Dallas Cowboys (7-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
SERIES HISTORY: 28th regular-season meeting. The Cowboys lead the series, 15-13, and won the last meeting, 27-24, in 2012. The Cowboys have won five of the past seven and two of the past three in Pittsburgh. These two teams met in the Super Bowl three times, with the Steelers winning Super Bowls X and XIII and the Cowboys winning XXX.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Now that the presidential election is over, the high priority question for America's Team, and a lot of curious NFL fans, is -- Will a healthy Tony Romo regain his starting QB job from hot rookie Dak Prescott? As the Cowboys prepared for a battle between two seismic NFL franchises Sunday at Pittsburgh, the QB issue received even more intrigue when Dallas owner Jerry Jones said Romo may be active for this game and will upramp his workouts this week so as to be "ready to play at his top level." Coach Jason Garrett verified that whether Romo is active or plays is no longer a medical decision, making it the coach's call.
So Romo, 36, grows ever closer to a return from the compression fracture in his back. He is expected to show up initially, at least, as a backup after missing 12 games last season, twice fracturing his left collarbone and missing all eight games this season. He has not played in a regular-season game since last Thanksgiving.
But all that hubbub over the quarterback, although expected, may be a distraction from the reality that this Cowboys team runs, literally, on rookie back Ezekiel Elliott, who takes maximum advantage of the Cowboys' latest version of the best OL in the NFL.
The Steelers know they must slow the down the Cowboys' top-ranked rushing attack (165 yards per game). The Steelers bounced back from two bad games against the run with a good performance against Baltimore, limiting the Ravens to 50 yards on the ground. If the Steelers can slow Elliott they will put the game in the hands of the QB, probably Prescott.
When the Steelers have the ball, they must get QB Ben Roethlisberger off to a good start. Last week against the Ravens, the Steelers tried to establish the run to open up the passing game. Against the Cowboys, the Steelers should look to attack a Dallas secondary that will be without starting safety Barry Church and has been giving up 246 passing yards per game. The Cowboys are strong against the run and it would be foolish for the Steelers not to attack the weaker part of the equation.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Cowboys RB Jon Ezekiel Elliott vs. Steelers LB Ryan Shazier. Elliott leads the NFL with 891 yards rushing for the Cowboys' top-ranked rushing attack. Shazier is healthy again and last week spearheaded a rush defense that limited the Ravens to 50 yards on 29 carries.
--Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell vs. Cowboys LB Sean Lee. Bell is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league and Lee is one of the best cover linebackers. The Steelers are having trouble finding a competent No. 2 receiver after Antonio Brown, and Bell might be the best second option for Ben Roethlisberger in this game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Steelers WR Sammie Coates. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown came out after the Baltimore game and said someone has to step up if he is double- and triple-covered as he was against the Ravens. Coates was targeted five times against the Ravens and did not have a catch. He dropped a pass in the end zone with four minutes remaining that would have brought the Steelers within seven points with three timeouts remaining. Against the Cowboys, the Steelers need Coates to be the player he was early in the season when he was catching more deep balls than anyone else in the NFL.
INJURY REPORT: Dallas -- Out: S Barry Church (forearm), CB Morris Claiborne (groin), Questionable: WR Dez Bryant (knee), DE Ryan Davis (hamstring), T Chaz Green (foot, back), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back, shoulder), G Ronald Leary (concussion), QB Tony Romo (back), T Tyron Smith (back, hip). Pittsburgh -- Out: S Jordan Dangerfield (groin), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder), RB DeAngelo Williams (knee).
FAST FACTS: A Cowboys win would give them eight straight for the first time since 1977, tying a franchise record. They would be 8-1 for the eighth time in franchise history, the last being in 2007. Dak Prescott is the first rookie QB in the Super Bowl era to start and win seven of his first eight games of a season. He is also the first rookie QB to have six starts with a 100-plus passer rating within his first eight games. Elliott, the rookie RB, is one of three players in league history (Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and future HOFer Adrian Peterson) to rush for at least 875 yards (891) and seven touchdowns in his first eight games. . . . The Steelers won seven of last eight games at home while outscoring opponents 261-151. Since the start of the 2013 season, WR Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 430 catches, 5,708 receiving yards and 37 TD receptions. Over that same span, teammate/RB Le'Veon Bell leads the league averaging 120.6 scrimmage yards per game (minimum 20 games).
PREDICTION: Shocking success and the QB situation are on the verge of becoming a distraction for the Cowboys, who may find that visiting Pittsburgh is not a fun road trip, especially if Big Ben is on his game at QB.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 28-21.