4:30 PM EST, FOX – Line: Cowboys -3, Over/Under: 46
Bitter rivals meet once again on Thanksgiving as the Washington Football Team travels to AT&T Stadium to face the Dallas Cowboys in a matchup that somehow remarkably retains Playoff implications despite the misfortune of both franchises this season. It’s a brand new era of football for Washington (3-7, 2nd in NFC East), who over the past nine months have rebuilt their franchise from the ground up, finally dispensing with their controversial longtime name following consistent pressure from minority groups further fueled by the growing social consciousness of our country, hiring the first African-American Team President in NFL History, Jason Wright, and tabbing former Panthers’ Head Coach, Ron Rivera, to lead the revival on the gridiron. Coming off a dreadful 3-13 campaign, it was clear that changes needed to be made, and even in an Offseason completely altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington has managed to move forward, laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a more successful future than what they’re leaving behind; since the turn of the century, this is a club that despite all of their rich history has managed to win the NFC East just twice over the last twenty years, with more Head Coaches (9) than Playoff appearances (4) during that span. So where are they in what is sure to be a lengthy rebuilding process, you ask? Well, with ten games in the books it’s clear that they’re still very much in the early stages, which is to be expected after all.
Needless to say, there has been a plethora of things working against Washington in 2020, the least of which being COIVD. They’ve dealt with the negative press leading up to their name change, and the ensuing backlash from the fanbase following that transition. They’ve completely overhauled their power structure, with Wright remaking the Front Office and Rivera bringing with him a new Coaching Staff. As if acclimating his Staff to their new charges under the circumstances of an abridged Offseason was enough of a challenge for the 58-year old, he also underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments, finally resulting in a clean bill of health. And all that is nothing to speak of the general lack of talent on the roster, which had been poorly managed for years by the previous regime, particularly at Quarterback, where he inherited Dwayne Haskins (61.0%, 939 YDS, 5.27 NY/A, 4 TD, 3 INT, 31.2 QBR), who while a handpicked favorite of (Owner) Daniel Snyder, was the constant ire of the previous Coaching Staff. Simply put, there was a MASSIVE amount of work to do in the nation’s capital, with many challenges along the way. However, the venerable Rivera was a solid choice to lead the club into this brave new venture, for he possesses the man-management skills and experience to provide a steady hand to navigate through murky waters. It also helps that he’s been successful too; Rivera was 76-63-1 (.546) in nine years with the Panthers, winning three consecutive NFC South titles (2013-2015), highlighted by a trip to Super Bowl L. Fortunately for everyone involved, Washington has been a weak team in the weakest division in the NFL, with the NFC East remarkably still without a clear favorite after ten games, with all four of it’s residents owning just three victories apiece. That’s right, folks, even at just 3-7 Washington still has an opportunity to not only win the division but also earn a home game in the Playoffs, and with a 2-2 record against the rest of the East, one would have to figure that they have as good a chance as any of the other three teams. So let’s shine some light on what this team has going for it, shall we? First and foremost, this is one of the better defensive units in the league, yielding 22.7 points per game (9th Overall) on just 315.8 total yards (6th Overall), while ranking in the Top-5 in a slew of other categories, including first downs (187), passing yards (195.4), and net yards per attempt allowed (5.7), along with red zone defense (53.6%) and sacks (32). An already stout unit was further strengthened with the addition of the 2020 NFL Draft’s Second Overall Pick, Chase Young (25 TKL, 5 TFL, 4 QBH, 3.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 PD), who has been a key member of a rotation in the trenches that has routinely created havoc. However, the reason this team has just three victories has been the Offense, which has been very slow to find their bearings this season, though after some significant changes appear to be headed in the right direction. After just four games, Haskins wasn’t just benched, but demoted to third string, in favor of Kyle Allen (69.0%, 610 YDS, 6.02 NY/A, 4 TD, 1 INT, 71.7 QBR), who played under Rivera and (Offensive Coordinator) Scott Turner in Carolina. Unfortunately, Allen would last just four starts himself before a high ankle sprain sidelined him for the foreseeable future, leaving the path free for former Starting Quarterback, Alex Smith (68.2%, 918 YDS, 5.99 NY/A, 2 TD, 4 INT, 46.4 QBR), to make his long-awaited return to the field. One of the best stories of the season, the three-time Pro-Bowler missed all of last year and most of the second half of the 2018 campaign after suffering a brutal broken leg that due to complications from infection endangered his very life. The rehab process has been a long and arduous one for the 36-year old who remained helpless in the background while all the aforementioned changes at the club took place, no doubt wondering if this would even be the case had he never got injured in the first place; remember, Washington was 6-4 and leading their division at the time of his injury, only to slump to a 6-24 record in the time that has since past without him. In four appearances (two starts), the veteran has slowly gotten his rhythm back, completing 68.2% of his attempts for an average of 229.5 yards on 5.99 net yards per attempt with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
When we last saw Washington, they climbed back into the race for the NFC East on the strength of a 20-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. With Cincinnati missing a field goal to end their first possession and fumbling away another, the hosts took an early lead as Smith guided them on an eight-play, 76-yard drive ending with a short touchdown run from Rookie Tailback, Antonio Gibson (119 CAR, 530 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 8 TD). However, the visiting side would take the lead after running off ten unanswered points to enter Halftime with a 9-7 advantage. Then the entire affair flipped on it’s head as Bengals Rookie Quarterback, Joe Burrow, took an ugly hit to his knee, tearing multiple ligaments in the process. From that point Cincinnati appeared dejected, and Washington exploited their lack of passion and energy, scoring on three consecutive drives to take a decisive advantage, while the Defense rendered the visitors to a total of twenty-four yards in the second half. In the end, Rivera’s troops accumulated 325 total yards on twenty first downs, rushing for 164 yards on thirty-four carries, with Gibson accounting for ninety-four and a score on sixteen attempts. Smith simply managed the game, completing 17-of-25 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Again, the big talking point was the performance of the Defense, which took the Bengals out of any semblance of a comfort zone, relegating them to 272 total yards on eighteen first downs, just seventy rushing yards on eighteen carries, and a dismal 3-of-15 on third and fourth down. Furthermore, they forced a pair of turnovers (an interception and fumble apiece), while sacking Backup Quarterback, Ryan Finley, on four occasions. Not to glorify things, but last weekend’s affair marked the second time in a month in which Washington had injured another team’s passer, sending the Cowboys’ Andy Dalton to the Medical Staff in their previous meeting with Dallas, a 25-3 thumping issued back on October 25th.
Meanwhile, at least their opponent tonight was expected to struggle in 2020, for the Cowboys (3-7, 2nd in NFC East) have been another matter altogether. After missing the Playoffs in spectacular fashion in 2019, Jerry Jones finally said goodbye to Jason Garrett, and following a lengthy search (and some sleepovers at the Jones Estate), the outspoken Owner hired Mike McCarthy to lead Dallas back to the Postseason. Of course, McCarthy effectively sat out last season following his own ousting in Green Bay, bringing an end to a largely successful run that netted eight NFC North titles and a Lombardi Trophy, but ended in disastrous fashion due to increasingly poor performances on the gridiron and a highly-publicized strained relationship with his Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. However, he would arrive in Arlington to one of the most talented rosters in the league, with Jones making a point to keep the majority of it’s stars in house, though there would be the lingering controversy over an extension for Franchise Quarterback, Dak Prescott (68.0%, 1,856 YDS, 7.72 NY/A, 9 TD, 4 INT, 78.4 QBR), who sought a more lucrative deal before ultimately signing his Franchise Tender. So with all that good will in the back pocket, how has this season gone so wrong for the Cowboys, you ask? Well, it’s a bit of a lengthy story, folks…
Many will tell you that this team’s struggles began when Jones decided to play financial hard ball with his Quarterback, who had clearly outperformed his Rookie deal, particularly considering he was a 4th Round Pick. While Jones was certainly willing to give him a raise, Prescott wanted to be paid in line with the elite at his position, and why wouldn’t he? In four years as the Starter, he hadn’t missed a game, gone 40-24, and was coming off a franchise-record 4,902 passing yards in 2019. And with Jones handing out extensions to so many other high-profile players, the Quarterback above all would next, right? With this saga dominating the Offseason, Prescott eventually took the Franchise Tag, looking to bet on himself one more year, and return to the bargaining table in 2021. Unfortunately, the 27-year old would last just five games before breaking his leg in a win over the New York Giants, ending his campaign altogether. Granted, most teams wouldn’t be able to sustain such a blow, but Dallas had enough foresight to acquire a top-tier Backup, signing Andy Dalton (63.2%, 655 YDS, 4.75 NY/A, 4 TD, 4 INT, 38.2 QBR) in the Offseason, who was viewed as an insurance policy if negotiations with Prescott continued to stall into the season. Of course, Dalton has plenty of experience, with the 33-year old having started 133 games with the Bengals, leading them to the Playoffs on four occasions. However, as we touched upon earlier, he would be knocked out of action due to a concussion suffered in his team’s previous meeting with Washington, sidelining him for three weeks. And it’s with that said, that injuries have absolutely ravaged this roster on both sides of the football, with a veritable who’s who of stars missing time with various maladies; Tailback, Ezekiel Elliott (171 CAR, 675 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 5 TD), has been slowed by a core muscle injury, All-Pro Left Tackle, Tyron Smith, played in just two games before landing on Injured Reserve with a neck injury, while Linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch (38 TKL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), missed four games with a broken collarbone, just to name a few. Injuries aside, the Defense has been absolutely ABYSMAL this season, ranking thirtieth or worse in a slew of categories, including points allowed (31.8), run defense (153.8), and yards per carry relinquished (4.9), all the while permitting the most passing scores (24) and third-fewest interceptions (3) in the league. Dallas really began to slump on this side of the football a year ago, but few could have foresaw this utter capitulation by a unit that still possesses talent, particularly in the Front Seven. However, the Secondary lost some key contributors, and Jones neglected to replace them in Free Agency or the NFL Draft, which is something that he’s got to be kicking himself for. Defensive Coordinator, Mike Nolan, hasn’t acquainted himself well either, with the longtime assistant appearing to be a poor fit from the opening weekend. Throughout his career, Nolan has employed a 3/4 front with press coverage in the Secondary, which requires specific personnel to work at an optimal level. He’s had that when he was the Defensive Coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens (2002-2004) or the Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers (2005-2008), but he simply hasn’t had that in Dallas. Simply put, the players at his disposal are a very poor fit for his scheme and he’s proven unable to adjust his tactics to the pieces on hand. At the end of the day though, as poorly as they’ve played they still have an opportunity to win the division and host a Playoff game, as the only thing that separates them from East-leading Philadelphia at the moment is a tie. Apart from a trip to the Baltimore Ravens next weekend, they don’t face a single team with a winning record over the final four weeks, with Washington and New York rounding out the schedule. Perhaps playing their bitter rivals on Thanksgiving will provide them with a boost; the Cowboys have lost all but two of their last six annual contests held on the holiday, with their only two victories coming against Washington.
When we last saw the Cowboys, they too managed to climb back into the race for the NFC East on the strength of besting the Minnesota Vikings on the road, 31-28. This was easily their best performance since Dalton took over, with the veteran Quarterback returning from a concussion to lead his side to victory. As a whole, Dallas looked fresh coming off the Bye Week, and proceeded to handle a Vikings team that had won three consecutive games coming into the affair. It was truly something to build on, as the Offense amassed 376 total yards on twenty-four first downs, including 180 rushing yards on thirty-one carries, 103 of which came courtesy of Elliott, who looked effective for the first time in weeks. Dalton was nothing short of solid, completing 22-of-32 attempts for 203 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, making good use of his Receiving Corps, as Amari Cooper (65 REC, 736 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 2 TD) and his Rookie sidekick, CeeDee Lamb (48 REC, 629 YDS, 13.1 Y/R, 4 TD), combined for ten receptions, 115 yards, and a touchdown apiece. Though the Defense was once again shredded, this time for 430 total yards, including 125 on the ground and another 314 through the air, they did manage to take away the football, forcing and recovering two fumbles which was enough to seal the deal.