Just one day after Santa comes down everyone’s chimneys, the Washington Football Team will have to deal with their ghost of Christmas past. More specifically, the Dallas Cowboys host Washington just fourteen days after they spent the game tormenting Taylor Heinicke.
As a 10.5-point favorite, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, it appears that Cowboys fans will be receiving a day-late Christmas present in the form of an NFC East title. So, what will it take for Dallas to end the division race and clinch a home game for at least one playoff matchup?
The Cowboys offense
This is essentially a dress rehearsal game for Dallas. While it is fair to take every game one at a time and focus on whoever is next on the schedule, the real test for this offense comes just one week later. Thus, the Cowboys need to gain momentum before facing a team they could very well see again in January, the Cardinals.
As we have said for the past two weeks, this is another good matchup for the offense to get back on track. At this point, it is beating a dead horse, but the Washington defense is among the league's worst secondaries and can serve as a “get-right game.”
But what will it take for this offense to finally hit its stride?
The number one priority for the Cowboys this week should be playing a complete game, all four quarters of good offensive football. Because here is the issue, Dallas tends to take their foot off the gas pedal during their recent three-game win streak.
Over their last three games, Dallas is averaging 17.3 first-half points, which is fifth in the NFL over that stretch. However, their 7.7 second-half points in the previous three games are lower than every team currently in the playoff picture.
It can also be framed in the context of win percentage, according to rbsdm.com. Since the Atlanta game, the Cowboys’ offense ranks 22nd in the NFL by EPA per play. But when the win percentage is between 16% to 84%, the Dallas offense ranks 14th. The story is similar with Dak Prescott, who currently has a .013 EPA per play in the second half, but a .034 EPA per play in the first half.
Now obviously, this is encouraging, however as we get closer to the postseason, Dallas will have to play a full four quarters of football to win. The Cowboys won’t beat the Packers, Buccaneers, or Cardinals playing only two-quarters of decent offense.
Instead, the Cowboys need to sustain their offensive success until the final whistle blows in this game.
Even with Connor Williams bringing a spark to the rushing game, it will not be easy to run on Washington. It also won’t be easy to produce touchdowns since the Football Team’s scoring percentage allowed in the red zone of 36% is top five in the NFL over their last three games.
Thus, the game plan will likely feature Dak throwing 40+ times, similar to the matchup two weeks ago. The rushing game should set up manageable conversion situations, but they will not be able to march down the field with the ground game as they did last week.
From there, we have to cross our fingers and hope that not only is Dak efficient but that Kellen Moore can call the plays to generate touchdowns when they get to the red zone. Two aspects of the game the Cowboys have struggled with lately. But this is the Cowboys’ last chance to find life on offense before a date with the Cardinals.
The Cowboys defense
The Dallas defense, from this point on, should be known as our scoring unit. Instead of discussing what it will take to stop Washington, it is more accurate to discuss how they will do it.
Likely learning their lesson after the last meeting, Washington will not hold onto the ball in the pocket. They found success late in the game primarily because of a prevent defense, but partially because they were getting the ball out quick and not letting the pass rush get home.
The New York Giants implemented a similar game plan against Dallas. The Cowboys failed to sack Mike Glennon, who had the seventh-fastest time to throw in week 15.
But it doesn’t matter.
If teams get the ball out quickly against Dallas, the Cowboys simply let Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs, and Jourdan Lewis press up. Thus, if the opposing quarterback wants to hit the short passes, it will be against tight coverage. Meaning that any small mistake on the throw will inevitably lead to an interception, which we saw three times last Sunday.
So if you can’t hold onto the ball in the pocket against the Cowboys because Micah Parsons, Randy Gregory, or DeMarcus Lawrence will assuredly get home, and you cant throw quickly because the Dallas corners are good enough to play press defense, you have to run the ball right?
Once again, this is what the Giants assumed. However, the Dallas rushing defense, which many believed was relatively weak, has been superb lately. Per rbsdm.com, the Cowboys have the ninth-best rushing defense in the NFL over the last four weeks, with opponents successfully running against Dallas on 38% of attempts.
If the Cowboys recognize that teams rely on the ground game, they shift Micah Parsons to linebacker and allow him to work sideline to sideline. The opponent's ground game might be successful at first, but not as the game wears on.
So if Washington won’t be able to run against Dallas, they can’t hold the ball too long in the pocket, and they also can’t afford to risk a quick throw leading to a turnover; what do they do? Welcome to the 2021 Dallas Cowboys defense.
Granted, playoff teams will likely see more success in the quick passing game since postseason quarterbacks will be more accurate than Mike Glennon and Taylor Heinicke. But if Dallas can continue to build on their defensive success, then Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Kyler Murray are much less intimidating come January.
Coaching and special teams
It is safe to say that Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore are not on everyone’s nice list at the moment. Whatever the reason for Kellen Moore’s curious play-calling lately, a lack of faith in the offense or an unwillingness to show the full extent of his playbook before January, it is concerning.
Maybe it is partially on Dak for audibling or checking down, but here is what Cowboys fans want from Kellen Moore for Christmas; no more screen passes on third and long, play calls that allow Dak to throw it further than ten yards, and stop running straight into the A-gap on every rushing play.
McCarthy, there is just one thing we want from you, aggression. The clock management hasn’t been perfect, but it hasn’t been a glaring issue lately. Penalties are similarly declining. But the lack of faith in the team to convert on fourth and manageable situations has been hurting the team.
Granted, the offense is not inspiring a lot of faith lately, but it starts with the leader of this team.
As for special teams, barring a collapse in this game, Greg Zuerlein should not decide the fate of this matchup. At this point, we have committed to the Zuerlein experience. He will miss incredibly simple kicks early in the game, including a plethora of PATs, and he is going to drill a few long field goals late in the game.
It might not be enjoyable, but it is fascinating to watch. We just need a little confidence that a Zuerlein miss won’t derail the playoffs and lose a game in January; you got this, Greg.
What a season this has turned into. But with all of its twists and turns, Dallas fans will likely be treated to an NFC East title birth on Sunday. It might not have come the way we assumed it would, but a division title is nothing to be disappointed about.
However, the allure of a playoff berth will quickly fade as the Cowboys face another NFC contender the week after. The road to a Super Bowl starts this week, with the offense hopefully gaining some momentum and generating confidence before a telling matchup. Have a very Merry Christmas, and let’s go Cowboys.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 75.7%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 24, Washington Football Team 13