By Jason Keidel
One of the oldest, most rancorous rivalries in the NFL resumes on Sunday, when the Washington Redskins play the Dallas Cowboys.
More than bragging rights are at stake. The winner nudges above .500 and claims second place in the NFC East, while the loser sinks closer to the cellar-dwelling New York Giants. The football nerds give Dallas a 53 percent chance to win the game, despite the fact that it’s being played in Washington. So even though both clubs are 3-3, there’s a sense that they are headed in divergent directions.
The Cowboys just came off their most robust win of the season, a 40-10 pummeling of the San Francisco 49ers, a game that was essentially over after one quarter. Ezekiel Elliott turned the game into his personal demo reel, galloping through the Niners’ secondary with impunity, scoring on long runs and screen passes, racking up 218 yards from scrimmage.
By contrast, Washington just got handled on national television, losing 34-24 to the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football. The box score was a bit misleading. Though the Redskins held the ball more, ran more plays, and had more passing yards, they still lost by two scores.
Second-year player Carson Wentz played well beyond his years. Wentz completed 68 percent of his passes, tossed four touchdowns, and finished with a 126.1 passer rating. No doubt some of Washington’s defensive malaise was because they were missing their Pro Bowl cornerback, Josh Norman, who’s questionable for the Cowboys game.
Where Washington is suffering is the ground game. Indeed, Wentz rushed for nearly as many yards (63) as the entire Redskins team (75). When QB Kirk Cousins is your second-leading rusher (18 yards), then you need to tweak your playbook. Overall, Washington ranks 14th in the league in rushing, at 114.6 yards per game, while sixth in passing with 254.3 yards per game.
And if Washington thinks Carson Wentz can pound the rock, then wait until they gaze upon Elliott, who runs like a rhino, behind an offensive line of rhinos, and both are rounding into form just in time for this crucial divisional game. The Cowboys’ ground game is so potent right now, they could likely win a game with QB Dak Prescott throwing fewer than 20 passes.
If there’s a fresh breeze behind the Redskins’ backs, it’s the emergence of Jordan Reed. The oft-injured TE grabbed two touchdown passes on Monday, and presents myriad matchup problems for the Cowboys. But unlike Dallas and Elliott, Washington can’t rely on Chris Thompson or Rob Kelley to run wild for 150 yards.
Washington is still adjusting to shakeups at key spots on offense. Not only did they lose wideouts DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in the offseason, but they also lost the man who helped mold Kirk Cousins into perhaps a franchise quarterback. Sean McVay, Cousins’ QB consigliere, became head coach the Los Angeles Rams this year. How much is coaching versus personnel? Clearly both count and have the Redskins scrambling for their offensive identity.
But if the Redskins don’t quite have Dallas’ talent, perhaps they can bank on torment.
Even sans sidebars and subplots, the Cowboys are a soap opera in endless syndication. But now America’s Team is engulfed in the twin-dramas of the national anthem saga and Elliott’s legal woes. Despite the fact that the anthem saga was spawned by Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, it somehow migrated to Dallas, where owner Jerry Jones seems to be the point man on the matter for NFL ownership. Then you have Elliott, who was suspended six games for his alleged role in a domestic violence case.
There’s no doubt that Dallas has suffered from their peripheral problems. They’ve already lost as many games by Halloween as they did all of last season. It’s not a coincidence. Jones gets more face time than any owner in the sport, and the drama surely trickles down to the locker room, dividing the room into players who stand for the flag and those who kneel. It also doesn’t help that Jones asserted that any Cowboys player who disrespects the anthem ceremony will be benched.
Then there’s the weekly roll of the Elliott dice. Will he play? Is is suspended? Which court has the case? Which judge will rule on it? Even a team as accustomed to Page Six as the Cowboys have to be at least slightly distracted by the theatrics that come with wearing that star on the helmet.
Is it better to be more talented and distracted? Or slightly less talented and more harmonious? We will find out at Fedex Field, on Sunday.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.