LAKE FOREST, Ill. — If the Dallas Cowboys can avoid another late-season letdown, they can reach a significant goal: the NFC East title.
The first step is getting past the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.
They are a game behind Philadelphia in the NFC East after getting blown out 33-10 by the Eagles on Thanksgiving and have another showdown with them next week that could be for the division lead.
But before Dallas (8-4) can worry about that, there’s this matchup with the struggling Bears (5-7) at Soldier Field.
“It’s hard to get to this point in the year and be 8-4 and right in the middle of the hunt,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “I think you play long enough like I have, you respect the opportunity that you have and where you are positioned. So I am excited about that.”
It’s not hard to see why he is excited considering the Cowboys last made the playoffs in 2009. But they have struggled in recent years once December arrived.
In 2011, they dropped four of their final five. A year later, they dropped their final two games after taking the first three in December. Last year, they lost three of their last four.
All three seasons they wound up 8-8, and anything less than a playoff appearance would be a big letdown for a team that started 6-1.
Of course, this week’s opponent knows all about disappointment. A loss at Detroit last Thursday all but assured the Bears will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years.
And the Bears may also be without kicker Robbie Gould this week. He was listed as doubtful because of a right quadriceps injury and the Bears signed veteran Jay Feely on Wednesday.
Chicago is basically in the spoiler role now, hoping to hand the Cowboys their first road loss. Dallas is a league-best 5-0 this season and has won six straight away from home since a 45-28 pounding at Soldier Field on a bone-chilling night last December.
Here are some things to look for in this game:
Bounce back: Dallas’ Tony Romo looks to rebound from a rough game.
Coming off back surgery last December and another back injury sustained on a sack in October, he appeared to be the Cowboys player most affected by the quick turnaround before last week’s game. He got sacked four times and intercepted twice while throwing for 199 yards, and his rating for the game was 53.7 compared to 106.2 for the season.
It also wasn’t a good game for the defense, which gave up a season-high 464 yards against the Eagles.
The lion and gazelle: Bears tight end Martellus Bennett acknowledged he and Witten were not exactly best friends when they were teammates in Dallas. Part of that stems from the fact that he was a young player looking for an opportunity to contribute that was not there with a veteran ahead of him.
“Every single year there’s a lion coming out of college,” Bennett said. “You know what I’m saying? And every single year there’s an old guy in the NFL who’s a gazelle. And every single morning the gazelle wakes up because the gazelle has to run, otherwise the lion catches it. So every single morning the lion wakes up he chases the gazelle. In that situation I was the lion. I didn’t catch the gazelle, though. I had to go to another jungle.”
Bennett had 85 receptions in four seasons with the Cowboys (2008-11). He made a big jump with the New York Giants in 2012, catching 55 passes, and he has emerged as one of the top players at his position in two seasons with the Bears. Bennett is tied with Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski for league lead among tight ends with 65 catches and has 737 yards receiving.
Another gear: Not that he’s in much danger of losing the rushing title, but DeMarco Murray’s pace has slowed a little in recent weeks.
He ran for a season-low 73 yards on 20 carries against Philadelphia. And in the four games since he ran for 141 against Washington, he is averaging just over 93 yards.
Even so, he still leads the rushing race by nearly 400 yards with 1,427. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell is second with 1,046.
Balancing act: The run-pass balance has been an issue for the Bears this season, and it came to the forefront again last week at Detroit.
Chicago ran the ball just eight times for 13 yards, with Matt Forte matching a career low with five carries for 6 yards. He called for more balance this week, as did coach Marc Trestman, quarterback Jay Cutler and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.