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Five things to watch when the Cowboys host the Redskins on Thanksgiving

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With the NFC East up for grabs, what can we expect to see?

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The last time we watched the Dallas Cowboys square off against the Washington Redskins, we witnessed a Brett Maher field goal doink off the upright as the final seconds ran off the clock. It was the last game in which the Cowboys had a shot to go over .500 for the first time this season, and the closest they’ve been to holding down the top spot in the NFC East.

A lot has happened since then as the Cowboys are coming off of two impressive road wins against the last two NFC champions. Maher has continued to have struggles, but he did just knock down his second game-winning field goal of the season in the Atlanta game. And once again, the Cowboys have a chance to get above .500 and finish the week with the #1 spot in the division. This is a big game.

While the benefits of a Thanksgiving win over the Redskins are something we would love to talk about over a nice piece of pumpkin pie, a disappointing loss will have us reaching for some antacid. Losing this game would drop the Cowboys essentially three games behind the Redskins for the division. They’ll be two games behind them record-wise (5-6 vs 7-4), but the Redskins would also hold the tie-breaker by virtue of sweeping the season series. Falling that far behind with only five remaining games left to be played makes the Redskins, for all intent and purposes, out of reach. And with the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, and even Green Bay Packers all fighting for just two wild card spots, a 5-6 record would be a big hole to dig out of.

This is a game the Cowboys absolutely must have.

There are plenty of story lines in this game, but here are five things to watch on Thanksgiving.

1. Your new rushing leader

Todd Gurley currently leads the NFL in rushing with 1,043 yards. Ezekiel Elliott is in second place at 953 yards. Gurley is having a fantastic season. He’s an amazing talent on an amazing offense and he definitely has his name in the hat for MVP consideration. You know what else he has? One more game played than Zeke. The Los Angeles Rams are on a bye this week after their amazing 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night. Despite all the offense displayed in that game, Gurley only had 55 yards rushing and that has opened the door for Elliott to catch him. If Zeke rushes for more than 90 yards against the Redskins, he’ll be your new rushing leader.

Of course, this might be a difficult task considering the Redskins shut him down in Week 7. In his 35 career games, only twice has Elliott been held under 50 yards, but one of them came last month when Washington kept him to just 33 yards. But Zeke’s on a little bit of a roll right now. He’s racked up 388 total scrimmage yards over the last two games, including 273 yards rushing. He’s gained 6.5 yards per carry during this time. Nobody expects him to run wild over the Redskins defense, but nobody expected him to run all over Philadelphia either. Whether it’s new offensive line coaches, a new left guard in Xavier Su’a-Filo, or the Amari Cooper effect, Zeke’s been a freak as of late and there sure are a lot of good eats on Thanksgiving.

2. Destroy McCoy

In 2014, Colt McCoy filled in for injured starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. In his debut against the Dallas Cowboys, McCoy would play some snaps and yada yada yada...it worked out for him. I won’t bore you with the details, just that the Cowboys were trying to win their seventh straight game that night and McCoy had a part in that not happening. The Cowboys won the division that year and the Redskins didn’t. That’s really the part of the story you should remember.

While we all recall McCoy stepping up that game, the McCoy magic would be short-lived as he lost his next three starts and has never started another game since. But that all changes on Thursday due to a gruesome leg injury suffered by Alex Smith. Will McCoy be able to re-energize a Redskins offense that is deflated and in danger of losing their division lead?

Well, the good news for Dallas is that McCoy is nothing special. He’s not terrible either, but there’s a reason he’s an NFL backup. Washington is giving him over $3 million a year to remain their backup so the team firmly believes he’s a viable option. The bad news for Dallas is that while McCoy isn’t all that great, neither was Alex Smith. The Redskins invested $94 million ($71 M guaranteed) in Smith over the next four years, but he hasn’t been playing anywhere close to that level. Smith’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, and QB rating are all down and you’d have to go back to his San Francisco days to find him playing this uninspiring.

But none of that matters because the Redskins have been winning games despite ordinary quarterback play. McCoy just needs to drive the bus and lean on a solid running game backed by a strong defense. The Cowboys defense must make it difficult for this veteran backup and make sure an encore victory performance is not on the menu that day.

3. Reed between the lines

Veteran tight end Jordan Reed isn’t having a good season, but it’s not because of the usual reason. Normally, Reed’s season is cut short due to injury as he’s yet to play a full 16-game season in his career. That could change this season as Reed has played in all 10 games for Washington this year. While he’s been available, he just hasn’t been the target monster he’s been in past years, which is really strange considering how much Alex Smith loved going to Travis Kelce in Kansas City.

Reed’s numbers are down, but last week against the Houston Texans, he started showing up again. Reed had his best game of the season with seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. And his touchdown catch just so happened to be McCoy’s first pass attempt of the game. New quarterbacks often find new favorite targets and McCoy might be the change needed to spark Reed’s production.

The last time the Cowboys faced the Redskins on Thanksgiving, Reed had 10 catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Let’s hope we don’t see that again.

4. Remember what we’re “Tank”ful for

There are so many reasons to love this defense. The young secondary is doing a great job limiting big plays and helping the Cowboys rank in the top 10 in passing yards allowed. The linebacker duo of Godbacker and Wolf Hunter are tracking down everything, helping the Cowboys rank in the top five in rushing yards allowed.

While those things are great, let’s take a moment to appreciate a guy whose been dishing out helpings and helpings of deliciousness for this defense - DeMarcus Lawrence. And it’s not just for his ability to get to the quarterback. Tank has been outstanding against the run and has proven he’s just an all-around great defensive lineman.

The Redskins are going to rely on veteran running back Adrian Peterson to keep McCoy in manageable situations and keep the chains moving. Dallas must be sharp sealing off the edge as AD loves to put his foot in the ground and shoot over to the outside. The Redskins also do a great job of getting their offensive linemen into the second level, making it difficult for the linebackers to get a clean shot on Peterson. The defensive line is going to have to win in the trenches.

Just like Zeke is a barometer for the Cowboys success, ground production from Peterson determines whether or not the Redskins can pull out the win. Six times this year Peterson has rushed for 68 yards or more. Washington has won every single one of those games. Conversely, four times he’s been held to 51 yards or less. The Redskins have lost every single one of those games. If you stop Peterson, you stop the Redskins.

The Redskins ran away from Lawrence last time and that was a smart decision, but the Cowboys star defensive end can still catch you if you’re not careful.

Tank is great against the run and if they can slow Peterson down, he’ll get his chances to be great against the pass as well. Lawrence has been quiet in the sack department this year relative to last season, but a Thanksgiving splash could put him within striking distance of last year’s totals. Don’t be shocked if Tank pulls of the hat trick on Thursday with three sacks.

5. A time for giving?

Thanksgiving is a time for sharing, but let’s hope the Cowboys offense is not in a giving mood on Thursday. Turning the ball over is never good, but it’s been the kiss of death for the Cowboys this season. If they turn the ball over, they lose. Dallas is 0-5 this season in games where they have turned the ball over. And what makes it worse is those turnovers usually come in spurts. Of those five games, four of them have involved multiple turnovers. Those are hard holes to get out of and so far this season, the Cowboys haven’t been able able to overcome them.

But on the flip side, every time they play a clean game and don’t turn it over, they win. Every time. They are a perfect 5-0 this season when they don’t commit a turnover. So, which will it be on Thursday?

Unfortunately, the Redskins defense is one of the best in the league when it comes to creating turnovers. Washington has the second-worst points production in the NFC so it can be hard to imagine how this team is leading the division, but that just further speaks to how good their defense is playing. And it’s not just their ability to make stops, but to take the ball from them as well.

It would be great if Dak and company protected the ball and didn’t give the Redskins any freebies. The Redskins offense isn’t going to light up this Cowboys defense so if the offense can just play solid, that should be enough to get the win. We don’t want to see Prescott dribbling the ball or Zeke pirouetting to get extra yards. Just play smart.

What will you be watching in this game?