Cowboys Still Have Seahawks, Packers in Their Way in NFC

The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks all came within one play of not losing their final game of the 2014 National Football League season.

The Cowboys had that controversial touchdown pass overturned which cost them the playoff game against Green Bay, the Packers had that fumbled on-side kick that helped them lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game and the Seahawks called that devastating pass play on the goal line that New England intercepted which cost Seattle the Super Bowl victory.

But all that is like the Civil War—history. The NFL teams will begin their training camps for the 2015 season this week, knowing where they went wrong in last year’s playoffs and hopefully correcting those deficiencies.

As usual, Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones has high hopes of being able to improve his team so they can get over those hurdles that thwarted their championship dreams last season.

But when you get rid of the league’s top rusher and expect a couple of untested who-dun-its to carry the load of departed DeMarco Murray, you’re looking at a very high mountain to climb.

The Cowboys surprised a lot of preseason prognosticators with their great running game last year and the much-improved defense that came with it. And quarterback Tony Romo’s passing was head-and shoulders above what most opponents expected.

And they finally came to terms last week with perhaps the best receiver in the league when they signed Dez Bryant to a five-year, $70 million contract with $45 million in guaranteed money.

“At this time last year we were asking how a 32nd-ranked defense that lost De Marcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee could possibly be anything other than dead last again?” an article appearing last weekend in the Dallas Morning News inquired.

“After finishing second in turnovers and improving across the board, they have added pass rush potential with rookie Randy Gregory and free agent Greg Hardy, whose suspension was just trimmed by six games to make him available Oct. 11 against New England, if not earlier,” the article continued.

The article asked a closing question– will that be enough to allow the team to take that one last step to catching Green Bay and Seattle at the top of the NFC?

Green Bay will have a healthy Aaron Rodgers instead of the gimpy one who faced Dallas in the playoffs in January and couldn’t hold a 12-point lead with a little more than two minutes to play in the NFC championship game against Seattle.

But instead of reshuffling the deck after a heart-breaking loss like that, Green Bay’s front office decided to give this talented team another shot. The Packers re-signed wide receiver Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and nose tackles R.J. Raji and Letroy Guion and picked up some immediate help in the recent draft.

“While the Packers haven’t made any huge changes, there has been tinkering, most notably coach Mike McCarthy giving up offensive play-calling duties,” quoted an article in this week’s issue of USA Today Sports Weekly.

“This comes after his play-calling in the NFC title game was criticized as too conservative,” the article concluded. Tom Clements will take over that duty for 2015.

It still looks to me like the Seattle Seahawks still have to be favored to “three-peat” as the NFC champion. After all, they’ve won the last two NFC titles and one Lombardi Trophy.

“The team added Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham in the off-season,” the Dallas Morning News article pointed out. “You’d think he could make a considerable difference, given that Russell Wilson already has gone 36-12 without anything resembling an all-pro target.”

KWICKIES…It’s hard to believe that high school football players will report for their first practice of the 2015 season a week from Monday. It’s amazing how quickly that season gets here.

The Houston Astros got the second-half of the season started on the right foot by taking two-of-three games from the IH-45 rival Texas Rangers last weekend. The first two games were nail-biters, with each team winning by a single run. But the rubber game Sunday belonged to ace-lefty Dallas Keuchel, who hurled a two-hit shutout for seven innings and struck out a career-best 13 Rangers as the Astros romped 10-0. Third baseman Luis Valbuena also had a career day with four hits and four RBI. Houston continued its home stand Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox.

And while on the subject of the Astros, Craig Biggio will become the first Houston player to be inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown Sunday.

Los Angeles Dodgers ace right-hander Zack Greinke extended his scoreless streak to 43 2/3 innings as his team blanked the Washington Nationals 5-0 Sunday. Greinke’s streak is the longest in the majors since Orel Hershiser set the major league record of 59 consecutive shutout innings in 1988 with the Dodgers. Greinke (9-2) leads the big leagues with a 1.30 ERA. It was his sixth straight scoreless start, all of them lasting at least six innings.

JUST BETWEEN US…The lengthiest British Open in its 144-year history concluded Monday afternoon after three players finished the 72 holes tied for the lead and had to resort to a four-hole playoff between South Africa’s Louis Oosthiuzen, Marc Leishman of Australia and Zach Johnson of the United States. The format was to play holes No. 1, 2, 17 and 18. Johnson and Oosthiuzen both birdied the first hole and Johnson parred the next three. Oosthiuzen needed a birdie on No. 18 and barely missed a five-foot putt. The tournament favorite, Jordan Spieth of Dallas, missed a six-foot par that would have kept him in the playoff hunt and he finished tied for fourth place. He was trying to become the first player in nearly 75 years to win the first three major tournaments in a year. Johnson became the first player to win his first two career majors at Augusta (Masters) and eight years later at St. Andrews where the game of golf began.