It took a while for the Dallas Cowboys to get going and overcome a couple of big mistakes, but they wound up with a very comfortable 38-10 win over the Washington Commanders to wrap up the 2023 regular season and, more importantly, the NFC East title and the number two seed in the NFC playoff bracket. It was a game that saw the passing game clicking, the running game finally finding its stride, and the defense getting multiple takeaways. If there was any real negative, it was that Brandon Aubrey would have the first bad game kicking of his young career. Maybe he got that out of his system for the playoffs. Stephon Gilmore also picked up an injury.
The Cowboys would have to play the game without Tyler Smith, out with his torn plantar fascia, and Zack Martin, who caught the bug that has been working its way through the Dallas roster. T.J. Bass and Brock Hoffman would have to fill in. They would wind up being more than serviceable.
With windy and cold conditions, the Cowboys elected to defer after winning the toss, and the weather had an immediate if minor impact as Nahshon Wright had to hold the ball for Aubrey to kick off. The Commanders offense got off to a good start as Curtis Samuels came around end for 15 to start the drive. On third and one three plays later, they went deep in their bag of tricks as Eric Bienemy dialed up a wildcat pass play that would have scored had the ball not been a bit underthrown. Instead, Stephon Gilmore just missed getting an interception. Washington would convert the fourth and one play, but would have to face the same down and distance at the end of the next set of downs. Damone Clark would lead the charge to get the stop and give the offense the ball at the Dallas 33.
The strategy for the Cowboys were to strike early and often, and the certainly took care of the first part with a quick eight-play, 67-yard drive capped by a Dak Prescott touchdown toss to Jalen Tolbert on a perfectly timed pass. It was a very encouraging start, with Prescott a perfect six of six. CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks both had a couple of catches, but the most welcome thing to see was a very good start for Tony Pollard, who had two carries for ten yards plus a twelve-yard reception. Dallas was up 7-0 with 6:26 left in the first quarter.
Then the defense had a huge early play as Jourdan Lewis forced and recovered a Robinson fumble at the Commanders’ 31. Unfortunately, a shot to Cooks in the end zone on third down would fall incomplete. Mike McCarthy would elect to go for it, and Prescott would find Jake Ferguson at the 15-yard line. They would stall there, setting up a fourth and nine, and then Washington special teams would have a huge play as Joshua Pryor would come through to block the kick, ruining Aubrey’s perfect streak, and Jace Whittaker would return it 66 yards to the Dallas 20. The Cowboys would force a fourth and goal from the one as the first quarter ended.
After thinking about things, Ron Rivera, widely believed to be in his last game as head coach, elected to go for it. Sam Howell would find Robinson for the score to tie the game up with three seconds gone in the second.
The next Dallas drive would start with a couple more good Pollard runs. Then the passing game would get them into Washington territory. But Jalen Harris would bat a Prescott pass in the air and Quan Martin would grab the errant ball, returning it to the Commanders’ 45.
Washington would have to go for it on fourth down yet again to get their initial first down of the drive, but Terry McLaurin would get 19 yards on an end around to get them in scoring range. Howell would just miss on a touchdown throw as the receiver would get a foot down just out of bounds on a second and one play. Then a false start would make it third and six, the first penalty of the game. The next flag came before the clock could even start with another false start as Sam Cosmi would flinch at the sight of Micah Parsons lined up over him. It would lead to a short field goal by Joey Slye to leave the Cowboys trailing by three, 10-7.
After KaVontae Turpin returned the kickoff to the 29, yet another Commanders penalty would jump start the drive, adding 15 yards for unnecessary roughness to a Lamb eight-yard reception. Ferguson would give them another first down, then Pollard and Rico Dowdle would combine to set up first and ten on the 22. Pollard would continue to have a good start to the game, with runs of nine and twelve yards to set up first and goal from the one, and he would get the score himself to get the lead back. Pollard already had 54 yards rushing, his best half in a long time.
The next Commanders possession would see Parsons not on the field. He was dinged up a bit on the previous stand, and this was a source of concern for Dallas fans, but Dante Fowler would step up to get the first sack of Howell at the two minute warning, putting Washington in a third and twelve. But Howell would find McLaurin to convert despite Parsons being back on the field. And Gilmore would be injured on the play and later ruled out for the day.
Then DeMarcus Lawrence would hit Howell as he threw the ball, allowing Donovan Wilson to grab the errant pass and set his team up with the ball at their own 35 with 1:40 on the clock and two timeouts to work with before halftime. Dowdle would drop the first down pass, but Prescott went right back to him for the biggest Cowboys gain of the game for 32 yards. The next play would have them in the red zone. A Cooks catch would set them up with first and goal from the four. Lamb would reach the ball across the goal line to put Dallas up 21-10 at the intermission. It was also the ninth game in a row he would find paydirt.
Dallas would receive the opening kickoff of the second half, putting them in good shape to claim the NFC East and the two seed. Meanwhile, the meltdown continued for the Philadelphia Eagles, who trailed the New York Giants 24-0 at halftime, a score that probably led to a few double takes. But the Cowboys did not want to back into things, and with the Detroit Lions having won their game earlier, Dallas had to win to keep from slipping to the three seed.
They came out determined to do that, moving the ball well in the second half and quickly getting across midfield. Dowdle would continue to contribute with a 20-yard run to the five-yard line, as the running game got up to 101 yards. Two plays later, Prescott would evade and extend the play to find Lamb at the back of the end zone, and the lead swelled to 28-10.
Parsons would put an emphatic end to the ensuing Washington possession with his fourteenth sack of the season. And Peyton Hendershot would give the Cowboys’ special teams their own huge play by breaking through and blocking the punt, giving Prescott and company the ball on the nine yard line. They would quickly be backed up to the 19 on a holding call on Ferguson, the first flag on Dallas all game. He would redeem himself with a reception to the three yard line. But Hoffman would get flagged on the next play. It didn’t matter, as Prescott would find Cooks in the right corner of the end zone for the fifth Cowboys touchdown of the game and a 35-10 lead. Another interesting tidbit: Bryan Anger had not punted to this point as the offense was absolutely clicking outside of the one interception.
Then that man showed up again. The Commanders had a drive going, but on a deep shot from the Dallas 44, DaRon Bland stepped in front of the receiver and came down with his ninth interception of the season at the eight yard line.
The offense would drive all the way to the Washington 26, but would stall. Aubrey would doink one off the upright. We hope this is just an aberration that he needed to get out of his system and not the kind of meltdown we saw from Brett Maher last year. That seems highly unlikely, given the nature of Aubrey, but, well, PTSD.
The defense would rack up more sacks on Howell, Cooper Rush would come on in relief of Prescott, and it was just a matter of running out the clock and going home to prepare for the playoffs coming to AT&T Stadium. Rush did get the team close enough for Aubrey to come out and nail a 50-yard field goal, so that is also something we don’t need to worry so much about.
Oh, and the Eagles did go on to lose, so it was doubly sweet.