It was supposed to be a fight to keep their slim hopes to get a home game to open the playoffs alive. But the Dallas Cowboys looked absolutely horrible against a bunch of Washington Commanders backups and went down to a frustrating and very concerning 26-6 loss.
This was a game the Cowboys needed to maintain slim hopes of winning the NFC East crown. They decided not to rest their starters as a result. The Commanders were eliminated and starting Sam Howell at quarterback. We expected this to be an easy win. We should have known better. The Cowboys came out and absolutely blew it.
They started the game electing to receive after winning the toss, always a questionable decision. A holding call on the attempted return forced them to start from their own 10-yard line. They opened on offense with the now traditional Ezekiel Elliott one-yard run. A completion to Noah Brown go them a new set of downs, but a third-down run by Tony Pollard came up short. It was a lackluster beginning.
Then it went from meh to horrid in a flash. Bryan Anger just dropped the snap on the punt and was brought down at the Dallas 20. It took just two plays for Howell to find Terry McLaurin for a touchdown. The Cowboys were in a 7-0 hole with less than four minutes gone in the game.
Their offense continued to sputter on the next possession, going a quick three and out after a drop by T.Y. Hilton and a Dak Prescott sack. The defense would get their own three and out on the next Washington possession, but it was only because of a dropped pass that would have given then a first down.
Anger had already gotten special teams off to a terrible start, and KaVontae Turpin would just make it worse as he muffed a punt that bounced right into the arms of Christian Holmes. It set the Commanders up on the Dallas 15-yard line. They would fail to get any points after a strong defensive stand, and then Joey Slye shanked a short field goal attempt.
Nothing was working on offense still as they went three and out. Then the defense began to crumble. They were flagged twice to quickly get Washington across the 50. Sam Howell started to hurt them with his legs as they left him a ton of open space to easily run for a first down. The Commanders got all the way to the two-yard line before a tackle for a loss pushed them back to the five, and then Malik Hooker picked Howell off in the end zone.
It could have been a spark for the Cowboys to finally get something going as they clearly gained a lot of momentum from the takeaway. Well, count this as a victory for the “momentum isn’t real” crowd, as Prescott would throw a near pick-six by Kendall Fuller before throwing the next ball right back to him. Fuller didn’t drop the second chance the way he did the first and waltzed into the end zone to stake Washington to a two-score lead. The only good news for Dallas, slim as it was, was a missed extra point by Slye.
Prescott was off again on third down after the ensuing kickoff and the Cowboys had to punt again. The Commanders would stall and Slye would miss a long field goal to give Dallas good field position. But instead of playing for first downs, they took two deep shots that fell incomplete to force yet another punt. We don’t know for sure, but if those were both called by Kellen Moore when his quarterback was not at all in rhythm or on target it was very questionable.
Washington wouldn’t be able to do anything either, and the Cowboys would finally get their second first down of the first half at the two minute warning. They would keep the drive alive as Prescott finally began connecting with his receivers, although still not consistently. They would wind up facing a third and ten at the 26 that should have been a third and 15 after the officials granted a time out after a clear false start. Prescott would evade pressure and dive almost to the first down marker, but the officials would place it just inches short. There were only :32 seconds left and the Cowboys had used their last time out. A QB sneak got the first down, but by the time Prescott threw incomplete out of the end zone, there were just ten seconds left. Then he would make his best throw of the game to finally get the team on the board with a touchdown to CeeDee Lamb, but even that was marred by a missed Brett Maher extra point, leaving the score 13-6 at halftime.
It was a pitiful performance from the offense. They only had 111 yards at half, with a paltry 41 on the ground. Prescott was just 9 of 21 for 80 yards with the touchdown and interception. The lack of success running the ball may be directly related to the injury issues on the offensive line. Reports before the game are that the staff is optimistic that Tyler Biadasz may be ready to go for the first round of the playoffs, and that may be a make or break factor for Dallas.
Mike McCarthy was more or less forced into keeping his starters in after halftime even though the scoreboard showed the Philadelphia Eagles held a fairly comfortable 16-0 lead over the New York Giants at that point. The defense would come up with a nice stop on third and less than a yard to give the offense another chance. But things started off poorly again with a decent run by Elliott getting called back by a holding call. After Elliott did not turn around to even look for a pass his way, they were forced to punt yet again.
The discombobulation on offense was now beyond concerning. Nothing was working. Certainly the Commanders had nothing at stake and might have been playing looser than an apparently overly tight Cowboys squad, but there is not question just how inept and lost the Dallas offense was. And there is not real way to explain it. They knew what was at stake. To put this kind of effort on the field was inexcusable. If they don’t find a way to turn it around by the first playoff game, it will be one-and-done once again, and despite the regular season success the past two years, McCarthy will be facing calls for his replacement, justified or not.
The third quarter was a defensive struggle as neither offense could get anything going. In particular, the Cowboys running game was nearly worthless. We have seen short or even negative runs on first down for several weeks. And this week, Prescott was not able to take up the slack, including a failure to reproduce the Hilton third and thirty catch from Christmas Eve. And it was Washington that finally got something going in the waning minutes of the third quarter. Howell would cap a 59-yard drive with a ten-yard rushing touchdown to stake them to a 20-6 lead with 1:49 left before the fourth quarter.
At this point, the offense was going backwards for Dallas, at least statistically. Prescott was just 10 for 29 at then end of the third quarter, and the running game had lost a yard from halftime.
When Slye finally converted a field goal with 14:19 to go in the fourth, the 17-point deficit looked insurmountable for Dallas. A failed conversion on fourth and one at the Commanders’ 45-yard line put things out of reach. Prescott continued to miss throws and would finish just 14 of 37 for 118 yards, one of the worst performances of his career. The game seemed to drag on and on. Another field goal would make it 26-6, Cooper Rush came in to finish things out without further risk of injury to Prescott, and the regular season ended not with a bang, but a whimper from the Cowboys. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the always dangerous Tom Brady up next in the wild card round, that was not at all what we hoped for.