The Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys rivalry is one of the league's testier feuds, one between two iconic, profitable NFC East franchises whose mascots are culturally divergent, but whose owners are allied. Their meetings usually come when something is at stake: a division, a playoff spot, billionaire bragging rights. But this year, Washington and Dallas' second meeting is unfortunately a post-Turkey Day turkey.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Washington's and Dallas' promising seasons have derailed. The Redskins have been hit by the injury bug harder than any team in the league -- their entire offensive line is listed as questionable nearly every week. Washington plays just well enough to lose in heart-breaking fashion; its 15-point collapse in New Orleans was the second-to-last nail in its coffin. The Skins have since climbed to 5-6, but a loss in Arlington on Thursday night would officially unofficially send the team into the offseason.
The Cowboys are unrecognizable shells of their 2016 selves. Gone is Ezekiel Elliott, waiting out his six-game suspension in Europe's hinterlands and hidden coves, while Alfred Morris averages over 4.5 yards per attempt in America. Gone is any semblance of a pass game, with Dak Prescott regressing by the week. Gone is the general faith in Jason Garrett, who one year ago was piloting a breakout Dallas team to the No. 1 seed in the conference and securing NFL Coach of the Year Honors. Now, Garrett is the figurehead of a 5-6 Cowboys team that is also one loss away from fading into the long winter and a Dallas nightmare: Football irrelevance.
Here's what to watch for when the Skins and 'Boys fight for their ever-loving football lives on Thursday evening:
- What happened to Dallas' offense? During the Cowboys' recent three-game losing streak -- their first since 2015 -- Dallas is averaging 7.3 PPG (three touchdowns fewer than their previous pace), 235 YPG (over 135 YPG fewer) and 99.3 rush YPG (over 48 YPG fewer). It's easy to blame the Cowboys' descent on Elliott's suspension, which was finally instituted after Week 9, but if anything, the absence of Zeke has exposed true weak links in Dallas' attack, mainly under center. Prescott has taken a massive step back since Zeke was banned. He has thrown five picks, lost three fumbles and tossed no touchdowns during Dallas' slide. After taking 21 sacks in 23 games with Zeke, Dak has been taken down 14 times in the last three games. Prescott's roll-outs are less effective and his throws are more inaccurate than ever. Is Dak's reversion a sign of things come, like an RGIII sequel, or just a sans-Zeke hiccup in a long career in Big D? Prescott's predicament will be under the microscope on Thursday.
- Washington is riddled with injuries. Dual-threat dynamo Chris Thompson is out for the season; ever-injured Jordan Reed hasn't played in four weeks; and star left tackle Trent Williams sat out against the Giants and might not play Thursday, not to mention the rest of the O-line is a walking infirmary. But the voids left by Washington's stars have opened the door for previously derided youngsters to break out. Josh Doctson has bounced back from a rough rookie season to become one of Kirk Cousins' go-to wideouts (13 catches for 198 yards in the past four weeks) and developing a dangerous tandem with Jamison Crowder; offseason acqusition Terrelle Pryor, dealing with a ankle injury, is an afterthought. With Thompson out, bruising rookie back Samaje Perine has picked up the slack, going over 100 rushing yards in the past two weeks. Neither millennial saw much love in Washington's first meeting with Dallas -- Perine saw zero snaps, while Doctson caught one ball (a TD) in 47 snaps -- but the duo should show up in the sequel.
- If Dallas is to get off the schneid on offense, the Cowboys will need to exploit their advantages in the ground game. Yes, even without Elliott in the backfield, the Cowboys have been effective, if not explosive, running the ball. Alfred Morris, the main toter, is averaging a career-high 5.8 yards per carry, and since Elliott's suspension, he is averaging 4.9. However, the Cowboys are averaging eight fewer carries per game with Elliott out of the lineup. The Redskins are a vulnerable run defense; Washington has allowed over 100 rushing yards in six of their past eight games and have won only one of those tilts. In their first meeting, Elliott gashed the Skins for 150 yards on a career-high 33 attempts. To alleviate pressure off of Dak and sustain drives on Thursday night, look for Dallas to lean on Morris and Rod Smith and recapture that earlier magic.
- Can the Cowboys rattle Cousins? Dallas boasts its most dangerous pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware in Demarcus Lawrence, and Washington's tackles -- Williams, Morgan Moses, Ty Nsekhe -- are all gimpy. Cousins has been sacked more through 11 games (33) than he had in his first two full seasons as D.C.'s starter. The result has not been more interceptions -- Cousins has a career-low pick rate (1.6) -- but pressuring the Redskins quarterback prevents him from standing in the pocket and creating chunk plays through the air against Anthony Brown and a suspect Cowboys secondary. Dallas' coverage woes are growing worse by the week, but they can be masked with a strong effort from their war daddy.
- We know you'll be watching NBC and/or NFL Network on Thursday night. (What else are you gonna do? Watch another Shark Tank re-run? Tune into the Soul Train Awards? Mull nuclear apocalypse? Not worth it.) The Philadelphia Eagles will also be watching closely -- and rooting for the Redskins. The 10-1 division leaders have an opportunity to secure the NFC East title Thursday without even playing. If Washington beats or ties Dallas, the Eagles will win the East for the first time since 2013.