One of football's oldest, feistiest rivalries packs a little extra punch this weekend down in the nation's capital. Both the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, each still smarting from a rough Week 1, are trying to avoid the ruin of two season-opening losses. In the last nine years, 75 NFL teams have started the year 0-2; only 9.3 percent of them have fought back to make the postseason.
For two of the sport's most popular franchises, both of whom carry the weight of playoff expectations, it's clear they can't dig too deep of a hole. The Cowboys find themselves especially vulnerable, fighting without prized quarterback Tony Romo for at least another month while he recovers from a broken vertebra. Forced to start rookie Dak Prescott under center, the Cowboys' schedule after this one includes back-to-back games versus the Bengals and Packers in early October. Add in losses there and a defeat to the Redskins would leave the Cowboys at best with a 2-4 record and desperate for Romo.
Can the Cowboys take a step forward this week? Whether their rookie backfield can do just that is one of three keys to Sunday's game at FedEx Field.
Series History: It's the 113th meeting between two of the sport's historic teams (Dallas and Washington have won eight Super Bowls between them). Dallas leads the all-time series 66-44-2.
Dallas at Washington
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Washington -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott Push Forward?
All eyes remain on the Cowboys' quarterback situation. Prescott's debut last week, paired with Elliott, made them the first rookie QB/RB combo to start for the team in Week 1 since 1969. Against the Giants, however, the pair did not conjure up memories of Roger Staubach and Calvin Hill. While Prescott was mistake-free, hitting 25 of 45 passes for 227 yards, he failed to throw for a touchdown and averaged only 5.0 yards per pass attempt. Prescott also struggled to land the ball in the hands of star receiver Dez Bryant, who had just one catch for eight yards and was targeted only five times. (Compare that to tight end Jason Witten, catching nine passes on 14 targets).
The running game had its own set of problems. Take Elliott's eight-yard touchdown rush away and he averaged a measly 2.2 yards per carry. The duo's difficulty in producing breakout plays led to an inability to close the deal in the red zone; a 1-for-3 clip kept the Giants in it and ultimately allowed a fourth-quarter, Eli Manning-led comeback.
2. Can Kirk Cousins Shake Off The Slow Start?
Cousins made some crucial mistakes last week against the Steelers, throwing two interceptions in a 38-16 thrashing coming at the hands of one of the expected Super Bowl contenders out of the AFC. But Redskins fans shouldn't be surprised; Cousins started out the same way last year. Six weeks into the season, he had just six touchdowns, eight interceptions and only one game where his QB rating finished above 100.
After that, Cousins turned things around and then some - throwing just three picks in the nine regular season games before what happened on Monday night. Bouncing back should be easier for him this year, especially with so many weapons at his disposal. DeSean Jackson looked to be in prime shape, catching six passes for 102 yards and Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon and even Vernon Davis give him plenty of options. Cousins can't make those mistakes consistently and since he wants to be paid like an elite quarterback, he needs to show that he can learn from a rough game instead of letting it carry over to the next one.
3. The Kicking Game?
Yes, the kicking game. Two of the last four meetings between these two have been decided by three points or fewer. One went to overtime, putting the pressure on Dallas' Dan Bailey and Washington's Dustin Hopkins to perform this Sunday.
And they should do just that. With struggling offenses, these kickers combined to go 7-for-7 on field goals in Week 1. In Bailey's case, he connected on two from beyond 50 yards. In a game with young teams making their share of mistakes it very well could be the first team that blinks on special teams that loses the edge.
Washington didn't look good Monday night. But the Steelers, armed with arguably the NFL's most potent offense, are going to make a lot of teams look foolish this season. It's important for the Redskins to get back on track, especially against a team they need to distance themselves from while Tony Romo is hurt. It's hard to imagine they'll waste an opportunity to put this Dallas team away on their home turf.
Prediction: Washington 27, Dallas 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)