Cynics call it the NFC Least.
But Thursday’s annual Thanksgiving Day game featuring the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team carries a feast of a prize: the winner will own first place in the ragtag division for at least a few days.
Yep, the winner of a game matching two 3-7 teams sits atop this heap of mediocrity. And while a 4-7 first place team might get more than its share of scorn, they’re also in line for a playoff spot with five games remaining.
So for veterans like Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, this is a chance to show younger teammates what it’s like to prepare for – and maybe win – a big game.
“As weird as that is to say at 3-7, we’re still very much in it,” Kerrigan said after practice on Monday. “Hopefully, we can make it happen down the stretch here.”
Washington appears to have a sunny future for the first time in a while.
New coach Ron Rivera can boast of a solid defensive line, one that has shown it can protect a lead. Once Washington took the lead in the third quarter Sunday against Cincinnati, the line notched four sacks in a 20-9 decision.
Washington has found a running game with rookie Antonio Gibson, a wide receiver at Memphis who has a team-high 530 rushing yards. Last week, he went for 94 against Cincinnati, including his eighth touchdown of the year. Terry McLaurin is on a pace for close to 100 catches, and veteran quarterback Alex Smith scored his first win in more than two years on Sunday. In his first 24 games, McLaurin has the numbers of a No. 1 receiver no matter the offense. His 1,790 receiving yards to date are 12th most all-time through 24 games and ahead of the likes of Jerry Rice (1,757).
“If you systematically run the ball and grind the clock and control it, you can control the tempo,” Rivera said. “If you’re shutting down the run and you get pressure on the quarterback, you’re allowing the defensive backs to make plays. There are different ways to win.”
Consistency? McLaurin nails it. He has 11 games with 80-plus receiving yards despite a revolving door at quarterback in his two seasons.
Cornerback play has been a concern for Dallas, and the Cowboys’ pass rush is not exactly consistent.
Dallas erased two fourth-quarter deficits and won 31-28 at Minnesota on Sunday. Andy Dalton’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz with 1:37 left in the game helped Dallas snap a four-game losing streak.
It was Dalton’s first game since Oct. 25, when Washington linebacker Jon Bostic knocked him out of a 25-3 loss in the third quarter with a late hit to the helmet as Dalton slid to end a scramble. A battle with COVID-19 kept Dalton on the sidelines as Dallas continued to cycle through third and fourth-string quarterbacks with little success.
A Cowboys offense that shriveled up and died when Dak Prescott ended his season with a frightening leg injury in Week 5 finally displayed its trademark balance with almost 400 total yards. Their four touchdowns were twice as many as they produced in the prior four games.
“Everything’s in front of us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done up to this point,” Dalton said. “It’s all about these next seven games.”
One recurring problem Dallas must confront on a short week is a lack of healthy bodies at cornerback. Starter Anthony Brown (ribs) left Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter, and rookie starter Trevon Diggs (foot) is on injured reserve.
Coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday that Brown would give it a shot at practice on Tuesday, but isn’t sure if he’ll be ready to go. The Cowboys dug deep into their depth chart Sunday to activate Rashard Robinson for his first game of the year in Diggs’ place.
The Cowboys did not practice Tuesday after head strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul was rushed to the hospital suddenly Tuesday morning at the age of 54. Paul’s family said he was undergoing treatment Tuesday morning, denying a report from Sports Illustrated stating Paul had died.
–Field Level Media