The Dallas Cowboys clinched themselves a playoff spot in the best way possible Thursday night: sitting on the couch. A San Francisco 49ers loss ensured that they won't fall out of the top seven in the NFC, bringing them back to the postseason for the first time since 2018. It makes their matchup against the Washington Football Team a little easier Sunday as they look to earn their next Christmas present from Santa: the NFC East.
Indeed, a Dallas win over Washington (or a Philadelphia Eagles loss) will be all it takes to clinch their fourth division title in the last eight years, dating back to when Tony Romo was still the starting quarterback in 2014. Despite declining offensive production, the defense has stepped up behind two first-time Pro Bowlers, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs, to keep this team in the hunt for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
For Washington, this game is make-or-break if there's any hope left to make the postseason. Sitting at 6-8, it will likely take winning out plus a momentous turnaround in their precarious health situation. The good news is that part's heading in the right direction, their COVID-19 protocols list down to nine players from a high of 25 before Tuesday night's loss against the Eagles. Starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke is among those activated, beefing up a roster that was forced to lean on a number of backup and practice squad players last week.
But Washington still has to turn around and play Dallas on short rest. Heinicke was symptomatic with COVID, still building back his energy along with a number of other affected players. That'll make pulling off the upset an uphill battle against a Cowboys team that's undefeated (4-0) against their division, including a 27-20 win over Washington two weeks ago.
Sunday Night Football: Washington (6-8) at Dallas (10-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 24 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -10.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Can Heinicke jumpstart Washington's offense?
Heinicke returns to the lineup just two weeks after having one of his worst games of the season against the Cowboys. He was 11-for-25 for just 122 yards, a touchdown, and an interception as Washington struggled to move the ball against this defense. The team coughed the ball up on two of their first three possessions, falling behind 24-0 in the first half with a deficit that proved too much to overcome. Now, Heinicke faces a second matchup at less than 100 percent, still in recovery from a COVID case that left him down for the count.
"I tried to do some laundry," he told the Washington Post. "And I put all the dry clothes in a little hamper bin and walked to my living room. It was 20 steps, and I was out of breath."
That story makes it hard to believe Heinicke will be running at full strength in the middle of the fourth quarter days later. At least the extra rest allowed some nagging knee and elbow injuries time to heal (Kyle Allen replaced him in the Cowboys game).
As Heinicke jumps back in control of the offense, he may also be without one of his top targets. Running back Antonio Gibson is struggling through a toe injury, didn't practice Thursday and is questionable for Sunday's game. That puts extra pressure on the passing game, as backup Washington running back J.D. McKissic is sitting on injured reserve with a neck injury. It would put Jaret Patterson in line to start, a backup who has a total of just 41 carries all season.
2. The Dallas defense turnover machine
Washington's offensive struggles have the Cowboys defense licking their chops after forcing four turnovers and scoring on a fumble return in their matchup two weeks ago. Parsons was all over the field in that game, forcing a fumble, collecting two sacks and producing two additional quarterback hits against Heinicke.
The Cowboys have a NFC-leading 31 takeaways overall as they thrive on momentum-changing plays. One player who wasn't as active that game, Diggs, will be seeking a team record-tying 11th interception after reaching double digits in last week's 21-6 victory against the New York Giants. The defensive numbers overall the past three games have been Super Bowl-esque: eight interceptions, eight sacks and four forced fumbles.
As for Washington? Only Carolina and Chicago have more giveaways in the NFC than their 21. Taking care of the football is crucial against a team that has won with defense against inferior opponents (Giants, New Orleans Saints) over their recent three-game win streak.
3. What's going on with Dak Prescott?
It's a good thing the Cowboys defense is hitting on all cylinders. Prescott has been struggling over the past month, throwing for just five passing touchdowns and five interceptions in his last five games. He threw for less than six yards per attempt in all but one game during that stretch, absorbing 14 of his 25 sacks this season and looking nothing like the franchise-defining leader he was to start off the year.
It's not like Prescott's missing his supporting cast: every major offensive piece except tackle Tyron Smith (ankle) is expected to start Sunday night. This deep dive by NFL.com suggests it's a combination of things: a nagging calf injury, chemistry issues with Cowboys receivers, and even an inconsistent running game. (I'd dispute that last one, as they average 128.2 rushing yards per game, good enough for sixth most in the NFL.)
The bottom line is Prescott needs to get back in rhythm for the Cowboys to compete against the top teams in their conference. His last three-touchdown performance was Oct. 17 against New England; can a depleted Washington team end that slump this Sunday night?
The last time Washington went to AT&T Stadium, it pulled off a 41-16 shocker that proved the difference in their surprising run to the NFC East title.
This time around? Washington's scored 37 points in their last two games combined. Don't expect much from a team whose season is slipping away behind COVID-19 and injuries to key personnel (don't forget they're missing reigning defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young to a torn ACL). This game will be more about Dallas shoring up its offensive weaknesses, clinching their division while looking to produce a deep playoff run come January.