No one expected the Washington Commanders to be much of a challenge for the Dallas Cowboys, and they weren’t. In what was Ron Rivera’s last game as head coach, the Cowboys clearly outclassed the Commanders. In the process, they sealed the NFC East title and the valuable number two seed. It was still a game where it was hard to be truly impressed by a Dallas victory, no matter how lopsided.
But the Cowboys certainly tried. More importantly, this looked like a team primed and ready to defend their home field in the playoffs, and if they defeat the Green Bay Packers in the wild card round, they will get to play at least two in the stadium where they have not been defeated since September of 2022. While you have to take the lack of success Washington has had this year into account, the numbers offer a lot of hope for this not being another disappointing postseason for Dallas.
Zero sacks for Dak Prescott
Why is this the first one brought up? Because the Cowboys had to play the game without Tyler Smith or Zack Martin. With T.J. Bass and Brock Hoffman filling in, they provided very good protection for Prescott. When there was pressure on him, he simply activated escape, evade, and attack mode, like he did on the second touchdown catch by CeeDee Lamb. When Prescott is given some time and feels comfortable, he is as dangerously effective as any quarterback in the NFL.
An MVP stat line
Let’s look at just how effective the QB was.
31 completions on 36 attempts (86.1%), 279 yards, four touchdowns, and one tipped ball interception. That will more than get the job done. It is also worth noting how he passed. It was a windy day, so he took few deep shots, instead completing short passes, a few of which had big yards after the catch or a penalty to move down the field. It was a lot of sustained drives, converting six of ten third downs and never calling on Bryan Anger to punt the ball once, even after Cooper Rush came in late to clean things up.
As he has done so much this season, Prescott spread the ball around, targeting eight different receivers and hitting seven of them. (Rush would hit Peyton Hendershot for 24 yards in the fourth quarter to add one more name to the list of pass catchers. Hendershot also threw in a hurdle for good measure.) It was a controlled, dominating performance. He may not wind up as the league MVP, for reasons that go beyond his play, but he clearly deserves to be in that conversation. The team will go as far as he can take them, and that looks like it could be far, indeed.
CeeDee’s star continues to ascend
Thirteen catches, 98 yards, and two touchdowns. Just another day at the office for Lamb, who averaged over 100 yards per game for the season. It is hard to argue against him being on a level with only one other player, the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill, this year. And thanks to the play of Brandin Cooks, Jake Ferguson, and others, if teams try and take Lamb away, Prescott will just go somewhere else. It’s a matter of picking their poison.
The running game shows up
This is a bit of a callback to the offensive line’s performance, since they are so crucial to this. The running game was solid in this game, amassing 131 yards and a touchdown. Tony Pollard was the big weapon in a way we have seldom seen in 2023. His 70 yards put him over 1,000 for the season, and he had the score after getting the team to the one-yard line.
Again, this was against the Commanders, but any signs of life for the ground game are welcome. And the Cowboys might have uncovered a new weapon in the passing game as well in Rico Dowdle, who caught three balls for 54 yards, including the longest play of the game, a 32-yard reception that was almost all after the catch.
The running backs showed up this game, and hopefully they will continue this.
Mike McCarthy had no missteps
You don’t score five touchdowns without punting the ball a single time without some good work by the guy holding the playsheet on the sidelines. McCarthy was clearly on point in this one. He didn’t get too fancy, relying on how his stars were taking care of business to rack up points and yardage. He seemed to have adjusted very nicely for the blustery conditions by sticking to the short passing game and leaning on the running backs. There seems nothing here to fault him for. He even called a quick, brutally efficient 65-yard touchdown drive after the two-minute warning in the first half. And clearly he had this team ready to play. There are no criticisms to level at him this week.
Defense asserted itself
The Commanders led 10-7 early in the second quarter, but from then on, they were shut down by Dan Quinn’s unit. They would sack Sam Howell four times, get two interceptions from Donovan Wilson and DaRon Bland, and Jourdan Lewis would continue his excellent season by forcing and recovering a fumble. Given that both of the Washington scores came on short fields following a blocked field goal and the interception of Prescott, this was a great showing, even if against an out-manned opponent. They say defense wins championships. More performances like this would certainly help.
The end of the streak
Sadly, the perfection ended for kicker Brandon Aubrey. Not only was his first attempt blocked, which was not really on him, he clanked one off the upright on his second try. But with Rush in to protect Prescott late, the team drove to get in Aubrey’s impressive range, and he nailed a 50-yarder to calm any flashbacks to what happened to Brett Maher last January.
If a playoff game comes down to a last-second field goal attempt, there is still no kicker that is better to have lining up for the try than Aubrey.
After ranting about the often unforced errors that kept gifting yards to the opponent and wiping good plays off the books, this is a thing of some beauty.
Two penalties for 20 yards.
It was not a game that saw a lot of laundry on the field, as the Commanders only got caught four times for 39 yards, but this is still almost impressive. And in a weird twist of fate, those two flags were both offensive holding calls, and came just two plays apart on the same drive. They didn’t matter, as Prescott would find Cooks for his touchdown to cap that short drive off following the punt blocked by Hendershot.
Outside of the two big mistakes that led to Washington’s points, there was just very little negative to point to in this game for Dallas. It certainly looked like a very good team getting some things cleaned up for the better teams they will now face in the playoffs. The biggest negative was the exit of Stephon Gilmore with a shoulder injury, but he told McCarthy that the apparent dislocation felt a lot better after getting put back in place, and he plans to be on the field in for Sunday’s matchup.
The thing the Cowboys needed most was to get the arrow pointing up in the season finale. That they did.