Talk about a sophomore slump. It took the whole NFL regular season last year for young Dallas Cowboys stars Dak Prescottand Ezekiel Elliottto pile up three losses. The rookies thrashed opposing defenses, earned fans’ respect for “doing everything right,” and waltzed to the NFC East title at 13-3.
Now? Dallas has three losses already just six games into the season. Elliott is fighting a six-game suspension for domestic violence that’s turned into months of guilty-or-not-guilty legal drama. It’s left the offense in a sort of weird limbo although the last two weeks, Elliott is looking like himself (back-to-back 100-yard performances).
That puts the pressure squarely on Prescott, who’s done well in the Cowboys’ three wins this season but thrown at least one interception in each of their defeats. The sophomore, expected to be the star in the face of struggle, has had growing pains you’d expect from a young player.
To be fair, the missing “D” in the Cowboys’ defense drags down the offensive duo. Before a get-well game against the lowly 49ers last Sunday, the Cowboys had given up 30-plus points in three of their previous four games. They sit 22nd in points allowed and 21st in rushing yards allowed per game.
America’s Team tries to right the ship this weekend against one of their longtime rivals, the Washington Redskins. The ‘Skins are in a 3-3 slump of their own although two of those losses are to the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
What’s at stake for both teams? The rights to still compete for an NFC East division title that’s already a long shot. A 3-4 record, seven games in would be a massive disappointment for two teams with rosters built for the postseason.
Dallas at Washington
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 29 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cowboys -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Was San Francisco the “fix it” moment for the Cowboys?
Any way you look at it, the Cowboys dominated the 49ers on national television. Ezekiel Elliott had his season high in rushing yards (147), yards per carry (5.7), and he scored twice on the ground for the first time all year (added a TD catch for good measure). Dak Prescott threw for three touchdowns and no picks while Dez Bryanttied his season high with seven catches and a touchdown.
All those who watched that game on FOX saw the definition of a rout. The 49ers were no match for who the Cowboys put on the field... but they’re also 0-7. They’ve had the lead in a game for a total of six plays the entire season.
Did Sunday give us a false sense of security with the Cowboys as they played against inferior competition? Or did the 49ers knock some sense into a team that’s stumbled to start 2017?
"I felt ready to go out there and play ball," Elliott told the Dallas Morning News. "I'm not going to say I didn't feel ready earlier in the season. I felt the same.
"But I think all together this team we had a different mentality coming into [Sunday] and I think we're at the right place in the season."
Only time will tell. But the Cowboys clearly looked and felt different watching them last weekend. They need to take the emotional momentum from that game and keep it going.
2. Can the Redskins run the ball while stopping the run?
Last week against Philadelphia, the Redskins were beat badly on the ground. The Eagles outrushed them 127-75, no back had more than 38 yards, and their 18 rushing plays were the fewest for the ‘Skins since Week 1 (also a loss to Philadelphia).
That means this team needs to step it up, at home against an opponent in the Cowboys whose front line is vulnerable to the run. Their defense has given up 125 yards to unheralded rookie Aaron Jones of the Packers, 121 yards to Todd Gurley of the Rams (his season high), and 118 yards to C.J. Anderson (also a season high).
Enter Chris Thompson (above, right), premier pass catcher but without a 100-yard game on the ground this season. He’ll have his work cut out for him, too, as four of the five offensive linemen on the ‘Skins are dealing with some type of injury. Three of them (Trent Williams, Morgan Moses, and Brandon Scherff) got hurt against the Eagles. Two (Spencer Long, Ty Nsekhe) linemen have already been ruled out for this game and Washington signed Orlando Franklin and Arie Kouandjio and added both to the active roster on Saturday because of all the injuries up front.
3. Whose secondary will step up?
Rumor has it Redskins cornerback Josh Norman(ribs) will return on Sunday against the Cowboys. He can’t come back quickly enough after Carson Wentztorched this unit last week with a 64-yard touchdown to Mack Hollinsand a 126.3 quarterback rating after an awful start.
The Cowboys, meanwhile rank a respectable 15th against the pass but have just two interceptions, ranking them near the bottom of the NFC. Why is that important? Kirk Cousins has been a good-but-not-great quarterback this season, always giving you one turnover to play with. Earning those takeaways, especially on the road will be key to keeping the crowd quiet and the score low. Remember, this Redskins offense has scored at least 20 points in each of the last five games.
Expect this game to stay close as these teams are evenly matched. On paper, it looks like the Cowboys have more talent and the Redskins have to figure out how to run the ball.
But also look at the ‘Skins' season to date. Their three losses are arguably to the two best teams we’ve seen from each conference: Philadelphia and Kansas City. They’re better than the 3-3 record indicates and a marquee team like Dallas coming to town offers them the chance to prove it.
Two factors have me throwing this one toward the ‘Skins. One: Ezekiel Elliott’s next appeal hearing is Monday. That’s going to weigh on his mind. But more importantly, the Cowboys are dealing with a new kicker. Dan Bailey’s groin injury has him sidelined for several weeks; veteran Mike Nugent, with an unremarkable resume, replaces him.
How many times have we seen a kicker make the difference all season? I could easily see a missed field goal being the difference here.
Prediction: Redskins 27, Cowboys 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.