It was bad in a legendary sort of way, from Dak Prescott throwing touchdown passes to his wide receiver, running back, tight end and offensive lineman (a first for Dallas since HOF Rayfield Wright in 1968) to interceptions and blocked punts returned for Cowboys touchdowns.
It was bad in the way that Washington brought the team benches from Ashburn that could be heated to a controlled-environment domed stadium to there being a scuffle between defensive linemen Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen (proof that the bench was definitely heated).
Once again, the Burgundy & Gold are likely headed for another non-playoff season despite still being in contention with two weeks to go (blame the extended regular season and expanded playoffs). At 6-9, they need to win out plus get help to get the vaunted third Wild Card/seventh playoff spot.
And even though we’ll be sitting on the edge of our seats on Sunday, we have plenty of reason to think the dream dies by 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 2.
Taylor Made … for the Moment: Quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 7 of 22 passes for a season-low 121 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, posting his worst passer rating (28.8) and QBR (4.0) of the year. His night turned for the worse on his first play from scrimmage with an INT that set up Dallas’ first touchdown of the night. He’d strike again later in the first quarter by tossing a pick-six that made the deficit 21-0. Kyle Allen completed 8 of 10 passes for 67 yards and a touchdown in mop-up mode. Head coach Ron Rivera said Monday that even though Heinicke will start against Philadelphia, Allen will probably see some action.
And the quarterback carousel fires up again …
Running in Place: Twenty carries for 85 yards isn’t ideal, but when you trail 21-0 after one quarter and 42-7 at the half, even Ken Niumatalolo is going to put the ball up early and often. Jaret Patterson led the team with 33 yards on nine carries, the first time he’s been the team’s top rusher since the Week 8 loss at Denver. Antonio Gibson’s toe-injury induced decline saw the back gain just 29 yards on six carries. During the four game winning streak, Gibson averaged 89.5 yards rushing. During the three-game losing streak, he’s totaled a combined 91 yards.
Pass Catch Fever: Terry McLaurin made three receptions for 40 yards, giving him 66 for 899 on the season. And while he’s on pace for 75 catches and 1,000+ yards, taking a closer look, one sees he’s made 23 catches for 326 yards since the bye week (56 for 699 pace). He was also the only player to have more than two receptions against the Cowboys. McLaurin’s six targets tied the team lead (with Adam Humphries) and there were eight other targets to wideouts, with six targets to running backs, and the tight ends were targeted four times on the night.
Third and Down: The offense moved the chains on 3 of 13 attempts and was 1 of 9 with Heinicke on the field. He completed 2 of 8 passes for one conversion while Allen went 2 of 3 with one conversion. The top target? McLaurin was thrown to twice with one catch and one conversion. Jonathan Williams was also thrown to twice with his reception coming up short. Williams also carried the ball twice, moving the chains on a third and one while coming up short on a third and five. Yardage breakdown: 1 of 1 on short-yardage, 0 of 4 on third and 4 of 6 yards needed, and 2 of 8 on third and long. Having 61% (8 of 13) of your third downs in long-yardage is one recipe for disaster.
D earns an F: When you allow 56 points (for the record, two of those eight touchdowns allowed were off a pick six and a blocked punt), you’re not going to get a good grade. Especially when you allow Dallas to convert seven of its first eight third downs. For the night, Dallas moved the chains on 9 of 10 third and manageables (six yards needed or fewer) and two of its five non-conversions were draw plays on third and eight as well as a third and 17. Bobby McCain and Jeremy Reaves tied for the lead with 10 tackles apiece, and it gets worse with five of the top seven tacklers being defensive backs. They did notch three sacks on the night while allowing fewer than 500 yards. And linebacker/top tackler Cole Holcomb comes off the COVID-Reserve List.
Special Situations: Even Tress Way wasn’t exempt from Sunday’s meltdown. Yes, he averaged 51.3 yards per punt but had one blocked and returned for a touchdown. Joey Slye returned from the shelf to drill 2 of 2 extra points and two of his three kickoffs were touchbacks. The lone kickoff fielded was returned 20 yards while one punt was returned for 21 yards (and only to the Dallas 26 yard line). DeAndre Carter had a pair of 7-yard punt returns while there were no kickoffs returned (and the Cowboys kicked off nine times with eight touchbacks and the other going out of bounds at the Washington two-yard line — triggering a penalty and a drive starting from the WFT 40).
Flying Flag: Yes, you read that correctly. Only one accepted penalty against Washington for 13 yards. But three penalties were declined, with the first two (defensive offside against Daron Payne and Casey Toohill) because Dallas got first downs on those plays (24 and 22-yard passes) and the third (defensive hold on Darryl Roberts) was due to the Cowboys’ touchdown on the play in question. That leaves the unnecessary roughness flag on McCain as the biggest penalty — and it was: It moved a Cowboys’ 1st and 10 from the Washington 26 yard line to the WFT 13 and Dallas scored on the very next play.
Digesting the Division: Dallas (11-4) wins its first NFC East title since 2018 and is currently holding down the second seed of the conference (a better NFC record keeps them above the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay) while Philadelphia (8-7) is in second place after three straight wins and owns the third Wildcard/seventh seed because of their week two loss to San Francisco. Washington (6-9) is assured of a fifth straight sub-.500 season and is in third place, while holding down 11th place in the NFC. But they’re still in the playoff chase, unlike the New York Giants (4-11) who are in fourth place of the division and 15th in the NFC (a win or a Detroit loss keeps them out of the absolute cellar).
Comparing the Quartets: The NFC and AFC West Divisions (34-26) own the best combined record with two weeks remaining while the AFC South is bringing up the rear at 25-35 (having Jacksonville AND Houston in your neighborhood will do that to your property value). The NFC East (29-31) is tied for fifth with the NFC South after New Orleans’ loss on Monday Night Football. The Dolphins win means the AFC takes a 38-37-1 lead with four inter-conference games on tap this upcoming weekend.
Tis the Season: Five teams wrapped up playoff berths during the holiday weekend, starting with Dallas wrapping up at least a Wild Card berth Thursday. By the start of Sunday Night Football, the Cowboys had wrapped up the East. Tampa Bay (first South title since 2007) and Kansas City (six straight West titles) wrapped up their respective divisions while the Los Angeles Rams (four straight wins) and Arizona (despite three straight losses) locked up Wild Card berths. Eight playoff spots (two in the NFC and six in the AFC) are still available with 18 teams in contention.
Elimination Island: Three teams saw their playoff hopes end Sunday: the New York Giants, Carolina and Seattle. The Seahawks are entering unfamiliar territory, having made the postseason eight of the previous nine years. The Panthers are playoff-less for the fourth straight year (following a run of four appearances in five years) while the Giants have suffered through five playoff-less campaigns (and they’ve been on the outside nine of the last 10 years). But Big Blue still has 2007 & 2011.