t the flashiest secondary even though they’ve combined to form the 8th best pass D in the league. Dallas has a very strong defense so when the plays present themselves, it’ll behoove the Steelers to not let those opportunities slip through their fingers.

The last time these two teams met during the regular season, a pick six by Deshea Townshend turned the tide of the game and perhaps of the season. The Steelers went on to win and then went on a roll which culminated with a heartstopping victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Will this game be a similar springboard? Or will it be just another stop on the path to diminished expectations?

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