A long and painful season closes on Sunday for Washington. Dallas visits with a lot at stake for them, including a division title. Washington is playing for draft position and pride. Given the disparity in talent, motivation, and Washington’s injuries, it does not seem unreasonable that Dallas is favored by 13 points. Of course, the Cowboys were heavily favored in the final game last year and the Commanders pulled off the upset in Sam Howell’s first NFL start. Will it happen again one year later?
I asked David Halprin of Blogging the Boys five questions to look at the state of the Cowboys and how he sees the game.
1) Toward the end of the season and in the playoffs, injury status is critical to team success. How healthy are the Cowboys at regular season’s end? Who are the key players on offense and defense that are definitely out for Sunday’s game?
I would say they are relatively healthy for this late in an NFL season, but that’s not to say there aren’t issues. The big one happened in the last game against the Detroit Lions when left guard Tyler Smith tore his plantar fasciitis. In one of the weirdest injury facts, tearing it all the way is better than just a partial tear which can be extremely painful to play with, and Smith tore his all the way. My guess is the Cowboys won’t play him this week and wait until the playoffs arrive. Nose tackle Johnathan Hankins has missed a few weeks with a high-ankle sprain but returned to practice in a limited fashion this week. I’m still doubtful they will play him this week.
Backup running back Rico Dowdle missed last week’s game with an ankle injury but practiced on Wednesday (limited). Free safety Malik Hooker is battling an ankle injury but he played last week and could play again this week.
2) This late in the year, it’s possible to look back at the 2023 draft and UDFA class and ask how much these players have performed. How would you rate the rookie class in retrospect, and what players look like they have a promising future in Dallas?
Bluntly, the Cowboys draft class has not really produced at all this year, and it’s a few UDFAs who have really contributed. The Cowboys first-round pick, DT Mazi Smith, has been in the defensive line rotation but really hasn’t impressed much. You would definitely expect more from a first-round pick. It’s the same story for second-round pick Luke Schoonmaker. He’s been in the tight end rotation, but so far hasn’t done anything to say he will be a top player. Much of the rest of the class has either had limited playing time or been inactive. Third-round pick DeMarvion Overshown displayed real promise at linebacker in training camp and the preseason, but he tore his ACL before the season started.
But the Cowboys have found a few gems among their UDFAs. The first is kicker Brandon Aubrey who hasn’t missed a field goal all year and leads the NFL in kicking points. Guard T.J. Bass has had to fill in for injury a few different times this year and seems fully capable. In fact, he will probably play for Tyler Smith in this upcoming game. And fullback Hunter Luepke has been used for blocking and some short-yardage situations, but kind of in a specialist role.
3) The Cowboys are 8-0 at home but 3-5 on the road, a striking difference. There is a good chance that they will have to win one or more playoff games away from home if they want to make it to the Super Bowl. How do they get over the hump on the road?
If I had that answer, the Cowboys would probably pay me a lot of money. No one really knows what it would take. There’s the theory that they are built for indoors and turf, because they use a lot of speed on defense and precise cuts in the passing game. But all of that feels pretty hollow. One thing is for sure, they have had to play a lot of their tougher opponents on the road like the 49ers, the Eagles, the Bills, and the Dolphins, so to some extent they were just beaten by good teams. But no one really has an answer for that question.
4) The Cowboys are playing for the division title, and the Commanders are playing for draft position. On paper, there is only one reason to believe that the Commanders can win on Sunday: it’s a road game for the Cowboys. What would it take for the Commanders to upset the Cowboys in this game?
The Cowboys have a habit of shooting themselves in the foot with stupid mistakes. They are among the most penalized teams in the league, so they spend a lot of time trying to overcome long down-and-distances, and they also give the opposition free plays and first downs. So that is one way they can lose a game. Another way is when the run defense just falls apart. The Cowboys are built to rush the passer, so the run defense is not always on point. Teams with good running games can exploit that. On defense, you have to make Dak Prescott go to his second and third reads. If you let him get into an easy rhythm, the Cowboys’ passing game can overwhelm teams. So mix things up, don’t give him the easy reads and try to get to him in the backfield if he has to hold the ball.
5) The Cowboys are favored by 13 points, with an over/under of 45.5 points. Do you see them covering the spread and scoring enough to beat the over/under?
I really don’t see either. Like we discussed, the Cowboys are a different team on the road, and on natural grass. They have to work much harder to make things happen and they don’t always score a lot of points on the road. I think the Cowboys will win, but probably more in the region of 8-10 points. I don’t see an explosion from Dallas’ offense, but I think the defense will be able to contain the Washington offense. I wouldn’t be shocked at a 21-13 game or something like that.
Thanks again to David Halprin for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Cowboys. You can check out his answers to our questions over at Blogging the Boys.