The Dallas Cowboys have been really good against NFC East opponents with Dak Prescott at quarterback, and more recently with the duo of Prescott and Mike McCarthy as head coach. So good that a win against the 4-12 Washington Commanders on Sunday felt like a formality, even with the Cowboys playing on the road and looking for the NFC East division. The Cowboys not playing nearly as well away from AT&T Stadium, and losing two of their last three at Washington, and being down two starting offensive linemen in Tyler Smith and Zack Martin, would not be a factor in Dallas taking care of business in all three phases to end the 2023 regular season with a 38-10 rout.
The Cowboys beat the Commanders by a combined score of 83-20 this season, the Giants 89-17, and split with the Eagles by avenging a five-point loss on the road with a 20-point win in primetime at home. Their 5-1 record in the division went a long way in winning 12 games for the third straight season, reaching the playoffs again, and doing so as division champions to earn a home game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at 4:30 PM ET.
So much will be written, said, and then repeated all over again in the lead up to this game when it comes to McCarthy coaching against his former team. For Dallas fans, there will be memories of playoff heartbreaks at Lambeau Field in 2014 and again at the site of Sunday’s matchup in 2016 with Prescott making his first playoff start. When it finally comes time to decide the team that will move onto the Divisional Round though, McCarthy and his coordinators, plus Prescott and his connection to CeeDee Lamb and Jake Ferguson, gives the Cowboys a great chance to win every time they step on the field.
This was evident at the Commanders in Week 18 as the Cowboys ended their regular season on a two-game winning streak, playing the complementary style that’s allowed them to win nine games by at least 20 points this season. Here are a few notes on their 38-10 hat-and-t-shirt win against Washington.
- The Cowboys returned to the scene of last year’s 26-6 regular season loss that also came in the last week of the season, and again found themselves trailing in the first half 10-7. After moving the ball well on the opening drive, the Commanders turned it over on downs when Brian Robinson was stopped short by Damone Clark and Jayron Kearse. Robinson would come right back to score on a short field set up by a blocked field goal – Brandon Aubrey’s first kick attempt that hadn’t split the uprights this season and one of two misses on the day – followed by a Prescott interception that handed the Commanders three points and the lead. The Cowboys spent the early part of this game trying to play to a tight script that gave them momentum in areas they’ve needed work on like running between the tackles, but when they needed it most the players that put them in this position to win the East wouldn’t be denied. The run game with Tony Pollard opened up as Prescott went a perfect 19-19 for 167 yards and two touchdowns when targeting Ferguson or Lamb.
The importance of the Cowboys playing with the lead was on full display once again, as Dan Quinn’s defense has responded off previous December losses to the Bills and Dolphins to be a catalyst for a new win streak entering the playoffs. The Dallas defense was ready for Sam Howell to get the ball out of his hands quickly against their pass rush, with Kearse, Clark, and Markquese Bell all making plays with range to limit Washington to 3.7 yards per play and 2-10 conversions on third down. It was Bell’s pass breakup on second down in the second quarter that forced a third and long throw that Donovan Wilson stepped in front of for an interception.
DaRon Bland’s second interception this season in as many games against the Commanders wasn’t nearly as exciting as the one he returned for an NFL record-breaking pick-six on Thanksgiving, but with both Wilson and Bland coming away with interceptions and CB Stephon Gilmore avoiding a major injury to put himself in position to play next Sunday, the Cowboys defense is playing in sync at all three levels at the perfect point in the season right now.
- Lamb’s second touchdown of the game on the opening drive of the second half was the first moment Dallas could begin to sense they had the game in control. The Cowboys cashed in on a Peyton Hendershot blocked punt on the ensuing Commanders drive with a Brandin Cooks touchdown right after to make an 18-point game a 25-point blowout. The blocked punt came after another third down stop, as Micah Parsons got home for his career-high 14th sack of the season. The Cowboys had four sacks on the afternoon, all from edge rushers, as they welcomed Johnathan Hankins back at defensive tackle.
Against the Lions, Quinn played aggressive defensive fronts even on running downs that paid off with pressures on Jared Goff. The Cowboys deployed different looks with Hankins back in the lineup against the Commanders, playing Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence as traditional defensive ends more than usual. The Cowboys winning these individual matchups on the edge shut down any chance of a Commanders comeback. With the Cowboys now turning their attention to a Packers team that’s allowed the third fewest sacks this season, and made the playoffs with a 17-9 ‘grind it out’ win versus the Bears led by Aaron Jones carrying 22 times for 111 yards, their ability to stay disciplined in rush lanes and force throws into coverage like they did in Week 18 will remain a key.
- Brandin Cooks’ third quarter touchdown came on a corner route that’s been a staple of the Cowboys high-scoring offense at home this season, as the Cowboys settled into the game and finally played like the team they’ve been in Dallas away from home. Another piece to this in the passing game was getting Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle involved, giving Prescott options underneath against a Commanders defense content to sit back in coverage and force tight throws. Prescott targeting Jalen Tolbert for the game’s opening touchdown was an example of a confident QB beating this coverage with a perfect throw, and it was set up by Pollard taking the ball inside the five-yard line on a 12-yard catch and run. Prescott having the faith in Tolbert, who had just one touchdown coming into this game, to throw the ball before he even turned his head, combined with McCarthy getting his backs involved in a game where Lamb and Ferguson were also dominant, gives the Packers defense plenty to prepare for this week the same way Quinn’s defense was able to do.
The Cowboys are a full touchdown favorite to extend their AT&T Stadium winning streak to 17 games on Wild Card weekend at the moment, with veterans on the roster that have been a part of past teams that fell short at the hands of the Packers – many of which still helping Dallas get in this position by beating Washington convincingly and clinching the NFC East.