The Dallas Cowboys are onto Tampa Bay. A playoff matchup that’s felt inevitable for weeks is now locked into Wild Card Weekend, though not in the fashion the Cowboys would have preferred. Dallas ended their regular season with a remote chance to surpass the Eagles atop the NFC East, but lost in worrying fashion, 26-6, at the Commanders.
The loss snapped a three-game win streak for the Cowboys against the Commanders, and is Dak Prescott’s first loss in the division since Week 16 of 2019 at Philadelphia. It took a career-low completion percentage for Prescott’s streak to end in what ended up being a meaningless game. The Cowboys failing to build any momentum on offense before the playoffs was done in by their lack of running game and inability to get turnovers against a QB making his first career start.
The Cowboys have played up to equal competition and down to lesser opponents this season, and now must hope they can respond in a win-or-go-home game against a QB that’s never lost to the Cowboys before. For a team that similarly backed their way into the playoffs with glaring concerns on offense last year, it will be hard to justify Kellen Moore’s game plan from this regular-season finale, giving Todd Bowles’ defense more than enough to work with for this week’s matchup.
For the final time this regular season, here are a few notes on the Cowboys fifth loss of the year.
- For as good as the Cowboys safeties have been this season, with Malik Hooker keeping the game close early by intercepting Howell in the end zone, they’ve left a lot of plays on the field in coverage. Howell’s first career pass attempt went for a walk-in touchdown to Terry McLaurin, who had an obvious mismatch against linebacker Damone Clark on the play. Donovan Wilson was supposed to be the bracket player over the top of this crossing route, but got caught up on the hash and left McLaurin to outrun Clark for a score.
It will be interesting to watch how Dan Quinn accounts for this against Brady, focusing more on contesting short throws and making the Bucs sustain drives without much of a run game, or expecting throws over the top to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
- The difference in degree of difficulty on Prescott’s throws to Lamb and any other pass catcher has been noticeable for weeks, and reached a breaking point in this game. Lamb wasn’t targeted until the second quarter, and without the threat of throwing over the top the Commanders contested every throw to Noah Brown, Michael Gallup, or T.Y. Hilton.
The Cowboys simplicity in route concepts has helped Prescott be decisive and get the ball out quickly, but with yet another shuffled offensive line in front of him, his confidence in the pocket threw off the timing on many of these throws. By the time the Cowboys got anything going near the end of the half against shell coverage, they were throwing to get back in the game, and failed to hit a passing play longer than Lamb’s 15-yard touchdown out of the slot all game.
- While the Cowboys played all of their healthy starters for as long as they could in this game, they also continued to test out cornerbacks at the spot opposite Trevon Diggs. Newly-signed Trayvon Mullen came in for an injured DaRon Bland, and had his struggles in single man coverage. Mullen was actually in decent position for some throws, but couldn’t play the ball in the air or break down to make tackles in space.
With a matchup against Brady looming, who’s made a Hall of Fame career picking on a defense’s most vulnerable players, the Cowboys learned in a much lower stakes game that Mullen isn’t the answer at cornerback. They’ll need positive updates on Bland this week, in addition to Tyler Biadasz, Leighton Vander Esch, Jonathan Hankins, and other players on track to return for the Wild Card game.
- The focus on the Cowboys defensive line has been with their edge rushers, needing to generate more pressure from DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Micah Parsons, but this was a positive game for the interior players. The Cowboys held up well against the run thanks to Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa getting in the backfield, as well as Carlos Watkins holding the line of scrimmage.
Adding Hankins into this rotation can only help, as the Cowboys next opponent ranks last in the NFL in yards per carry, per game, and rushing touchdowns. If Dallas can trust their front four to keep Tampa Bay from running, they can commit the numbers to coverage they’ll need against Brady while creating one-on-one matchups for their pass rushers to impact the game.