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  Monday, Dec. 28 10:04pm ET
Dallas Cowboys scouting report
By Tom Oates
Special to

The Cowboys went 8-0 against the weak NFC East, but only 2-6 against the rest of the league. Worse yet, they struggled mightily on offense down the stretch. That doesn't bode well for the playoffs even though the Cowboys will open at home against an NFC East team, the Cardinals.

 Troy Aikman
 Troy Aikman's protection broke down over the final weeks of the regular season.

At least the Cowboys have a toe in the playoff door. Unfortunately, that toe is very sore. Cornerback Deion Sanders missed the final five games with a sprained big toe on his left foot, and his playoff eligibility is in question. Without Sanders the last two years, the Cowboys are 2-6.

Coach Chan Gailey has brought much-needed discipline and a more sophisticated offense to Dallas this season. What is needed, however, is an offensive playmaker or two. Age and injury have turned the Cowboys into an average team.

The Cowboys were sailing along near midseason, scoring 30 or more points in every game. Then came their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Vikings. In the three games after that, they scored only two touchdowns and totaled 33 points. ... The common denominator? Blitzing by the opponents. The offensive line is weak inside the tackles with guard Nate Newton wearing down and the other two very inexperienced. Opponents have exploited that weakness effectively.

Halfback Emmitt Smith has seven 100-yard games and would be the comeback player of the year were it not for Randall Cunningham. However, he's struggled in recent weeks as opponents are blitzing into his usual holes. ... The return of tight end David LaFleur should help the running game.

The passing game has become so one-dimensional that it scares no one. Wide receiver Michael Irvin has double the receptions of the next highest player on the team, but he's only scored one touchdown. ... Quarterback Troy Aikman has thrown very few interceptions -- the Cowboys have the fewest giveaways in the league -- but he doesn't have many touchdown passes, either.

Dave Campo's defense was drawing its usual how-do-they-do-that responses until Sanders hurt his toe in the second Cardinals game. Since then, the defense has struggled against every team but the Eagles, who have the NFL's worst offense. ... Sanders' absence hurts the Cowboys against the run and the pass.

Starting with the Vikings game, opponents have lit up the Cowboys with big passing plays. It got so bad fans were happy when oft-burned cornerback Kevin Smith returned from injury. ... Without Sanders, the run defense suffers because safety Darren Woodson has to play farther back to help out in coverage.

Defensive ends Kavika Pittman and Greg Ellis, the No. 1 draft pick, have only a handful of sacks between them. More was expected.

Special teams
When he was healthy, Sanders returned two punts for touchdowns and had a third called back. He was the most dangerous return threat in the league. ... Without Sanders, the Cowboys are solid but unspectacular on special teams.

Tom Oates, who covers the Packers for the Wisconsin State Journal, writes a weekly NFC column that appears every Thursday on

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