It was not an easy game for the Dallas Cowboys against Washington, but no one expected it to be. The Cowboys would give up 449 yards and three touchdowns through the air, but that would not be enough to overcome the power game of the Dallas, as they hung on to win their record tenth game of the season, 31-26.
Expectations were widespread that the Thanksgiving Day game between the two longtime rivals would be a true offensive shootout, but it was a rather low scoring affair through three quarters. That was mostly on Washington, as they repeatedly failed to get into the end zone in the first half, and then were only able to hit on half the field goals they attempted.
Then things heated up rapidly in the fourth quarter, as the two teams started exchanging touchdowns, and uncharacteristically for Dallas, they were getting the ball quickly into the end zone when they would have been better served eating up the clock. Washington stuck deep on a 67 yard touchdown pass, which was the vulnerability for the Cowboys that was the most worrying. Yet whenever Washington would strike, Dallas would answer. And the score forced Jay Gruden into calling for an onsides kick that turned out to be ill advised, as it gave the Cowboys a short field that led to the second rushing touchdown for Ezekiel Elliott. And on their final drive of the game, Washington kept taking underneath throws, burning up precious seconds with every play. They were not able to score a touchdown until there was only 1:53 left in the game, making the score 31-26. That set up a second onsides kick attempt, which went out of bounds when a diving Washington player pushed it there, giving Dallas the ball at the Washington 42 - and with Zeke and Dak. At the crucial time, Zeke would be a decoy, allowing Prescott to complete a screen play to Cole Beasley that gained a first down, forcing Washington to burn its last time out and leading to the most beautiful of all sights for Cowboys fans, the Landry shift in the victory formation.
The key thing the Cowboys did during the first half was limit Washington to two field goals on four attempts, despite giving up 240 yards and a third and goal from the two yard line in the closing seconds of the half. Bad clock management left Washington with no real options, though, and they wound up kicking their second field goal. It left them trailing by eleven at intermission. Dallas was much more efficient, obviously, scoring touchdowns on both trips into the red zone, and adding a 46 yard field goal from Dan Bailey in between.
The Cowboys opened the game with as impressive a drive as they have had all season. They marched 75 yards in seven plays, beginning with a jet sweep to Lucky Whitehead, and then letting Elliott take over. He had four carries and one pass reception for a total of 47 yards and the capping touchdown, his tenth of the season. He would then be mostly quiet for the rest of the first half, as Dak Prescott took more of the offensive load. He had a couple of key third down conversions, including one on third and 14 where he calmly found Cole Beasley for 18 yards. He would also salvage some plays with his mobility, including one zone read play to get the Cowboys to the ten yard line in the second half, where he would then evade the pass rush and put the ball in Terrance Williams’ hands. Williams made a toe-tapping landing just inside the front corner of the end zone. It was yet another play where you find yourself in disbelief that Dak is a rookie who was not taken until the end of the fourth round. He plays as well as any quarterback in the league. It is within the structure of the offense that Scott Linehan has put in place for him, but his execution is nearly flawless. The worst errors he made in the first half were missing both Brice Butler and Jason Witten on one play when both were open for a touchdown, and another play where Dez Bryant wound up wide open, but Prescott had already come off him.
The Cowboys were exactly where they wanted to be to start the second half, with a two-score lead at 17-6. Washington did not abandon the running game right away, however. And Kirk Cousins continued to hit deep balls. Had he been more consistent with the long throws, this could have been a very different kind of game, very similar to the first time the teams met. And the Cowboys were having to struggle through a depleted secondary. With Morris Claiborne and Barry Church already out, and Orlando Scandrick a bit hobbled, things just got worse when J.J. Wilcox went to the sidelines. Wilcox had been making some devastating hits, and his load now fell on Jeff Heath. And although there was some pressure on Cousins, the rush was still not getting to him, which has become such a familiar story. They kept Washington from scoring in the third quarter, but as happened at the end of the first, Washington was deep in the red zone to end the period, with a second and goal from the five. They converted it for their first touchdown of the game on the opening play of the fourth quarter. Trailing by five before the point after, they elected to go for two, which failed when Sean Lee picked Cousins off. He tried to run it back for two points, but didn’t get far, and the Cowboys held onto a 17-12 lead to get the ball back.
Then it was Zeke time again. He was held to 56 yards rushing through three quarters, but broke loose for 21 the first time he touched the ball, then followed that up with a 19 yard reception. A few plays later, Prescott would keep the ball on a rollout and push the lead to 12 points after Dan Bailey’s extra point. That would set up the final ten minutes-plus of the fourth quarter, matching Washington’s big play offensive skills versus the scrappy but not always effective Cowboys defense.
But in the shootout fourth quarter, Dallas was able to go blow for blow, and come away with the victory. They lost in just most statistical categories, but wound up on top of the score, and that is all that matters.