With only a pair of games separating them atop the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team will meet at FedEx Field on Sunday for the first of two meetings in three weeks.
And they could hardly be meeting at a more entertaining time.
These teams were headed in opposite directions before their respective byes. Dallas was 5-1 but is since 3-3 as its offense has stalled out. Meanwhile, Washington was 2-6 but has reeled off four straight wins.
Of course, the Eagles are still in the race at 6-7, but the NFC East title could easily come down to this game and the one in Dallas two weeks later. A Cowboys sweep would all but wrap things up. A Washington sweep puts them in the driver's seat. A split? Well, that's just more NFL chaos.
The Cowboys did not beat Washington in head coach Mike McCarthy's first season in Dallas, dropping two games by a combined 66-19 margin. But McCarthy made a rather bold proclamation on Thursday when he told reporters, "We're going to win this game. I'm confident in that."
Did Washington need much more motivation to win a third straight against the Cowboys? Seems unlikely. But if Washington can prove McCarthy wrong, it will have pulled something rare off: just a second win over Dak Prescott in nine chances.
Dallas (8-4) at Washington (6-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How effective will Dallas' run game be?
The Cowboys have lightened Ezekiel Elliott's load recently because his right knee has been bothersome since October. He has admitted he's not playing at 100 percent, and that's evident in the numbers as well. Prior to the team's Week 7 bye, Elliott was averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 17.0 carries per game. In the six games since, he's down to 11.8 carries per game but is less efficient at 3.4 yards per attempt.
That plan worked well in large part because of backup Tony Pollard, who has out-rushed Elliott on a per-carry basis in each of his three seasons. But now Pollard is battling a foot injury and is a game-time decision after missing practice.
Whether Pollard plays or Dallas has to turn to Corey Clement and practice squad back Ito Smith to spell Elliott, the Cowboys have an uphill climb against this fearsome Washington front. Even without Chase Young in recent weeks, the defense has shut down the opposition.
Washington ranks third in the league with 91.3 rushing yards allowed per game, and that's down to an average of 69 over the last six games, with only one team reaching triple digits. Washington limited Dallas to a combined 143 rushing yards in their two games last season, and the unit has seemingly taken a step forward in 2021.
2. Can Taylor Heinicke avoid big mistakes?
Heinicke has exceeded expectations after taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener, but one of his big downsides has been an overabundance of mistakes. His 2.8 percent interception rate is eighth worst in the NFL, and his 11 total picks are tied for fifth.
Dallas may not have the strongest pass defense — 261.4 yards per game allowed, 28th — but the one thing this unit does well is force turnovers.
The big matchup to watch will be Trevon Diggs vs. Terry McLaurin. Diggs leads the league with nine interceptions, but he also tends to get burned on big plays. His 14.5 yards allowed per completion is 29th highest in the league, while his 667 yards allowed is 23rd.
Preventing McLaurin from making big plays will be key because the rest of Washington's receiving corps is fairly banged up. Tight end Logan Thomas is out for the year with a knee injury, and No. 2 wideout Curtis Samuel has been hurt throughout the season and remains limited in practice with a groin injury.
Washington is 3-1 when Heinicke doesn't throw an interception and 0-3 when he throws two. So this formula is pretty clear for the home team.
3. Can Dak Prescott get back on track?
Prescott has once again been one of the NFL's best quarterbacks this season; his 101.7 passer rating ranks seventh and his 288.8 yards per game rank fifth. But his season can be split in two since he missed Week 8 with a right calf strain.
In his first six games, Prescott eclipsed eight yards per attempt five times and had 16 touchdowns to four interceptions. But in the five games since, he has only topped eight yards per attempt just once and has seven TDs to four picks. His yards per game have fallen from 302.2 to 271.4, and his rushing threat has almost completely disappeared.
Sunday represents a chance for Prescott to get back on track. Although the Cowboys' ground game is banged up, his receiving corps looks like it's fully ready to go with CeeDee Lamb (concussion), Amari Cooper (COVID-19), and Michael Gallup (calf) set for full workloads.
Washington has also been an easy target in the passing game, ranking 30th in the NFL at 263.9 yards allowed per game this season. Those numbers are down to 218.3 in the four games since the bye, but this remains a beatable secondary.
Washington has a chance to make this divisional race interesting, but the team just doesn't have the horses to keep up with Dallas' passing game if Prescott gets back to his usual self. Maybe versatile running back Antonio Gibson can burn the Cowboys, as he did twice last season, but Heinicke's propensity for mistakes will likely be a deciding factor against this ball-hawking Dallas D.