Longtime rivals clash on Turkey Day with first place in the NFC East on the line
Bragging rights won't be the only thing on the line in a pivotal Turkey Day showdown between the Washington Football Team and Dallas Cowboys inside AT&T Stadium on Thursday. Despite their lackluster 3-7 records, the winner will have a golden opportunity to take sole possession of first place in the closely contested NFC East with a victory on Thanksgiving Day. The 3-6-1 Eagles hold a half-game lead over the rest of the NFL's most maligned division, which will last until Thursday — unless Dallas and Washington tie.
Following a pair of disappointing three-point losses to the Giants and Lions, Washington managed to snap its two-game losing skid with a much-needed 20-9 win at home against the Bengals on Sunday. It marked the first victory in over two years for Comeback Player of the Year candidate Alex Smith, who has battled his way back to starting quarterback status after suffering what was thought to be a career-ending leg injury in 2018. It also marked Washington's first win since beating Dallas 25-3 back in Week 7. Head coach Ron Rivera and Co. will now make their way to the Lone Star State looking to complete the regular-season sweep of their longtime division rival and take control of first place in the NFC East.
It had been 42 days since the snake-bitten Cowboys last tasted victory. And America's team finally delivered with a surprising 31-28 upset of the Vikings on Sunday. The win not only snapped a four-game losing streak for the Cowboys, but it also supplied them with their first road win of the season. More importantly, it put them back in the hunt for a division crown and a spot in the playoffs. They will now go in search of back-to-back wins for the first time under head coach Mike McCarthy. And if the Cowboys are successful in avenging their Week 7 loss to Washington, they will sit alone atop the NFC East standings.
The Cowboys hold a commanding 73-46-2 lead in the all-time series against Washington. Dallas is 8-1 all-time against Washington in games played on Thanksgiving and has won seven of the last nine in the series overall.
Thanksgiving Day: Washington at Dallas
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 26 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Washington pass rush
The team that wins the battle in the trenches will have a big leg up in this matchup. It was certainly a huge factor in Week 7 when a dominant Washington pass rush consistently overwhelmed a beat-up Dallas offensive line en route to six sacks and eight quarterback hits on the day. Washington also sent starting quarterback Andy Dalton to the locker room with a concussion in that matchup.
The good news for Dallas is that the offensive line looks to be in much better shape this time around. In fact, the Cowboys O-line had its best showing of the season last week despite using its seventh different starting combination up front in 10 games. A lineup that featured Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin making his first-ever start at right tackle proved solid, allowing Dalton to throw for 203 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Vikings.
The bad news is that the Washington pass rush isn't likely to be any less potent than it was the last time these teams faced each other. Washington is tied for the third-most sacks in the NFL (32), led by Montez Sweat (6.0) and Ryan Kerrigan (5.5). The team had four sacks and six quarterback hits just last week against Cincinnati. And one of those hits left Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow with a season-ending knee injury. If the Cowboys revamped offensive line isn't up to the challenge on Thursday, it will be another long evening for Dalton and the Dallas offense.
2. The ground game looms large
The new-look Dallas offensive line shined particularly bright in the run game last week, leading the Cowboys' ground attack to a season-high 180 rushing yards against the Vikings. The big uglies paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott's first 100-yard rushing performance of the year and cleared the path for a 42-yard scamper to the end zone for running back Tony Pollard, who totaled 60 rushing yards on just five carries. The Cowboys will look to parlay that momentum into another successful outing on Thursday against a Washington defense that has been somewhat generous to opposing run games away from home, allowing 138.8 rushing yards per game on the road (27th in the NFL). Washington held Dallas to just 84 rushing yards in their first meeting, but the Cowboys should fare better on the ground this time around.
Washington hopes that history can repeat itself for its ground attack on Thursday. It racked up 208 rushing yards against the Cowboys in Week 7, led by rookie running back Antonio Gibson with a season-high 128 rushing yards and a touchdown. Gibson is also coming off his second-highest rushing total of the season last week against the Bengals with 94 yards and a score — giving him five rushing touchdowns in his last four games.
Gibson, along with fellow Washington running backs J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber, will be paired against a Dallas defense that ranks just 31st in the NFL against the run, surrendering 153.8 rushing yards per game. However, the Cowboys have made significant strides against the run over their last three contests, giving up just 96.7 yards per game on the ground over that span. That likely means that the Washington run game will be in for a much tougher test this time around. And it certainly won't help matters if Gibson is a little worse for the wear on Thanksgiving after popping up on the injury report with a potential ankle issue.
3. The passing game
Dalton will look to make the most of his second opportunity this season against Washington on Thursday. His first opportunity didn't go so well, with the Dallas quarterback completing just 47.4 percent of his pass attempts for 75 yards before making an early exit with a concussion. But Washington boasts the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. In addition to featuring one of the league's best pass rushes, Washington is the only team in the NFL that is giving up less than 200 passing yards per game.
While that doesn't exactly bode well for Dalton's chances to find redemption in Round 2 against Washington, he does have more than enough firepower at his disposal to have success through the air in this matchup. Chief among his top weapons are wide receivers Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup to go along with Elliott and tight end Dalton Schultz. But again, the Cowboys' ability to succeed in the passing game against Washington will hinge largely on the offensive line's ability to hold up in pass protection.
Meanwhile, Smith hopes to add to his inspiring comeback story with an impressive performance against the Cowboys on the big Thanksgiving stage. So far, the results have been mixed for the veteran quarterback in his return. In four games (three as a starter), Smith has completed 68.2 percent of his pass attempts for 918 yards, but he only has two touchdown passes against four interceptions. Smith has built a nice rapport with wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who leads Washington in receptions (62), receiving yards (871), and receiving touchdowns (3). However, according to Washington's injury report released on Monday, McLaurin is nursing an ankle injury that could potentially limit him on Thursday.
While the Dallas pass defense seems to be trending in a better direction of late with the emergence of hard-hitting safety Donovan Wilson, there's still plenty of room for improvement. The Cowboys rank 14th in the league against the pass, allowing 232.6 yards per game. But no NFL defense has given up more touchdowns through the air than the Cowboys with 24.
The Cowboys looked like a much-improved team in their win against the Vikings last week. Dallas also carries some much-needed momentum into this matchup courtesy of last Sunday's upset victory. And it's hard not to like the Cowboys' chances against a Washington team that has beaten them just once in nine previous Thanksgiving matchups. If the Cowboys truly have their mojo back, a Dallas win is not only possible, it's likely. On the other hand, it's difficult to trust a Cowboys team that has yet to put together back-to-back wins all season, especially against a Washington team that held them to just three points and 142 yards of total offense just a few short weeks ago.
It will be closer this time around, but the Washington pass rush will once again prove to be too much for Dallas to handle. The Washington Football Team escapes "Jerry World" with a narrow Turkey Day victory to complete the regular-season sweep of the Cowboys and propel itself into first place in the NFC East.
Prediction: Washington 24, Dallas 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.