There are a whole lot of “what if’s” attached to the Cowboys’ regular-season finale, where they travel to the nation’s capitol to face the Commanders. All of these questions stem from the implications this game, as well as a couple others, could have on playoff seeding.
Here’s what we know: the Cowboys can do no worse than the fifth seed, which would mean traveling to Tampa Bay to face the Buccaneers. If Dallas wins on Sunday and both the Eagles and 49ers lose, the Cowboys would secure the top seed in the NFC and earn a first-round bye. If Dallas wins on Sunday and only the Eagles lose, then the Cowboys still win the NFC East and get to host a playoff game rather than going on the road.
Naturally, the NFL has scheduled all three of these games at the same time for maximum drama. It’s worth pointing out that the Eagles and 49ers are both favored by 14 points at the time of publication. Philadelphia is facing a Giants team that is already locked into the sixth seed and therefore has no reason to play their starters this week, while San Francisco plays a Cardinals team that got eliminated a long time ago and is down to their fourth different starting quarterback.
Still, stranger things have happened in the NFL, and none of this matters if the Cowboys don’t secure the win themselves. To that end, Mike McCarthy has declared that his team will play to win instead of trying to rest players for the playoffs. He’s also said that the team won’t be peeking at the scoreboard of the other games, though that’s almost certainly not true.
Either way, the Cowboys are preparing for the Commanders as if it were a normal week. The same can’t be said for Washington, though. After head coach Ron Rivera was apparently surprised to see his team eliminated a week ago, he’s decided to once again bench Carson Wentz this week and instead start rookie Sam Howell, who will be making his NFL debut.
The Commanders have been bad on offense most of the season, ranking 28th in offensive DVOA; they’re also 25th in scoring and 27th in yards per play. But it’s been a tale of two quarterbacks all year. Wentz started the first six games of the season before suffering an injury to his throwing hand. During that time, the Commanders offense was 28th in EPA/play and 29th in success rate. In his absence, Taylor Heinicke led a decent uptick in production: the offense ranked 22nd in EPA/play and 19th in success rate. That’s still not great, or even good, but it was noticeably better.
There was also the fact that Washington posted a 2-4 record under Wentz and a 5-3-1 record under Heinicke. Wentz added another loss to his ledger on Sunday, when the Commanders lost 24-10 to a Browns team that had already been eliminated from the playoffs.
Enter Howell, an unknown commodity in the NFL. At North Carolina he was an aggressive gunslinger type who thrived in the Air Raid offense; it helped that he was able to occasionally hurt defenses with his legs too. He’ll need to use those legs a lot on Sunday, too. Washington is 28th in pass block win rate and their offensive line has allowed pressure at the sixth highest rate in the NFL. They also have the 10th highest adjusted sack rate on the year.
Now, Howell will be making his NFL debut behind that struggling line and doing so against a Dallas defense that leads the league in both pass rush win rate and pressure rate. They’ve dropped down to third in sacks, but make no mistake about how dangerous this pass rush still is. The last time these teams played, DeMarcus Lawrence went off with nine pressures, the most he’s had in a single game since the 2017 season. Oh, and there’s Micah Parsons, who leads all qualifying defenders in both pass rush win rate and pressure rate.
As difficult as the Dallas defense should make things for Howell, the Commanders’ defense should be ready to put up a fight against Dak Prescott and this offense as well. They’re not as dominant as they were a couple of years ago, but this Washington defense is still good. They’re currently sitting at 13th in defensive DVOA and are 10th in run defense DVOA. They’re also eighth in pressure rate and 10th in sacks, with room to improve after Chase Young made his season debut just two weeks ago and is fully ramped up by now.
The biggest story of this defense, though, is their strength against the run. Dallas has been an elite rushing offense all year, but they had a very rough go of it against the Titans’ backups last week. Some of that can be attributed to not having Tony Pollard, who is set to play this week and undoubtedly in search of the 12 rushing yards he needs to hit the 1,000 yard mark on the season. It won’t be easy against this front, especially with center Tyler Biadasz already ruled out with an ankle injury, but the Cowboys could benefit from having to reclaim their physical identity right before the playoffs begin.
In all likelihood, the Cowboys won’t gain much from winning this game. However, they don’t know that for certain, and are in the unenviable position of having to play to win right now. Assuming that remains the case throughout the game - meaning McCarthy doesn’t start pulling guys if he sees San Fran and Philly up big - this should be a comfortable win for Dallas. The biggest hope - aside from an Eagles and 49ers loss - is that the team can stay healthy.