So fragile were the Dallas Cowboys, they turned into patsies while quarterback Tony Romo watched with a broken right pinkie. Romo’s return has turned around everything.
And the NFL is much more interesting with the Cowboys riding Romo to big victories.
But their path to the playoffs must go through the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. It’s the week’s most intriguing matchup, and the oddsmakers say the teams match up evenly.
The Steelers, with the league’s No. 1 defense, are 3-point home favorites.
Dallas (8-4) again is being touted as the most serious threat to the New York Giants’ supremacy in the NFC.
That’s because Romo has led a three-game winning streak and recalled memories of the Cowboys’ explosive start.
But a game in Pittsburgh presents Romo’s toughest test yet.
The Steelers’ defense wreaks more havoc than a motorcycle gang, with safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison pushing on the gas all the time.
Polamalu has a league-high six interceptions, and Harrison is third in the league with 14 sacks. When he’s pressured, and he will be severely in this game, Romo gets careless with the football.
Usually, he can lean on running back Marion Barber. But a right pinkie toe injury forced Barber to miss his fourth consecutive practice Friday, and with rookie backup Felix Jones out for certain, that makes the Cowboys fragile in the backfield.
The Heinz Field grass can cause speed receivers such as Terrell Owens to run as slow as ketchup.
Add the possibility of bad weather, and the Pittsburgh defense is a good bet to win the battle against the Dallas offense.
The Steelers roughed up New England 33-10 on the road last week, sacking the Patriots’ Matt Cassel five times.
The interceptions that plagued Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have not been a problem in recent weeks. He has the support of a reliable running attack and receiver Hines Ward, who personifies his team’s toughness.
Good news for Roethlisberger: Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the NFL leader with 15 sacks, is bothered by sprained a left knee.
Pittsburgh (9-3) is a definite threat to win the AFC and should ride its defense to a win and cover against the Cowboys.
Here are four more plays for Week 14 (Home team in CAPS):
* BEARS (-61/2) over Jaguars: If not for some clumsy goal-line play calling, Chicago would have led 14-3 at Minnesota last week. But the Bears blew the game, and now they need a strong showing to stay in the playoff picture. Jacksonville, off a blowout loss at Houston on Monday, is a team without a postseason dream.
* PACKERS (-6) over Texans: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a 91.2 rating, better than Brett Favre’s 90.4, but who’s comparing the two? Rodgers needs more help from a poor Packers defense. This situation strongly favors Green Bay. The Texans are 3-9 against the spread in their past 12 road games.
* Eagles (+7) over GIANTS: It might be foolish to bet against the Giants, who are 11-1 straight up and 10-2 against the spread, but Philadelphia is worth one last shot. Donovan McNabb is playing better, and the Eagles’ defense is capable of containing Eli Manning. The circus surrounding Plaxico Burress can’t help the Giants’ focus.
* PANTHERS (-3) over Buccaneers: Carolina is 6-0 at home and out for revenge. The leader takes control of the NFC South, a division in which home teams have dominated this season. Panthers wideout Steve Smith is a playmaker who can make the difference.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread
Review-Journal sportswriter Matt Youmans can be reached at 702-387-2907 or myoumans@reviewjournal.