Badly needing a stop in a game the Redskins fruitlessly chased throughout, Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry decided to send pressure.
Dak Prescott saw the blitz coming so he rolled to his right on third-and-nine. The spy that Barry assigned to trail Prescott ran full speed at Dak, who calmly feathered a touch pass across his body 26 yards down the field to a leaping Dez Bryant. Game over.
Even the perfectly called defensive play is not enough to stop this Cowboys offense.
Dallas defeated Washington 31-26 on Thursday, all but eliminating the Redskins (6-4-1) from the NFC East division race. The Cowboys, now 10-1, are getting close to putting a vice grip on the homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. Dallas would have to lose twice in the final five weeks for Seattle to have any hope of catching them. That’s not likely because even near-perfect games don’t take them out.
Consider everything the Redskins did well in this game. The Redskins rolled up 505 yards on the Cowboys defense and only punted once the entire game. Washington dominated time of possession and out-gained the Cowboys by 152 yards. Kirk Cousins, continuing his incredible run of form lately, led the Redskins to touchdowns on his final three drives. Yet the Redskins never even got the ball with a chance to take the lead in the second half because Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot, Dez Bryant and the Cowboys‘ merry band of offensive linemen don’t allow comebacks.
The game essentially ended well before Prescott’s third down laser to Dez. Washington missed two field goals in the first half and went 0-for-2 in the red zone. They left points on the board and spent the rest of the afternoon chasing. Show one crack in the armor and the Cowboys offense will bulldoze through on the way to another victory.
Here’s what else we learned in this decisive NFC East tilt:
1. Redskins tight end Jordan Reed had one of the toughest performances we’ve seen by a player all season. An AC joint separation in his left shoulder took him out of action after taking a vicious hit in the end zone. His day looked all but over with his left arm in a sling before halftime but he returned to catch eight passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns after the injury, including gorgeous, diving one-handed grab down the sideline. As great as Jamison Crowder proves to be each week, Reed is the most valuable pass catcher on the Redskins offense.
2. Prescott’s game was much more impressive than his box score line of 195 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts. He had pinpoint accuracy on a downfield throw to Cole Beasley and proved difficult to take down, rushing for 39 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Prescott is changing plays before the snap more each week and has proven expert at recognizing and evading pressure.
3. Give Prescott’s receivers a hand in this game too. Bryant has been all the way back to his rugged self the last few weeks, fighting for contested catches. Terrance Williams had only one catch, but his effort on a 10-yard touchdown was one of the grabs of the year. Bryant (5 catches, 72 yards) went back and forth all game with Josh Norman in a rivalry that will likely continue in the press all week.
4. As great as Prescott was, he didn’t out-play Kirk Cousins. It’s remarkable to watch Cousins’ transformation into a big play specialist. Washington pushed the ball down the field throughout the game, with Cousins finishing with 449 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t sacked once and this wasn’t about garbage time. If the Redskins defense could have just forced a stop or two in the second half, Washington could have won this game. Cousins has been accurate and aggressive going down the field lately, showing a stronger arm than we ever saw last season.
5. With all that said, Washington’s red zone problems are not new. They entered the game among the bottom five teams in red zone percentage. They went 2-of-5 on Thursday, while the Cowboys were 4-for-4. That’s why the Redskins so often rack up yards without the points to match.
6. It felt like the Redskins did a decent job containing Ezekiel Elliott, yet the Rookie of the Year favorite wound up rushing for 97 yards (on 20 carries) and gained 23 more as a receiver. That’s how high he’s raised the bar. Washington paid so much attention to Elliot, which opened up some key one-one-one matchups for Cole Beasley and others on the Cowboys offense.
7. At 6-4-1, the Redskins remain in solid position for a wild card. They have a top-five offense, especially when left tackle Trent Williams returns to action. We still don’t see enough difference makers on their defense aside from Josh Norman and Ryan Kerrigan. You could say the same thing about the Cowboys defense, but Dak and company make up for it.
8. Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who has done an incredible job this season, knew his team had to play aggressive and nearly error-free to win. That’s why they threw deep early and often. That’s why Gruden went for it on fourth down twice. (Converting both.) That’s why the team tried an onside kick in the fourth quarter.