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Road game at Commanders may be unexpected test with NFC East on the line

Amazingly, the Cowboys are playing for a division title on Sunday.

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It wasn’t just the Dallas Cowboys 20-19 thrilling Saturday night win against the Lions that instilled a new sense of optimism for the 2023 season, as Dallas ended a two-game road losing streak and secured an undefeated season playing from AT&T Stadium. That optimism would come less than 24 hours later, when the Philadelphia Eagles lost at home to the Arizona Cardinals. This gave the Cowboys a clear path towards winning the NFC East title, hosting a playoff game in Arlington, and potentially avoiding a third straight rematch with the San Francisco 49ers until the NFC Championship Game.

All the Cowboys have to do is win a road game at the Washington Commanders. An elephant in the room type discussion that was temporarily put on hold after the Lions win, but one that persists as the Cowboys enter Week 18 with a 3-5 record away from their home turf. The Cowboys last road win was Week 11 at the Carolina Panthers, and they’ll enter the playoffs with their best road win likely being all the way back in Week 6 at the Chargers. Neither the Chargers or Panthers will be in the playoffs starting next week, and the same is of course true for the rival Commanders, but this game still stands to be a solid final road test before the Cowboys embark on their playoff journey. Yes, a win keeps the Cowboys from having to continue playing on the road, but ending their season with a road win at the same site the 2022 season concluded with a 26-6 loss is still a step in the right direction. The Cowboys would win the division with a 5-1 record and sweep the Commanders for the second time under Mike McCarthy, having beat Washington convincingly 45-10 on Thanksgiving.

The Cowboys loss last year at the Commanders came under the circumstances of the team knowing where they’d fall in the playoff picture, coming out uninspired on offense and merely going through the motions for four rain-soaked quarters at FedEx Field. This proved to be offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s last regular-season game, as the Cowboys bounced back offensively against the Buccaneers in the Wild Card round but fell flat again at the 49ers scoring just 12 points in the season-ending loss. McCarthy now faces the responsibility of calling plays against a Commanders defense that hasn’t been as fearsome since trading star pass rushers Montez Sweat and Chase Young, but he does have two previous losses over his Dallas tenure to Washington. Both came in McCarthy’s first season in 2020, losing 25-3 on the road in Week 7 and 41-16 on Thanksgiving. Both games were started by Andy Dalton with Dak Prescott lost for the season, making Prescott’s 10-2 career record with 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions against the Commanders just the first reason the Cowboys have little excuse to let this chance at the division title slip away on Sunday afternoon.

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys defense getting back in the turnover column against the Lions also suits them well for this game at the Commanders. Washington has had at least one turnover in ten straight games and multiple turnovers in seven games this season, including their last two against the Jets and 49ers. Sam Howell threw two interceptions against the 49ers as his team fell behind 10-0, but Ron Rivera’s team did put up a fight tying the game before halftime. It was the second straight week the Commanders put up a comeback effort, falling behind 20-0 at the Jets but taking the lead in the fourth quarter before losing on a last-second field goal.

San Francisco’s defense adjusted and shut out Washington in the second half to pull away 27-10 last week, much like the Cowboys did on Thanksgiving by allowing zero points in the second half and scoring 25 in the fourth quarter. DaRon Bland’s record-breaking pick six was the holiday dessert for a Cowboys team that won their third straight after the road loss to the Eagles - part of a five-game win streak with four of them at home and three decided by at least 20 points.

This Dallas team mostly knows who they are at this point, and their veterans that know opportunities to play in the postseason can never be taken lightly understand that. Key players like DeMarcus Lawrence, CeeDee Lamb, Dak Prescott, and Jourdan Lewis had their hands all over the one-point win against the Lions. They will all get valuable reps in a meaningful game before Wild Card weekend, and could be rejoined by Johnathan Hankins as a key member of the defensive line. Hankins had two sacks in the first meeting between these teams.

Micah Parsons delivered a clear message in front of the media on Wednesday when he said the time for learning and growing must be replaced with dominating and playing great football he knows this team is capable of.

The Cowboys can’t do anything about the fact they’ll still be questioned if forced to go on the road in the playoffs. Or that winning the division by beating a four-win Washington team might say more about Philadelphia’s collapse down the stretch than it does Dallas truly recapturing their mid-season form. They also likely don’t have time left in this season to drastically improve their running game.

The Cowboys two lowest rushing totals of the season last year were both against the Commanders, gaining 62 yards in the first meeting and 64 at home. It marked the second and third time under McCarthy the Commanders have held the Cowboys under 70 yards rushing, with just 60 yards in the 2020 Thanksgiving loss. Washington has forced the Cowboys offense to be one-dimensional before, but with Prescott playing at a MVP level in his first year with McCarthy as the play-caller, this pass-happy attack has still been plenty effective. The Cowboys 61 rushing yards against the Lions was their second fewest of the season behind only the 49ers loss that got away from them quickly. The team placed rookie RB Deuce Vaughn on injured reserve ahead of this game to make a spot for fellow draft pick DL Junior Fehoko, leaving just Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle returning from injury, Malik Davis and Hunter Luepke as the Cowboys stable of running backs.

Pollard has done what he can to warrant his top-heavy share of an otherwise unproven backfield, but had his second straight game under 50 yards against the Lions. The Cowboys timing in the run game was their biggest issue, failing to adjust to the speed of the Lions front seven and give Pollard much room in the open field. Pollard’s season high in yards per attempt came against the Commanders this season though, and while Dallas won’t be looking to run him into the ground before the playoffs, springing a few big runs with the offensive line working out in space would be a welcome sight.

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Prescott has only averaged over 10 yards per attempt twice this season, in home wins against the Giants and Commanders. The Cowboys offensive line giving Prescott time in the pocket was the key to the offense dominating the first meeting of these teams, with Lamb, Jake Ferguson, and Brandin Cooks able to take the top off of a Commanders secondary that’s allowed the third most yards and most passing touchdowns in the league this season. The Cowboys are looking to ensure their offensive line remains a strength in the playoffs, with former tackle La’el Collins rejoining the team and starting left guard Tyler Smith looking to manage his foot injury. This unit, the passing game, and Dan Quinn’s defense are their calling cards to vie for a trip to the conference championship game for the first time in 28 seasons.

Against the pick-your-poison 49ers offense, it was Brandon Aiyuk that had his way with the Commanders defense with 114 yards and a touchdown, catching seven of his eight targets while lining up all over the field. Coming off a season high in yards, catches, and targets, this Week 18 game bodes well for CeeDee Lamb to further dial in his connection with Prescott before the playoffs. The Cowboys have created mismatches in the middle of the field all season, and the opportunities should be there against a static Commanders defense. If this game was being played from AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys would likely be having visions of Prescott and other key players wearing baseball caps on the sideline at some point in the second half with the win and NFC East wrapped up. Playing on the road may complicate this a bit, but it’s still a matchup Dallas has advantages in every phase - needing only to show up and play to their capabilities to give them a chance to return home for Wild Card weekend.

Defensively, the Commanders will test the Cowboys ability to tackle in space when aiming to get the ball out of Howell’s hands quickly. Howell was sacked four times in his first start this season against the Cowboys, and the combination of Bland and Stephon Gilmore holding Terry McLaurin to four catches on 11 targets made it a long afternoon for Howell. Curtis Samuel was the only other receiver the Commanders turned to, catching nine of his 12 targets for 100 yards, but even with some explosive plays throughout the game the Cowboys forced the Commanders to sustain drives by holding them to five yards per play and forced three punts, three turnovers on downs, and an interception.

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

The Cowboys running off the field with turkey legs in hand during their Thanksgiving win over the Commanders has a chance to be a defining image of their 2023 season, so long as they don’t let Washington get the last laugh and keep them from winning the NFC East. How football fans felt about that moment is the perfect synopsis of how the Cowboys will be perceived in the playoffs. If you’re a fan of America’s Team, you likely loved the celebration as part of another blowout home win. If not, it was likely seen as undeserved for a team that hadn’t clinched a playoff spot or anything of the sorts yet. Those same fans will be rooting even harder for the Commanders this week, but with the Cowboys out of the familiar spotlight of America’s Game of the Week or any sort of primetime, the focus on their own play and improvement that’s been evident all season can be on full display with so much at stake between these longtime rivals.

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