The Dallas Cowboys head to the Washington Redskins on Sunday afternoon, setting up an unusually important game for one that falls so early on the schedule.
The Cowboys have won eight of the last 10 meetings with the Redskins, including five straight in Washington. But Dallas has lost on the road every odd week this season, beginning with the opener at Carolina. Reversing that trend would boost the Cowboys into the lead in the NFC East going into their bye week. However, a loss could dump Dallas into third place in the NFC East with a couple of weeks for the bad vibes to fester.
Likewise, Sunday’s game gives the Redskins, who come off a victory over the Carolina Panthers, a chance to be two games over .500 for the first time since they were 8-6-1 after Week 16 of the 2016 season. Washington is 27-25-1 since the start of the 2015 season. At this time last year, the Redskins were 3-2. The year before they were 2-3. They won two games in a row just twice last season and never three.
In their past eight games following a win, the Redskins are 1-7.
“We’ve been hovering around .500 the last three years here, or four years, I guess it is,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. “That’s something we have to do, we have to handle success equally as well as we handle adversity. These guys have to come in and prepare and understand what’s at stake here every week. Every team is a different opponent with great challenges and Dallas is no different.”
Neither team should have trouble getting emotionally ready to play this weekend as the Cowboys-Redskins has been a huge rivalry game for some time.
“Hopefully it doesn’t take us to get our teeth kicked in like it did on Monday (against the Saints) for us to pick up our tempo in our focus and preparation,” Gruden said. “For whatever reason we tend to have a flat game after a big win. That’s something we have to talk about.”
The Cowboys need to use the momentum they created with a 40-7 blasting of Jacksonville on Sunday.
“The mentality we played with, the spirit we played with, the physicalness and certainly the execution in all phases is what you want to accomplish week in and week out regardless of what the opponent is,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said.
Dallas found its rhythm on offense against the Jaguars. Running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown and quarterback Dak Prescott found wide receiver Cole Beasley nine times for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
But the Cowboys still rank 29th in the NFL in yards per game and they won’t convince their fans that they’re fine without Dez Bryant and Jason Witten until they can perform well in a win on the road.
And Garrett knows that.
“Obviously we did some good things, running the football and throwing the football,” Garrett said about Sunday’s win over Jacksonville. “We were able to move it throughout the game. We cashed in on drives. Those are all things you aspire to do regardless of where you’re playing.”
Still, Dallas has struggled on the road against dual-threat quarterbacks this season. But Redskins quarterback Alex Smith hasn’t been terribly potent as a passer or runner so far in his short tenure in Washington. He ranks 23rd in the NFL at 241 passing yards per game and has been less effective running than in the past as he has 60 yards on 27 carries. And he’s been sacked 12 times in five games.
The key is getting off to a fast start. In their last two victories, the Redskins have scored early and often, putting opponents into a hole that’s made them become more predictable and abandon the run.
“You love to come out starting fast, getting into a rhythm,” Smith said. “Love to play four-quarter football, but obviously this is an NFL game, it’s going to be a division game, it’s going to be a physical game, hard fought. To expect that it’s going to be smooth is unrealistic.”