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Cowboys collapse in “meaningless game” still foreboding for playoffs

Losing is one thing, but playing like hot garbage is another. The Cowboys did both.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

It seemed inevitable that the Dallas Cowboys would have nothing to play for yesterday, and that became the outcome when the Eagles beat the Giants. Despite the lack of tangible gain from their regular-season finale against the Washington Commanders, the Cowboys laid such an atrociously foul egg that it can’t help but shake your confidence about their upcoming playoff appearance.

While both the NFC East and the number-one seed in the NFC were still in play at kickoff, the Eagles and 49ers both quickly took control of their matchups and shut the doors on those pipe dreams. But even if they were watching the scoreboards in those simultaneous games, the Cowboys looked like they’d already given up from the very first possession.

To be fair, this one wasn’t on the defense. You could even argue that Dallas’ defense had a good game given the lack of help from the offense and special teams, whose turnovers quickly derailed the game.

Between the botched snap on Bryan Anger’s first punt, KaVontae Turpin’s muffed punt return on the next drive, and then Dak Prescott’s pick-six not long after, this one was a disaster as quickly as it began. If the Cowboys had a shred of hope about improving their postseason position, the Commanders’ early success seemed to deflate what little resolve the team had.

The defense was the only unit playing with some semblance of pride. Given how much adversity they faced, only surrendering 3.7 yards per run and 309 yards of total offense to Washington bordered on impressive. They, plus an atrocious first half for Commanders’ kicker Joey Slye, were all that kept this game from feeling out of hand early.

There were undoubtedly some x-factors at work in this. Again, Dallas had faint hope of this game changing their fate as the fifth-seeded wild card team. They were going against an unknown entity in rookie QB Sam Howell, who looked capable in his first NFL action. They’d had extra rest from their Week 17 game on Thursday night, which lately seems to do more harm than good to this team’s rhythm. And they were on the road, which never helps matters.

None of these are excuses for what we saw in Washington. They may help bring the pain down a little, but the utter no-show and lack of focus from the majority of the roster is still a scary sight going into the playoffs.

It would be one thing if this was an anomaly in an otherwise dominant run, but the Cowboys have hardly been firing on all cylinders over the last several weeks. They’ve been fortunate to play some bad teams and backup quarterbacks recently, because Dallas hasn’t really looked great since their victories over the Vikings and Giants in November.

If we’re being honest, there’s a bit of fool’s gold in that 12-5 record.

The team is obviously struggling without OT Terence Steele and C Tyler Biadasz, whose absences have led to a makeshift offensive line and really hurt the run game. Biadasz will hopefully return for the playoffs, but Steele has been the more impactful loss of the two.

There’s still a woeful lack of impact from receivers not named CeeDee Lamb. Dallas’ clearly lost its gamble on Michael Gallup this year and can only hope he’ll get right this offseason. T.Y. Hilton’s had his moments but still needs time to get fully integrated.

But even if there were more options in the passing game, are we sure this quarterback would be making the most of it? Even the most unabashed Dak supporters have to be jarred after that game. His pick-six may have been the worst throw of his career and he looked out of sorts the entire game. It’s one thing to see a guy doing his part and not getting help, but Prescott was clearly a big part of the problem yesterday.

Again, you could chalk some of this up to the long week off and the team already looking ahead to Tampa Bay. But that’d be easier to swallow if they’d looked better against Tennessee, Houston, or Indianapolis last month. Even the win against the Eagles, which made us forget about the loss to Jacksonville a week earlier, came with the asterisk of Jalen Hurts’ absence.

Expecting these Cowboys to now go into the playoffs and make noise is now mostly just blind hope. Getting back a few solid starters like Biadasz or LB Leighton Vander Esch will help, but what have we seen from Dallas over the last six games to indicate they're really a top contender?

The ugliness of yesterday’s loss may have been exacerbated by some legitimate factors. But it was a huge dip in an already disturbing trend, and it stamped a big question mark on the Cowboys as they enter the postseason.

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