It’s Week 13 in the NFL and some teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention. The hapless Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and New York Giants are just three of the teams on the outside looking in.
After Thursday night, so will the loser of this game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
OK, sure, the loser technically won’t be mathematically eliminated from contention. But in a top-heavy NFC, one where the sixth and final playoff spot currently sits at 7-4 (Atlanta) it’s looking like 10 wins is a must to make the postseason.
That brings us to both of these teams, sitting at 5-6 with the Eagles poised to win the division (they clinch if the Cowboys lose Thursday night). That means a 5-0 record is a necessity simply to have a chance at reaching one of the top six spots.
And for both of these underachieving NFC East foes, running the table is completely possible. The Cowboys will get star running back Ezekiel Elliottback at some point and face the Giants and Raiders down the stretch. Week 17 against the Eagles could be a victory considering the NFC’s likely top seed might be resting their starters.
The Redskins, suffering through a barrage of injuries, also have a window of opportunity. A win Thursday night gets them to 6-6 with no games remaining against teams .500 or better. A 5-0 surge to the playoffs could only be impeded by tiebreakers they are on the wrong end when looking at teams like the Saints and Vikings.
So this "Thursday Night Football" matchup, a great rivalry in the first place, comes attached with a postseason feel even though both teams are simply trying to get back to .500. Can the Redskins and quarterback Kirk Cousins (above, right) produce back-to-back victories for the first time since Week 3? Or will Dak Prescott finally solve the Cowboys’ offensive woes?
Washington at Dallas
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 30 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC/NFL Network
Spread: Cowboys -2.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Redskins keep finding offensive replacements?
The ‘Skins currently have 15 players on injured reserve, making their offense look like a ragtag bunch of misfits alongside quarterback Kirk Cousins. Their top two running backs, Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley, are out for the year. Wide receiver Terrell Pryor is gone and star tight end Jordan Reed (one of the few not on IR) is still recovering from a hamstring injury.
That made Sunday’s 20-10 victory against the Giants a much tougher get than it should have been. But with so many sitting on the sidelines a few promising performers have emerged in their place. Rookie running back Samaje Perine has now put together two straight 100-yard rushing performances despite a tough field to run on Sunday. (He only had three yards at the end of the first half).
Jamison Crowder caught the put-the-game-away pass Sunday and has emerged as a go-to receiver. He’s got 14 catches in the last two games while no one else has more than six. If tight end Vernon Davis could emerge as a more viable option in Reed’s absence, perhaps Cousins could establish a bit of an offensive rhythm Thursday night.
2. Can the Cowboys find a way to run the ball – and stop the rush?
The rushing attack for the Cowboys is... complicated. In some ways, the yards per carry average by Alfred Morris and fullback Rod Smith suggest a breakthrough is still possible. But the ground game bottomed out in the third week of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, totaling just 79 yards against the Chargers in a 28-6 Thanksgiving thrashing.
The biggest problem is that both men don’t have that breakout speed which can define a drive; the 50-yard run that gets your team into scoring position. If anything, they are accessories to an offense that must be run through quarterback Dak Prescott. But clearly, Prescott needs more help, and this duo must somehow find a way to succeed against a Washington run defense ranked a middling 15th of 32 teams in the NFL.
Then, there’s the defensive side. In the last three games, Dallas has allowed nearly 143 yards on the ground per game. The Falcons and Eagles decimated the Cowboys’ front seven in back-to-back performances before the Chargers added 81 yards while torching the secondary.
The ‘Skins come in hot with Perine but he is, after all, just a rookie. The Cowboys “D” should have the talent to stop him and put a little more pressure on Cousins and the passing game. Against the Giants, a makeshift offensive line led to six sacks and Cousins gave them the gift of a pick-six.
While the Cowboys are unlikely to get back All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee, still nursing a hamstring injury, they need to find a way to exert similar pressure up front.
3. A referendum on two quarterbacks
It seems like every game these days for both teams is a “should they or shouldn’t they” keep the quarterback. For the Redskins, Cousins makes spectacular plays but has also never been able to get over that hump from good to great.
Too often, he makes plays late that cost the team instead of securing the victory. From Week 1 against the Eagles, where his late fumble sealed the deal in that loss to last week’s pick-six, there have been too many in-game mistakes. It still makes the fan base and ownership indecisive on whether to sign him to a long-term deal.
Such talk would have been nonsense regarding Prescott one year ago. And then... Elliott got suspended. Here are Prescott’s numbers since during a 0-3 slide: no touchdowns, five interceptions, and no games with at least 200 passing yards.
That’s not going to get the job done and it’s making this second-year player look more like a game manager than a star quarterback. It’s true the receiving corps hasn’t exactly been a helpful bunch: tight end Jason Witten is 35, Dez Bryant is without a 100-yard receiving game this season and Terrance Williams has just nine catches three games after his nine-catch, 141-yard performance against the Chiefs pre-Elliott suspension. Elliott’s absence has exposed just how weak the rest of the offensive weapons are.
But Prescott needs to figure this one out. A year ago, he ran Tony Romo into the booth in CBS and made the team a national sensation along with Elliott. A loss here puts Dallas at 5-7, leaves head coach Jason Garrett’s job in jeopardy and raises serious questions as to whether this young player is, indeed, the long-term answer.
Both teams played terrible, sloppy games on Thanksgiving Day then did not have the benefit of a 10-day layoff with a second straight Thursday night performance. Each one has a huge set of problems that needs to be dealt with for the teams to re-enter the playoff conversation.
But there’s a big difference between them in how Thanksgiving worked out. The Cowboys suffered an embarrassing loss; the Redskins pulled out a victory. In fact, the ‘Skins nearly beat the Saints a few weeks ago, leading until a late collapse and have shown heart for head coach Jay Gruden despite their myriad injury woes.
I think that will make the difference for a Cowboys team that looks lifeless with their leaders on the sidelines, in decline, or simply not caring enough. This game will go to the team that still actually believes it can earn a shot at the playoffs.
Prediction: Redskins 20, Cowboys 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.