IRVING, Texas (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys have a game to play. Again. Their playoff hopes could ride on the outcome. Again. Their opponent is an AFC North team fighting for the same thing. Again.
This time, the Cowboys will be eight days removed from finding out about the death of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown instead of less than 24 hours. They know defensive tackle Josh Brent will miss the rest of the season after being charged with intoxication manslaughter in the one-car accident that killed Brown.
“This is not a one-game thing,” said fullback Lawrence Vickers, who didn’t hide his emotions before, during or after last weekend’s 20-19 win at Cincinnati. “We have a task. Regardless of what obstacles or what tragedies and what steps we have, we still have to protect the goal at the end of the day.”
There will be one difference Sunday. This isn’t just any AFC North opponent. It’s the Pittsburgh Steelers renewing one of the NFL’s best rivalries for the first time at Cowboys Stadium, where they lost the Super Bowl to Green Bay two years ago.
“I can imagine that it is an important game for the fans for obvious reasons, for legendary reasons,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “The rich history that the two franchises hold and how they interacted some 30, 40 years ago is something that is timeless and special.”
Like Terry Bradshaw before him, Ben Roethlisberger knows how the beat the Cowboys (7-6). He’s 2-0 against Dallas, including a 24-20 win at old Texas Stadium in 2004, when he was 13-1 as a rookie. He has two Super Bowl titles, but right now is just trying to get back into game shape in his second start after missing three games with a sprained right shoulder.
Roethlisberger threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns in his return, but most of that came after the Steelers had fallen behind 27-3 to San Diego in a 34-24 loss. Pittsburgh (7-6) has jeopardized its playoff hopes by losing three of four.
“I feel like I took a couple weeks off and it took a little bit to get back into it,” Roethlisberger said. “I think maybe the second throw that I had, I threw it a little short and that was, I think, just a little bit of anxiousness and rust getting back into it.”
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo might not have Dez Bryant on the other end of any of his passes after Bryant broke his left index finger against the Bengals. However, Bryant did catch a touchdown pass that started a fourth-quarter rally after getting injured, and he said Thursday he planned to play.
If the injury forces Bryant out, it will interrupt the best stretch of his career. He has his first 1,000-yard season and has scored at least one touchdown in a career-best five straight games. He’s already tied his career high with nine TDs this season.
“Dez has been a big part of our team,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “But like every team in the league, you have injuries and you have to deal with season-ending injuries, you have to deal with injuries game by game, you have to deal with injuries within the game.”
The Steelers will be without running back Rashard Mendenhall for sure against the Cowboys because Tomlin suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team. Mendenhall was inactive the previous two games after getting demoted to third team following a fumble in a loss to Cleveland.
When Mendenhall was battling injuries early in the season, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman kept the Steelers moving on the ground, but they’ve gone three straight games without 100 yards rushing.
“Not a hard decision,” Tomlin said. “This is a critical time for us. We need all hands on deck. He didn’t live up to his expectations, so there are consequences associated with that.”
Pittsburgh could get a boost on the offensive line this week with the regular-season debut of first-round pick David DeCastro, who injured his left knee in a preseason game after winning the job at right guard. He’s been active the past two weeks but only played on special teams.
The Steelers suddenly find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs with their recent slide, but the Cowboys have been playing that way for a month. They’ve thrived, too, winning four of five in a stretch that was capped by beating Cincinnati on Dan Bailey’s field goal on the final play. Dallas players streamed onto the field showing much more relief than joy.
Against Pittsburgh, the Cowboys will be at home for the first time since Brown died, possibly with a uniform patch honoring a player who had only been with them for six weeks.
Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr will carry an emotional burden into his third straight game.
A week before Brown died, Carr’s former teammate, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, fatally shot his girlfriend before driving to the team complex and committing suicide in front of his coach and general manager.
Both deaths happened the day before a game, and the Cowboys won both. Carr even had a big interception to set up a touchdown against the Bengals. Garrett gave the team Monday off, and they attended a private memorial for Brown on Tuesday.
“These last two weeks, I didn’t think none of that would be possible with all that’s going on in life,” Carr said. “But I was able to do it and play well, and we were able to play well last week. We still know what’s at stake right now.”