3 keys to Cowboys closing regular season with win over Commanders

The Dallas Cowboys played on short rest last week, facing off against Tennessee in Week 17. With multiple starters unavailable, it turned into one of the ugliest games of the season. The teams combined for five turnovers and 159 penalty yards across 13 accepted infractions. While the Titans had 10 of them, the Cowboys accounted for three of the turnovers and had their own offensive woes to reflect on.

The Cowboys struggled running the ball, with Ezekiel Elliott missing his backfield mate Tony Pollard. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw two interceptions, again, one of which was a drop by a pass catcher, again.

While it wasn’t pretty, winning ugly put Dallas in position to not only win the division in Week 18, but the No. 1 seed is still in play. That will keep the starters in play while the game is still competitive, and make these three keys to victory more attainable.

Protect Dak Prescott

(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Dallas has a spot in the playoffs win, lose or draw; the outcomes of Sunday’s games are only about seeding. The only true loss the Cowboys can suffer is an injury. The main key to the last game of the season is also the top key to winning this game: protect Prescott.

The biggest current weakness on this Dallas team is the offensive line. All-world left tackle Tyron Smith has had to move to the right side to offset the loss of Terence Steele. The left tackle who replaced Smith since Week 1, rookie Tyler Smith, has just moved to left guard to replace Conner McGovern. McGovern moved from guard to center to replace an injured Tyler Biadasz, and the Cowboys utility back up, Jason Peters, is set to go back to his All-Pro position of left tackle.

To make matters worse, McGovern came down with a cold on Saturday and is questionable to play.

This mash unit has hopes of a Biadasz return for the playoffs, but for this game they will have to hold up against one of the fiercest defensive fronts in football. The Commanders have four first round picks starting on their line. Montez Sweat in 2019, Jonathan Allen in 2017. Daron Payne in 2018, and Chase Young in 2020.

Allen though has been ruled out due to injury.

Washington is a top-10 unit in sacks, but Dallas held them to only a single takedown in Week 4 with Cooper Rush at QB.

If the Commanders are only allowed a single sack Sunday, they will struggle to stop the offense of the Cowboys and Dallas will be in position to win the NFC East if the Eagles slip up in their game against the New York Giants.

Win on third down offensively

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Commanders have plenty of talent on their defense. The defensive line is their biggest strength, but linebacker Jamin Davis is an excellent young athlete, and Kendall Fuller is a veteran corner allowing the lowest completion percentage of his career. It’s this all-around talent that allows Washington to be third in the league third down at only 32% conversions allowed.

They will need that defense to show up big against the Cowboys who are third in the league in converting third downs at 47%. This includes the five games with Cooper Rush starting at QB, and it is mostly without newly acquired T.Y. Hilton.

Since the return of Prescott, Dallas has been the best in the league at converting third-down attempts and over the last three weeks the Cowboys push the percentage up even higher to 56%.

Reignite the pass rush

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For most of the season the Dallas pass rush was the most feared thing on an NFL field. Opponents would avoid throwing the ball, even down multiple scores, like the Chicago Bears did in Week 8.

Through the first 11 games of the season Dallas sacked the opposing QB 43 times. They led the league, ahead of the Eagles who are now looking to break the single-season record. Micah Parsons was in the lead for defensive player of the year and the unit even allowed the club a 4-1 record with a middling backup QB.

The Cowboys have lost multiple cornerbacks to injury, going from Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis to Daron Bland, Kelvin Joseph, and now Nahshon Wright. The Dallas pass rush has suffered from the lack of coverage on the back end, mixed with a beat-up defensive line that has seen Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence, Sam Williams, and Dorance Armstrong all play through injuries. Over the past five games the Cowboys defense has only accumulated six sacks total.

With Sam Howell making his first ever career start, bringing back the feared pass rush will be a key to shutting down a poor Commanders offense and causing turnovers to set up the Dallas offense to get some easy points.

You can find Mike Crum on Twitter @cdpiglet or at Youtube on the Across the Cowboys Podcast.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire