JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Will he or won't he?
That's the biggest issue surrounding Sunday's game in London between the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars. Will Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo be able to play after suffering a back injury two weeks ago?
The Cowboys have lost back-to-back games and fallen behind the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East, which makes this a huge game if they're going to keep pace. Especially since Dallas plays the New York Giants and Philadelphia in back-to-back weeks after a bye upon their return from London.
The Jaguars also are on a two-game losing streak after picking up their first victory over Cleveland. This is the middle game of a tough, three-game stretch of Cincinnati, Dallas and Indianapolis.
The teams meet Sunday at Wembley Stadium and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup.
DiRocco: The Cowboys are obviously hoping Tony Romo will be able to play, but if he can't, can Brandon Weeden get the job done? He didn't play particularly well last week, and it's got to be bothering the Cowboys to see Kyle Orton playing well in Buffalo.
Archer: The Cowboys changed how they've handled the backup quarterback from in the past by going with Weeden. They have had a seasoned veteran behind Romo in the past in either Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna or Orton. Weeden had just 20 starts under his belt, and they viewed him as a developmental quarterback. But Orton stayed away from the voluntary offseason program and didn't take part in the mandatory minicamp either. Just as training camp rolled around, he told the team he would go to Oxnard, Calif., for camp. The Cowboys then cut him. They didn't want an uncommitted player -- especially at quarterback -- and one who was threatening retirement to play a significant role. Turns out Orton didn't retire, and he is now doing well in Buffalo. Those are the breaks. Weeden did well against Washington but not so well against Arizona. Cowboys fans hope they don't see him again, especially this Sunday. And from the looks of it, Romo should play.
I thought the Jaguars made the right call in moving on to Blake Bortles, but he has 13 interceptions. Is there any regret in possibly forcing him on to the field too soon and having another Blaine Gabbert situation on their hands?
DiRocco: No regret at all. The offense, outside of the first half of the season opener, was nonfunctional. With Chad Henne on the field the Jaguars had 19 nonscoring or end-of-half drives that lasted three plays or fewer through the first 10 quarters of the season. Bortles played reasonably well through the first 3½ games (67.8 completion percentage, 1,004 yards, 4 TDs, 7 INTs) but has struggled in the past three games (seven turnovers, 58.2 completion percentage). Coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch have reiterated that they have confidence in Bortles and understand that he's going to make mistakes as he develops and learns how to be an NFL quarterback. He needs to cut down on his mistakes in the red zone and quit making the same mistakes, such as throwing across his body, more than once or twice. However, seeing his poise and comfort in the pocket, the way he moves in the pocket, his ability to escape and make plays on the run and his willingness to go down the field has the Jaguars excited about his future.
Arizona stacked the box with six and seven defenders and really limited DeMarco Murray. Do the Cowboys expect opponents to continue to do that, especially if Weeden is playing, and can that be effective?
Archer: Every team has stacked the line against the Cowboys, even with a healthy Romo, so it's nothing really to do with Weeden. Teams want to stop the run and haven't been able to do it. Murray had his 100-yard streak stopped by Arizona, but he still gained 79 yards. The bad part for the Cowboys is they have not been able to make plays in the passing game the past two weeks with the defenses paying so much attention to the run game. Dez Bryant has been limited to one catch of 20 yards. He is their prime big-play threat and he didn't have a catch until late in the fourth quarter last week. Terrance Williams was also held in check. To free up some of the running lanes for Murray, they will have to make plays in the passing game. That will back defenses off. Again, Romo should be available this week, so there is a much better comfort level with him and his top two receivers than they have with Weeden.
The Cowboys hope to have Romo on Sunday, and I think a lot of people assume things will be easier for him than it would have been last week against Arizona. But the Jaguars have 27 sacks. How are they so effective in getting to the quarterback, and why hasn't that translated into better defensive play?
DiRocco: The biggest reason is that the production is spread around, meaning teams can't concentrate protections on one area. In fact, the interior of the defensive line has been effective at getting to the quarterback. Tackles Sen'Derrick Marks (4.0), Roy Miller (1.0), Abry Jones (2.0) and Ziggy Hood (1.0) have combined for eight sacks. End/tackle Ryan Davis, who rushes from the interior in the team's third-down package, leads the team with 4.5 sacks and he's a part-time player. As for why it hasn't translated to better success, you have to look at the secondary. The unit really struggled with missed assignments and blown coverages early in the season. It gave up 25 pass plays of 20 or more yards through the first four games, the most in the NFL. Since, they've allowed only 14, which shows how much better the defense has been playing over the past five games. Until Sunday's 33-23 loss at Cincinnati, the defense hadn't allowed more than 13 points in four games. That's why the Jaguars have been more competitive in that stretch.
The Jaguars would seem to have an advantage on this trip from the standpoint of familiarity with the task of moving operations to London and dealing with the time and schedule change. A strange routine this late in the season can be distracting and potentially cause issues Sunday. How do you feel the Cowboys are handling things, and do you think it will have an impact on the way they play?
Archer: Jason Garrett likes to say you have to be at your best regardless of circumstances. He's also talked about the Cowboys having to be ready for games here, there and everywhere, even the moon. The Cowboys have so many prime-time games and play on all days of the week, so they are accustomed to changes in schedules. They seem to have acclimated quickly to London and have had "regular" practices even if they are not at home. If the Cowboys lose, I don't think it will be because of the travel and different practice schedule. It'll be because they didn't play well.
I'm curious about the reaction of those in Jacksonville when they found out the Cowboys were not coming to town this year. It surprised me because the Cowboys are a guaranteed sellout wherever they go. They haven't been there since 2006. Is it a sign of ownership really looking to make a move by taking a name-game away from the locals or am I making too much of that?
DiRocco: Well, the Jaguars had no control over which home game they lost to London. That was the NFL's decision. Had they been able to choose, the Jaguars certainly wouldn't have wanted to lose this game because it would certainly have meant a bigger crowd at EverBank Stadium. It should be noted, though, that the Jaguars rank 21st in the NFL in average attendance this season (63,443) and are ahead of teams such as Pittsburgh, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Detroit and Oakland. The Jaguars' four-year deal to play a home game in London is actually a big part of keeping the team in Jacksonville because it accounts for 15 percent of the franchise's local revenue. Plus, when you consider that owner Shad Khan has invested $31 million of his own money into stadium improvements ($11 million for a new locker room and weight room, as well as $20 million to help pay for the two giant video boards), there should be little doubt of the team's commitment to remaining in Jacksonville.