Divisional games, particularly those in the high-stakes NFC East, are always difficult to predict. The teams know each other inside and out for the most part and there is usually a fair amount of bitterness and acrimony no matter what combination of the four NFC East teams you throw out there. Of course that is the case between the Redskins and Cowboys, especially after the addition of Josh Norman who has helped inject added drama due to a somewhat manufactured, yet still intense, rivalry with Dez Bryant. All of that and more will surely be on display today with two rivals, both at 3-3, and both needing a win to help solidify themselves in the NFC playoff hunt.
The Redskins hopes of winning the division might have gone out the window after losing their second game against the Eagles last Monday night; they also lost any potential of winning a tiebreaker against a Philadelphia team that has a relatively light schedule over their next nine games. They’re still squarely in the wild card hunt though with about half of the conference sitting on three losses.
For the Cowboys there is still hope that they could win the division, although most of those hopes rest squarely on the fact that they still have two matchups left with the Eagles, and obviously they are right there for a wild card spot.
Both the Cowboys and the Redskins have very difficult upcoming schedules, with the Redskins looking at road games in Seattle and New Orleans, with a home matchup against Minnesota over the next three weeks, while the Cowboys will face Kansas City at home and Atlanta on the road before a potential showdown with the Eagles.
There is an argument to be made that this game might mean a bit more to the Redskins simply because they’re at home and the Cowboys still have their matchup in Dallas to fall back on, but clearly the game is critical to both sides as the wheat should start separating from the chaff as we move closer to Thanksgiving.
As far as the matchups on the field go, clearly the thing that jumps out the most is the shape the Redskins offensive line is in. Generally considered as one of the better units in the league the Washington offensive line is molded after the Cowboys in many ways, especially with how both units are built on elite left tackles and right guards, all of whom were taken in the first round of the draft. The Redskins version of Tyron Smith, Trent Williams, will be out today, and so will their version of Zack Martin in Brandon Scherff. Their starting center, Spencer Long, is also out. He’s not quite a facsimile of Travis Frederick like his counterparts are but he’s still an important piece, especially when you consider that he’s being replaced by a rookie in Chase Roullier who has exactly zero career starts. To add insult to injury right tackle Morgan Moses has also been hobbled with ankle injuries and nobody knows how healthy he is, or if he’ll be able to finish the game.
Clearly this is a matchup the Cowboys defense must take advantage of if they want to slow down a Redskins offense that piled up nearly 1,000 yards of offense in two games last year, with 813 of that coming through the air. Of course the Redskins are now without veteran receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson who seemed to always make game-changing plays against the Cowboys. Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder are having down years compared to last season, and free agent signing Terrelle Pryor has failed to make the desired impact, but it is still a deep, talented group of pass-catchers when you add in emerging receiver Josh Doctson and running back Chris Thompson, who is perhaps the most dangerous receiver out of the backfield in the league right now.
The Redskins haven’t been spared by the injury bug on the other side of the ball either. Starting linebacker Mason Foster and first-round defensive lineman Jonathan Allen are out for the year, while Josh Norman is just returning today from a couple of cracked ribs. The addition of Norman is a huge boost to a defense that has looked good at times over the last few weeks, but lacked consistency on the back end, although it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or not Norman can make it through the whole game after coming back a week or two earlier than expected.
Either way, the Redskins have an ultra-aggressive front seven, led by speedy linebacker Zach Brown, who has been excellent so far this year, edge rushers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, and emerging interior rusher Matt Ioannidis, who has combined with Kerrigan and Smith to put up 12 sacks this season. My gut tells me that in the early going things could be tough for the Cowboys offense, especially if the forecast for rain and wind holds, but if they stick with the run and keep pounding things should start to open up as the game goes on.
This could certainly be a sloppy game considering the potential weather conditions but if the Cowboys can avoid beating themselves with penalties and turnovers they should be able to win against a hobbled Redskins team. It surely won’t be easy and you never know what can happen in these rivalry games, especially with the added X-factor of All-World kicker Dan Bailey being out with an injured groin, but it’s hard to see Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving, two guys who have looked like absolute monsters as of late, not having success against what could be three or even four backup offensive linemen.
The linebackers and secondary will have to make sure that they contain and rally to the ball anytime Chris Thompson gets out on a screen or check down, and they must be disciplined enough to not bite on play-action that opens up a deep shot to tight end Vernon Davis who is averaging nearly 20 YPC so far, but for a team that struggles to run the ball and will be missing so many key pieces, it’s hard to see them driving the length of the field consistently.
Offensively the Cowboys will have to remain patient and not get frustrated if the Redskins’ aggressive blitzes get to them early. Things won’t be as easy as they were against the Packers or 49ers but opportunities for big plays should open up if the offense can remain balanced.
At the end of the day I think the decimated offensive line will be too much for the Redskins to overcome, and so I’ll go with a Cowboys team that looks primed to start stacking some wins together. Cowboys, 27-20.