Dallas and Washington both came into this game needing a win to keep any lingering hope of making the playoffs, and in the Cowboys’ case, to end a disastrous slide in performance. Washington would be disappointed as the Cowboys overcame a very slow start offensively to pull away and win by a somewhat surprising 38-14 final score.
Four takeaways including an interception by Anthony Brown to put the icing on the cake late in the game, sacks from Demarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, and David Irving, a punt return touchdown, a couple of passing TDs, dominant line play on both sides of the ball, and two rushing scores while the ground game was taking over and eating up clock late - this was the Cowboys football we wanted to see all year. It took a quarter to emerge, and the offensive production was not exactly overwhelming, but for the first time in a month, Dallas looked like a competitive NFL team.
One of the most welcome sights of the game was Dez Bryant becoming the all time touchdown reception leader for Dallas on the first play of the fourth quarter. It was only one of several connections between him and Dak Prescott, a sign of hope that the chemistry may be developing between them.
And, although there were several calls missed, it saw the streak of no holding calls on opposing offensive linemen end at 34 quarters. The flags seemed to favor the Cowboys all night, with defensive pass interference calls keeping at least two Cowboys drives alive.
A factor that has to be noted is how beat-up Washington was coming into the game, and it just got worse. They had both starting tackles go out with injury during the game, and that played a big role in the return of Dallas’ pass rush. Demarcus Lawrence had another multi-sack game and Kirk Cousins was under constant pressure. He deserves credit for keeping his team in things with some very impressive scrambles and improvised throws. But there were also several plays where the Cowboys did not get the sack, but clearly affected the throw, resulting in incompletions. Washington was at a real disadvantage health-wise, and it had a lot to do with how things went.
There were two plays in the first half that may have finally gotten Dak Prescott out of the funk that plagued him during the three game losing streak leading up to this game. On the last play of the first quarter, he saw an opening up the middle on third and five and scrambled for 13 yards to get the Cowboys their initial first down of the game. Then five plays later, on third and eight, he hit Dez Bryant for 10 yards to keep the drive alive. From that point, he seemed to be much more accurate, with the drive culminating in a very nice touchdown pass to Jason Witten on the kind of red zone run/pass option we had seen so much earlier in the year.
That drive was very important for more than the 7-0 lead. It suddenly brought back the Prescott we had seen for so much of his first two seasons. And that funk had continued through the first quarter, as Prescott was still looking rattled and making simply horrible throws. It was very encouraging to see him starting to find some rhythm and accuracy, even though it was not consistent and the passing game overall struggled a lot. The rushing game was considerably more reliable, particularly after the rather dismal first quarter. That was mostly due to Alfred Morris, who got several first downs on his own, and had a lot of yards after contact all game. And in the second half, he started to assert himself, with some good blocking ahead of him. The ground game got to 100 yards well before the passing game, and for the first time, Morris provided the big runs late in the game when the Cowboys needed it. It was the way the blueprint worked with Ezekiel Elliott on the field, and Morris easily exceeded 100 yards less than halfway through the fourth quarter and added a touchdown with just under five minutes left in the game.
There was a big scare for Prescott in the second quarter, though, as he was taken back to the locker room for X-rays on his right hand. He apparently injured it on a read-option play. But he got a little extra time as Ryan Switzer ripped off a beautiful 83 yard punt return touchdown to put the Cowboys up 17-0 at that point. Prescott was back for the next offensive series, but unfortunately it came after Washington got a touchdown with a tick under a minute left in the half following a remarkable throw by Kirk Cousins. The Cowboys were getting constant pressure on Cousins at that point, and had already had strip sacks by both Lawrence and Charlton, but despite being in the act of falling down under more pass rush, Cousins managed to find Jamison Crowder for a 33 yard completion to set up the score.
On the plus side, Prescott did not seem to be greatly affected by his hand injury despite the visible swelling, although he was not able to do anything on the final drive of the half. He still finished the game and, crucially, didn’t really come close to throwing an interception.
In addition to the two strips in the first half by the pass rush (the Charlton one was recovered by Washington), the Cowboys also forced a fumble on a punt return and Jeff Heath had another of his “right time, right place” interceptions. The Cowboys actually should have had a greater lead than ten points at halftime, but the early struggles by the offense (they opened the game with three consecutive three-and-out series) plus that rather remarkable throw by Cousins kept it close. And than made Dallas fans a bit nervous, given recent history.
Reminder: The Cowboys have been outscored 72-6 in the second of the last three games combined— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) December 1, 2017
But this time, the Cowboys responded and forced a punt on Washington’s first possession of the second half. However, that hand injury may have affected Prescott’s accuracy, as he had some misses again after halftime. But on the second possession of the third quarter, he once again found a bit of a groove, competing passes to Terrance Williams and Bryant before the record breaking TD to Dez.
Despite how badly depleted they were, Washington would not go quietly. Twice the Cowboys pushed the lead to 17 points, and each time Washington would come up with a touchdown. But they were the team that wore down at the end as Dallas stretched the lead with the best running attack since Ezekiel Elliott began his suspension.
It was good to see some other Cowboys have good games. La’el Collins was spotlighted by the broadcast crew for the job he was doing. Chidobe Awuzie looked good in the secondary, with more than one pass broken up. Kavon Frazier also had some strong plays, stopping ball carriers before they could do any damage.
There were some warts. Due to his bad start, Prescott only managed 102 yards passing, although the two touchdowns take some of the sting out of that. But in almost all other aspects, the Cowboys were clearly the best team on the field.
One thing really was apparent: This Cowboys team has not given up on the coaching staff. They played hard, stuck to the formula, and most importantly made it work. The defense was strong early until the offense could find some rhythm. It will not fully silence the calls for changes in the coaching staff, but it does lend some credibility to the faith that Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli showed in their systems earlier in the week. This may have come too late to save the playoffs, but it makes the future look a lot better in Dallas.