There isn’t any sugar-coating it, lose tonight and the Cowboys season is over. It may already be and we just don’t know it yet as winning the division is clearly out of the question and making it in as a wild card seems precarious at best. Even if the Cowboys were to win out and make it to 10-6 there is no guarantee that the 8-3 Panthers or 7-4 Falcons, who have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys, don’t get to 10 or 11 wins themselves.
With Atlanta still left to play New Orleans twice, Minnesota this weekend, and Carolina in the season finale there is a decent chance they don’t make it to 10 but obviously there is no guarantee with how they’ve been playing lately. Either way, it’s clear that the only chance the Cowboys have at somehow reviving this nearly dead season and making it to the playoffs rests on them running the table over the next five weeks.
That starts tonight against the Redskins, a team the Cowboys beat relatively easily no more than a month ago, but which seems like a lifetime ago at this point. Also at 5-6 the Redskins are clearly in the same position as the Cowboys, which is to say that their playoff hopes are about slim and none, and rest entirely on the very unrealistic proposition of winning out the rest of the way. Again like the Cowboys, the Redskins have suffered several major injuries and will be without star tight end Jordan Reed, arguably the best receiving running back in the league, Chris Thompson, as well as rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, former Cowboy lineman Terrell McClain, receiver Terrelle Pryor, and perhaps left tackle Trent Williams.
I’m not going to go through the list of missing Cowboys but as I’m sure you know, it’s extensive and could perhaps grow longer tonight as La’el Collins may be out. Clearly this is a matchup between two teetering teams on the brink of packing it in for the season, so you never know what to expect in this type of situation.
The Redskins played well enough last week to beat the Giants, but they didn’t comfortably lead until late in the game against a team that has basically given up on the season. The Cowboys on the other hand, well, you know what’s happened the last three games so I’ll spare you the pain of rehashing that.
Anybody who tells you what they’re going to get tonight out of the Cowboys is lying. Will the offense put up another putrid, single-digit performance for the fourth week in a row?
Will the defense collapse in the second half of literally every game this season without Sean Lee?
But ignoring that for a moment, let’s look at what the Cowboys must do to win tonight. First and foremost, they must pressure Kirk Cousins and figure out a way to somehow protect Dak Prescott.
Not having Ezekiel Elliott is bad enough, if you can’t protect Prescott as they’ve failed to do over the last three games then you’re really going nowhere. Especially against an aggressive defense like the Redskins with talent off the edge in Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, and Junior Galette, and physical corners in Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland, and Kendall Fuller.
On the flip side, Cousins is a very similar player to Phillip Rivers who tore up the Cowboys defense a week ago, accurate, quick release, solid deep ball, reads defenses well. If given time expect another 300+ yard performance out of Cousins who put up 400+ against Dallas last Thanksgiving. In the running game Samaje Perine is nothing special but he is coming off a 100+ yard performance against the Giants and with the Cowboys run defense seemingly unable to stop anybody without Sean Lee anybody is bound to have a huge game.
On paper the Redskins offense, without Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson, is nothing special if you can get a little pressure on Cousins and control the running game, but at this point it feels like anybody can move the ball against Dallas so dismissing any team’s ability to move the ball against this defense would be unwise.
The same can be said for the Cowboys offense. Even without Elliott I’d normally say protect Prescott, maintain balance, and you should be able to put up 20-27 points against a Redskins defense that looks good and makes splash plays at times, but is generally inconsistent. But when the Cowboys are in the midst of one of the worst three-game runs in NFL history?
I wouldn’t be entirely confident going up against Clemson’s defense at this point.
So here we are, about to enter December with the season looking all but over. Can the Cowboys bow their backs and live to fight another day with a victory tonight, followed by what should be an easy matchup next week against the Geno Smith-led Giants to get back into playoff contention?
I doubt it. Until proven otherwise I refuse to believe in this group without Lee and Elliott, and led by Jason Garrett. Anything can happen in the NFL, and especially when the Cowboys and Redskins get together, but there is just too much negativity and consternation surrounding this team right now, not to mention key missing players. Cowboys keep it close, and may even lead at halftime, but you know what happens in the second half. Redskins, 27-16.