It’s Thursday Night Football! The least favourite game night for fans and players alike! Admittedly, this has probably been the best season for TNF since they moved to a regular schedule but still, let’s not mess with narrative.
This week, the NFC East ratings-machine drives in to Dallas and ‘Jerry World’ for Cowboys-Washington for a game that is absolutely make-or-break for both teams very slim, fading, play-off hopes. Both standing at 5-6 and with the NFC home to all bar two of the NFL’s strongest teams this season, the chances for either scraping to the six seed in the NFC are optimistic and best, deluded at worst.
Washington have been blighted by injuries this season, Dallas dogged by the on-going Ezekiel Elliott suspension. But those are headlines, the nuances of why each team lies at a sub-.500 record is, of course, in the detail. But that doesn’t really matter now. Thursday is a derby match so the form book goes out of the window. It’s also an absolute stone-cold ‘loser leaves town’ match, to borrow the wrestling (and Bill Simmon’s) analogy. Each team needs to win, and if they do then they must go undefeated to have a shot. It’s likely not going to happen, as we discussed on the latest Ninety Nine Yards podcast, but the first step is the most important.
So, here is one key to the game for each team.
Through all the injuries, through the change in personnel and through the silly losses, Washington are playing good football. The key will lie on D. Dak Prescott is in a slump having not thrown a passing TD in the last three games. The run game is stymied by Tyron Smith’s injury and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. This combination leads me to think that if the secondary can have a dominating performance, it could swing the game. Kendall Fuller, the sophomore third round pick, is having a quietly excellent season. Montae Nicholson has been a surprisingly good rookie and then the big names of Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland have both been strong (with caveats). If they can maintain Dak’s slump and stymie the Dallas passing game, it could bottle up this offence and take the pressure of the ravaged defensive front.
Yes, the health of Tyron Smith is key. The lynchpin of the O line transforms his colleagues. Ditto for Sean Lee on D. He is the coach on the field and a fantastically effective LB. But really, honestly, the key for Dallas lies with Dak Prescott. As noted here and, again, on the Ninety Nine Yards podcast, Dak is in a slump. That’s to be expected for a second year QB shorn of his most potent weapon. That is all fair but the case remains that Dak has to lift this team. If he can lead a convincing win at home to a division rival, the Cowboys might feel that momentum, and Elliott’s return, can still yield some January football.
I’m a Washington fan, full disclosure, however I feel that they have the edge. They will take this 24-17 in a frisky encounter.