Washington vs. Dallas is the archetypal classic NFL rivalry. It evokes the Wild West aesthetic (I was desperate to use “Cousins’ Last Stand” in this preview but it really doesn’t work, does it?). It’s also, for once, a rivalry between 2 very successful teams who have a combined 8 Superbowl Wins (Was – 3, Dallas – 5). Neither team has won a Superbowl since ’95 (Dallas), but there have been plenty of meaningful and memorable games in the past twenty or so years to keep the embers of animosity burning bright. The ‘Monday Night Miracle’ in ‘05, when Washington scored 14 points in less than 3 minutes in a come from behind victory, comes to mind. So does the ‘09 shutout of the Redskins by Dallas, the third shutout in series history (all of which have been by Dallas).
Whatever your affiliation or interest, expect tedious/nostalgic (delete as applicable) FOX montages of games of yesteryear, probably ‘hilariously’ including Tom Landry’s hat and Joe Gibbs’ glasses. Whatever happens it’ll be fun, and chippy, and with both teams at .500 (3-3 apiece) there’s some interest for the neutral and for anyone rooting for a different NFC team with Wildcard aspirations. Oh, and there’s supposed to be biblical rainfall, which is always fun right? Here’s some things to consider and a head over heart prediction…
It’s early, but the ramifications are huge
I confess to having checked the NFL Playoff Picture graphic for the first time this year after Monday Night Football. In some respects it is shamefully early to do so, but perhaps it makes sense given the shape of the division as it stands. It is clearly Philadelphia’s NFC East to lose at 6-1. Even with the weight of media and fan expectation now upon their shoulders, at 3-0 in the division the Eagles are in an enviable position and primed to take top spot for the first time since 2013 (it would be their third title in the past ten seasons). The Giants are beyond redemption at 1-6, any false hope from their win in Denver quickly disappearing after the Broncos’ stuttering shutout against the Chargers showed that the victory wasn’t as good a form line as first professed in New York.
In this race to that second spot, and the 9 or 10 wins likely required for a playoff berth, this game is crucial. Either team could go 4-3, but in the eventuality that Dallas comes out victorious, they would be 4-2 in the conference and 2-0 in the division. In contrast, with a loss the Redskins would be 2-3 in the conference and a frightening 0-3 in the division. Just as relevant is that each team has a particularly difficult game next week, with Washington on the road in Seattle and Dallas at home to Kansas City. Both teams should be very frightened of a 3-4 record turning into 3-5 and a subsequent mountain to climb to remain relevant.
Injuries plague Washington and the Cowboys can exploit
In the infamous ‘Bodybag’ game of November 1990, nine Redskins left the field in a bone crushing loss to the Buddy Ryan coached Eagles at Veterans Stadium. This past Monday night dredged up some painful nostalgia for Washington, and though the contemporary trend is for players to come in and out of a game multiple times, it was concerning that 3 of the Redskins starting offensive line did so at some point in the game. Trent Williams, five time pro-bowler and perennial stalwart at left tackle, tweaked an already damaged and somewhat lesser known knee ligament, the medial patella femoral. He’s day to day and likely game to game, and season ending surgery looms on the horizon like the daunting silhouette of a defensive end rushing Kirk Cousins’ blind side. Ty Nsekhe is an admirable backup, quietly considered by Washington as a best kept secret, but he is also unavailable with a core injury, making the decision whether to rest or operate on Williams more problematic. Pro-bowl second year guard Brandon Scherff might play through an MCL strain on Sunday, but Morgan Moses, next to him at right tackle, missed practice on Thursday and is playing through injuries to both ankles. Head Coach Jay Gruden broke the news at the Friday press conference that centre Spencer Long is also out with a knee injury. Long will be replaced by Chase Roullier, a promising rookie making his first NFL start. The jury is out on ex-Viking TJ Clemmings.
The plot thickens though, as injury report concerns don’t start and end on the o-line for the ‘skins, who are struggling mightily on defense too. Josh Norman will play, though seemingly still struggles through practice due to his rib fractures. The now rather insipid Dez Bryant-Josh Norman saga will resume Sunday. Mason Foster leads the Redskins’ defense with 4.5 sacks but was also ruled out Friday, moving to IR and headed for the surgeon’s table to sort a torn labrum through which he’s been playing for two weeks.. A total of five defensive backs are hurt including the aforementioned Norman.
For their part, Dallas will seek to take advantage of the Redskins’ injury problems by sending pressure on the edge and on third down. With Sean Lee finally healthy, I would expect Jaylon Smith, currently the team’s leading tackler, to get more opportunities to blitz the quarterback. On Offense, look for multiple 3 and 4 Wide Receiver sets to force dime packages and get as many unproven Washington Cornerbacks as possible on the field. The Redskins were stout against the run on Monday night even without Jonathan Allen but the Cowboys can mix in some play-action bootlegs and designed runs for Prescott and look to exploit Washington’s demonstrable lack of contain, which has plagued them again this year (see Wentz x2 and Alex Smith).
Dallas are on fire, can they stay hot?
Though they lost against the Rams and the Packers (who had Aaron Rodgers healthy at that point), the Cowboys have put up 30+ points in the past three outings and look to be getting some of last season’s mojo back on offense. In their last 17 trips to the redzone the Cowboys have scored 14 touchdowns. Prescott is making good decisions, throwing and rushing for 17 TDs and throwing just 4 interceptions. The importance of early success with the run has been obvious. Zeke went 89 yards on 15 carries in the first half against San Francisco and it made Dak Prescott’s job a hell of a lot easier, as the defense committed more and more to trying to stop the run.
The Redskins may have been good against the run this year (allowing only 94.5 yards per game), but Dallas rank second in yards per game (147.5) and yards per attempt (5.0). Are Dallas are well and truly back in a groove? This week is the best litmus test yet.
If the Redskins had a better home field advantage I might well pick them to defy their injuries and take this one. But despite an occasionally raucous FedEx Field, only three teams have worse records in their current home stadiums: the Browns, Lions and Saints (minimum 5 seasons). With Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens back at Linebacker the Cowboys have the best opportunity yet to play better on defense. The Redskins don’t know what to do with Terrell Pryor, who has just 18 catches through six games, and their run game has been suspect. The Cowboys have Zeke cleared to play, and he is still averaging over 4 yards per carry. All of the above points towards a Dallas win:
Washington 20-34 Dallas
Follow Josh Edwards on Twitter at @Joshwa_1990.
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