LANDOVER, Md. — In reality, the Dallas Cowboys had little to play for. The Philadelphia Eagles took care of business against the New York Giants, securing the NFC East crown — and the No. 1 seed — that was on the line at the start of the day.
The most troubling thing for the Cowboys is that it showed. And on the offensive side of the ball, it’s part of a pattern that has plagued the team down the stretch and left the Cowboys limping into Tampa Bay to face Tom Brady and the Buccaneers for a wild-card matchup.
“You guys have a big vocabulary,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said when asked to describe the offensive performance in a 26-6 loss to the Washington Commanders. “Go for it.”
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Here are a handful of quick thesaurus strokes to paint a picture of how the unit played: adverse, disastrous, demoralizing, sinister.
At the center of the conundrum is quarterback Dak Prescott. His word to sum up his own performance is unfortunately not acceptable for print, but it rhymes with “smitty”.
Prescott was a horrible 14-for-37 for 128 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His longest completion went for 15 yards. The offense logged 10 three-and-outs (with Prescott on the field) thanks to a 4-for-18 (22.2%) showing on third down. Prescott has thrown 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions over his last five games, a stretch during which the Cowboys went 3-2. Prescott finished tied for the league lead with 15 interceptions this season.
The lowlight for Prescott came early in the second quarter after two almost identical throws to the right. On first down, Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller nearly hauled in an interception. Prescott wanted the result of the next game to be the same. This time, Fuller jumped the route again and entered the end zone for a 28-yard return and six scores.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Prescott was 10 of 29 for 93 yards. He was inaccurate all day, and the Commanders broke up seven passes. He missed high, low, front and back.
Washington’s defense sat six starters in a meaningless battle for it. Prescott said he had “zero awareness” of the proceedings in Philadelphia, a 22-16 victory for the Eagles that dented the Cowboys’ chances of winning the NFC East. But Dallas wasn’t minding his own business, anyway.
“Coming into this game, I feel like we knew we were going to win,” said receiver CeeDee Lamb, who caught the Cowboys’ lone touchdown six seconds before halftime. “We all have to flip the switch.”
The Cowboys clearly didn’t meet that standard.
“We’re playing pro football, man,” right guard Zack Martin said on the subject of uncertain motivations entering the game. “If you come out and don’t leave, this is what happens.”
McCarthy added that the Cowboys entered this week with little rhythm.
“It wasn’t our best week of training, without a doubt,” he said. “We had moving parts trying to (play) guys in different (positions).”
“Our players are human,” McCarthy added.
Prescott’s struggles are part of the “pie” that owner and general manager Jerry Jones loves to talk about as he decides how to hand out contract extensions to Lamb, Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed eight times for 10 yards.
The Commanders defensive line bullied the Cowboys up front the entire game. As a team, Dallas had 27 rushing attempts for 64 yards (2.4 yards per carry). A wait killed a drive. Simple screenshots could not be completed.
Special teams was another factor the Cowboys need to course correct ahead of Tampa Bay. Punter Bryan Anger set the tone badly by abusing a snap on Dallas’ first possession, giving the Commanders the ball at the Cowboys’ 20-yard line. Returner KaVontae Turpin muffed a punt later in the first quarter to again give Washington the ball in the red zone.
This is not all to absolve the defense completely. Commanders quarterback Sam Howell, in his first NFL start, threw a touchdown on his first dropback to Terry McLaurin. Later in the game, he and McLaurin connected for a 52-yard play that set up a field goal.
The Cowboys can look back on the regular season as a 12-5 club that was in contention for the most competitive division in football until the final day. There is one prism to look at Sunday’s result. But that would be to ignore the fact that too much went wrong for the Cowboys in the nation’s capital.
The corrections must come quickly. Otherwise, the offseason comes faster.
“There is no other choice,” Martin said. “We’re doing this again, we’re sitting at home next week.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.