There is track talk in the NFC East...and it’s warranted.
Yes, we are talking about the same division that was clinched by the seven-win Washington Football Team just one season ago.
The game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington is one of the most anticipated in the NFL of the Week 14 matchups. The Cowboys are 8-4 and are currently first in the NFC East. But Washington, hot from a four-game winning streak, is not far behind at 6-6. In the NFC playoff standings, the Cowboys have the No. 4 seed while Washington has the No. 6.
It’s a position that few would have expected two teams in the NFC East to be in at this same time just one year ago. But now, with two remaining matchups between Washington and Dallas, things are only just beginning to get interesting.
After missing last week’s game against the New Orleans Saints following a positive COVID-19 test, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy returns this week and will travel with the team to FedExField on Sunday. But first, during a 23-minute press conference on Thursday, McCarthy made it clear that he believes his team will defeat Washington.
“I’m confident in that,” McCarthy said. “We’re clearly planning on going to Washington to win the game. There’s no doubt about that.”
In a Thursday interview with NBC Sports Washington, Washington head coach Ron Rivera said the following:
“I think that’s the big mistake,” Rivera said. “He’s now made it about him and what he said. It’s not about his players anymore. I think that’s the big mistake. That’s why to me you don’t do those things. What you do is you focus in on, you get ready and you play football.
“We show up on Sunday and see what happens.”
On Friday, McCarthy reiterated his confidence in his team.
“It’s irrelevant what anyone thinks about what I said in here yesterday,” McCarthy said Friday morning. “I was talking about my team. I always coach my own team. That’s where I’m at with it.
“We have great confidence with what we’re trying to do. It was an honest answer to a question from a great group of people.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones even chimed in on the subject:
“He’s been pinned up and that’s reflected in his demeanor as well as how he’s articulating his feeling. We, as a franchise, we as the Cowboys, we put it out there. We know we do. We ask folks to look at us, be interested in us, follow us. We know a bunch of people look at us because they’d like to see us lose. That’s sport. That creates excitement
“I like all this kind of additional color to the interest in this game.”
For a division that was a laughing stock just one season ago, it’s hard to argue with Jones.
While the attention this week is on the Cowboys and Washington, the Philadelphia Eagles are not out of the playoff discussion. With a 6-7 record, the Eagles are only a half-game back behind Washington in the NFC East standings. And there is still plenty of consequential football left to play. Of the Eagles’, Cowboys’ and Washington’s 14 combined remaining games, only one is outside the NFC East. The Eagles are on a bye this week and will close out the season with four games against division opponents.
Jalen Hurts did not start in last week’s game against the New York Jets due to an ankle injury and so Gardner Minshew got the start under center. Minshew completed 20 of 25 passes to become only the fourth QB in Eagles history to complete 80 percent of his passes, throw at least two touchdowns and no interceptions and pass for at least 200 yards in a game. His stellar performance called Hurts into question as fans and media wondered whether Minshew should start over Hurts moving forward.
Because the Eagles have had success this season in the run game, moving away from Hurts seems counterproductive though. First-year head coach Nick Sirianni emphasized the importance of the running game for Philly this season and it has stepped up in unexpected ways.
With 2,080 rushing yards, a 5.1 average and 19 rushing touchdowns, the Eagles are just one of only seven teams since 1963 with over 2,000 rushing yards, a 5.1 average and at least 19 rushing TDs through 13 games. The 2,080 rushing yards are the Eagles’ most after 13 games in 71 years.
The Eagles are also achieving these historical numbers without their two starting offensive guards.
Hurts, who’s talent lies in his ability to be a dual-threat QB and run the ball, has only bolstered these numbers. Hurts’ unique ability to run the ball complements the team’s overall strength and it seems foolish to shy away from that.
Washington Football Team
Meanwhile in Washington, it was reported earlier this week that journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to have season-ending arthroscopic hip surgery. Any hope that the veteran would return before the season’s end has been extinguished.
Fitzpatrick suffered a hip subluxation in the second quarter of Washington’s Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and was placed on injured reserve shortly after.
With just five games remaining in the regular season, the uncertainty under center for Washington feels almost familiar following a season in which the Football Team started four different QB’s under center (including the playoffs).
But Washington only signed the 39-year-old Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal and the question of what this team was going to do under center at the season’s end was always inevitable.
The performance of backup QB Taylor Heinicke has made that question seemingly less pressing though as he has helped lead Washington to four-straight wins. He ranks fifth in Total QBR over the past four games. In the season, he has thrown for 2,809 yards, with 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions
For now, as Washington makes its playoff push, having Heinicke under center for the remainder of the season does not seem like a disadvantage.
The Cowboys need to finish the season strong in order to secure their playoff spot and luckily for them, they have players returning from injury just in time.
On the offensive side of the ball, Amari Cooper (COVID-19) missed two games, CeeDee Lamb (concussion) missed one and Michael Gallup (calf) has missed seven. The offensive line has had Tyron Smith (ankle), Zack Martin (COVID-19) and La’el Collins (suspension) available for the same game only three times.
Defensively, the Cowboys’ top pressure players of Micah Parsons, Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence have played just 28 snaps together.
But fortunately for the Cowboys, most of these players are set to return to the field soon. Dallas has looked shaky in recent weeks and so the return of major playmakers on both sides of the ball will likely prove valuable in the final stretch.