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Pregame Shuffle Week 18: Cowboys at Commanders

Sunday should hopefully be a lot of fun.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The entire season has boiled down to this singular moment. Through what can only be described as sheer mercy from the football gods, the Cowboys have been handed control of their destiny within the NFC East heading into the final game of the regular season.

The objective is simple: beat the Commanders in the nation’s capitol. Do that, and you’ve locked up the division and the second seed in the NFC. That guarantees a home game in the Wild Card round, a place that the Cowboys are undefeated on the season. And should they win that first playoff game, it guarantees at least one more home playoff game, too.

It’s been a long time since Dallas seemed to have such a clear path to the NFC championship game, a round of the playoffs this franchise hasn’t reached since the glory days of the 90’s. But the Cowboys can’t get too caught up in all that just yet, because they still have to beat the Commanders first.

That hardly seems like a daunting task, though. They hosted the Commanders on Thanksgiving and beat the living daylights out of them, winning 45-10. The loss was so bad that Washington fired their defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, the following day and announced that head coach Ron Rivera would call the defense going forward.

That change hasn’t amounted to anything, though, as Washington’s defense has continued to resemble Swiss cheese while Sam Howell remains extremely volatile at quarterback. In fact, Washington is in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and seems to be showing very few signs of life.

Just last week, Rivera opted to bench Howell in favor of veteran journeyman Jacoby Brissett, a puzzling move given that the Commanders’ season was already over. But Brissett suffered an injury in practice, pushing Howell back into the lineup for what turned into a beatdown from the 49ers. Rivera has already announced that Howell will start this week, making him the first quarterback since Kirk Cousins in 2017 to start every game in a season for this franchise.

So what does that mean for the Commanders and what type of performance they’ll put up this week? It’s hard to say. Reports have been surfacing for weeks that Washington’s new owner, Josh Harris, is almost definitely going to be moving on from Rivera and this front office (over which Rivera has control) once the season formally concludes.

Situations like that typically result in one of two outcomes: either coaches and players work extra hard to make their case before going on the job hunt in a few weeks, or they quit on the season and start making vacation plans while trying to avoid any serious injuries. Looking at the way these Commanders have played lately, it’s hard to not assume the second outcome has already taken place. But there’s also something to be said for the historic rivalry between these teams, and the sudden chance to deny the Cowboys a division title. Would playing spoiler be enough to motivate this team? It’s anyone’s guess.

Of course, that’s only one part of the equation. The Cowboys are a pretty good team, after all, and they shellacked this team just over a month ago when Washington was still very much in the playoff hunt. That was also in Dallas, though, where the Cowboys have dominated. Does this game being played in Washington change anything?

Betting markets don’t seem to think so, as they have the Cowboys as 13 point favorites despite being the road team. For anyone that was curious, Dallas was favored by 13.5 in the first game and they easily covered. The stakes are higher now, as the Cowboys know their NFC East fate depends upon this one. Throw in the fact that they’ve already proven to be the better team in this matchup and it’s hard to not get excited about another division title.

If the Cowboys can keep their focus on just this week and take care of the Commanders, it will do wonders for their Super Bowl odds. If they trip up, though, and end up having to go on the road as a Wild Card team, that would be a serious blow to this team’s confidence and their league-wide perception. It’s crucial that Dallas gets this win.

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