It’s strange to say this but as we enter Week 14 the Cowboys are preparing for their first matchup of the year with the Washington Football Team. This kicks off a stretch in which four of the Cowboys’ final five games are against divisional foes, including a second bout with Washington just two weeks later.
A month ago, many would have predicted this game to hold very little meaning. Dallas had just won their sixth straight game (with a backup quarterback, no less) while Washington entered their bye at 2-6 and on a four-game losing streak. Things have taken quite the turn for both teams, with the Cowboys going 2-3 in the same span of time that the Football Team has ripped off four straight wins. Now the 8-4 Cowboys are traveling to face the 6-6 Fightin’ Footballs in a game that suddenly could have major implications in the divisional race.
Since this game comes in December, much of the discussion around these two teams is focused on health and who’s available to play. In that aspect, the Cowboys have a clear advantage. They already saw the returns of DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyron Smith, Amari Cooper, and CeeDee Lamb against the Saints, and now they’ll (most likely) be getting Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore back in this one.
Meanwhile, Washington lost their free agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener only to find out a few weeks later he wouldn’t return at all this year. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Chase Young tore his ACL a month ago, while linebacker Jon Bostic and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste both landed on the injured reserve as well. Fellow edge rusher Montez Sweat was preparing to return from a broken jaw this week, but he landed on the COVID-19 list Wednesday and will miss this game.
Washington has also endured plenty of shorter injuries to various starters on their defense - so far this week, they’ve missed Landon Collins and Jamin Davis in practice - which has played a crucial part in a strong regression from last year’s formidable unit. Despite holding three of their last four opponents under 20 points, Washington ranks 30th in defensive DVOA and 31st in weighted defensive DVOA. This means they’ve been playing less efficient defense as of late even with the winning streak.
Most of their defensive struggles have come through the air, where they rank 30th in pass defense DVOA compared to eighth in run defense DVOA. Last year’s defense lived and died on the ability of Young and Sweat to breathe down quarterback’s necks. Without them, Washington is 13th in pass rush win rate, 24th in sacks, and 17th in pressure rate. That’s also translated to surrendering the fourth-most passing yards, fifth-most first downs by air, and the most passing touchdowns.
That sets things up nicely for the Cowboys, whose offense flashed a few times against New Orleans but didn’t seem to fully get back into the swing of things the way they had been before Cooper and Lamb got hurt. There will be plenty of opportunities for Dak Prescott in this one, who is making his first ever start against this franchise since the name change and is 7-1 against them in his career.
As for Washington’s offense, it’s been tough sledding. Surprisingly, though, it’s not because Taylor Heinicke has been forced into a full-time starting role. Granted, Heinicke hasn’t been good enough to prevent Washington from at least considering quarterbacks in this year’s draft, but he’s been serviceable; Washington ranks 11th in pass DVOA and are above the league-average in EPA per dropback. But their running game, much like Dallas, has struggled to really get going, although Antonio Gibson has already crossed 1,000 scrimmage yards this year.
That creates an interesting matchup for Dan Quinn’s defense, as the unit is great against the pass and not so good against the run. Washington has a strong offensive line, ranking fourth in pass rush win rate and first in run block win rate, although center Chase Roullier and tackle Sam Cosmi are both on injured reserve. That makes it all the more imperative for Gregory and Gallimore to come back, as it’ll take Dallas’ best to disrupt things up front for this middling offense.
Lost in all of the discussion about the divisional race is the fact that Mike McCarthy will be back with the team this week after missing their previous game. Quinn did an adequate job in relief, but McCarthy will surely want to christen his return to the sidelines with a win, especially since he got swept by this team last year by a combined margin of 66-19. Of course, he didn’t have Prescott for either of those games, who’s historically been great against this team. They’ll need that trend to continue as Dallas tries to not only wrap up their division but make a push for a higher playoff seed as well.