Can Dak Prescott, Cowboys turn the page after deflating loss?
Think of it less like a humiliating loss and more like a social experiment. An exercise in the debate between rust versus rest and the power of positive momentum. The Dallas Cowboys, long ago assured of their place in the postseason, finished off their 2022 campaign about as poorly as humanly possible on Sunday. Despite entering the day with an outside shot at winning the NFC East, they slumped to one of their worst performances of the season in a 26-6 loss to Washington.
Now comes the fun part. Does it mean anything moving forward, as the Cowboys now must prepare for a wildcard trip to play NFC South champion Tampa Bay? It’s hard to feel much confidence. Pick whichever aspect of the team you prefer, and Dallas struggled on Sunday.
Their quarterback was abysmal. Dak Prescott completed a woeful 38% of his passes for just 128 yards, lowlighted by an awful pick-six. In easily his worst performance since returning from a thumb injury in October, Prescott looked uncomfortable all day and failed to establish much in the way of rhythm.
His running game didn’t do him any favors, as the Cowboys averaged just 2.4 yards per attempt on the ground. The Cowboys ran the ball seven times on first-and-10 while their starters were in the game, tallying just 10 yards in the process.
The Dallas special teams also picked a bad day to struggle. Bryan Anger set the tone for a frustrating afternoon when he bobbled the first punt of the day, giving Washington a short field for an early touchdown. Before the day was over, Kavontae Turpin would muff a punt return and Brett Maher would miss an extra point.
The Cowboys defense turned in the best performance of a forgettable day, but even that came with familiar breakdowns in pass coverage.
I’m belaboring the point. By any metric imaginable, this was the Cowboys’ worst performance since a similarly embarrassing 19-3 loss in Week 1 — to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ironically.
It’s an interesting contrast from 2022. If you’ll recall, at this time one year ago, the Cowboys entered the postseason as hot as possible. They played the starters in a mostly meaningless game in Philadelphia, piling up 475 yards in a 51-26 demolition of the Eagles. It didn’t translate in the slightest bit one week later, as they were manhandled by San Francisco in a one-and-done playoff exit.
Could it possibly work the other way? Can the Cowboys turn the page from such a blatant no-show in time to fix their playoff fortunes?
That’s been the story throughout the regular season. They bounced back from that awful loss to Tampa Bay with a dramatic win against Cincinnati. Their late-October loss in Philadelphia was followed by a win against Detroit. What came after the overtime loss at Lambeau Field? A 40-3 shellacking of the playoff-bound Vikings. And of course, the baffling loss in Jacksonville three weeks ago was followed by a Christmas Eve win against the Eagles.
The obvious counter is that the regular season is over. The next step is the playoffs, where no approach has seemed to work. As bad as the Cowboys looked last year in that loss to San Francisco, they’ve also lost their last four playoff games when finishing the regular season with a loss — most notably, the heartbreakers in 2007 and 2016, when they had earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC.
Beauty will be in the eye of the beholder this week, as the Cowboys prepare for one of the juiciest matchups of the wildcard round.
This team has been good enough to go 12-5, finishing above .500 against teams that managed a winning record. They’ve also been bad enough to get their doors blown off in two of those five losses and surrender big second-half leads in two others. They’ve lost the turnover battle in four of their last six games, despite managing a 5-2 record in said games.
No one represents that inconsistency better than Prescott. Since his return, he’s guided led one of the most efficient and explosive offenses in the league, going 8-3 and averaging 32 points per game during that span. At the same time, Sunday was his seventh straight game with an interception and his 15th overall, as he watched a defender celebrate in the end zone with one of his passes for the third time this year.
All of these things can be true, because they’ve been true all year. The difference now is that the Cowboys are out of regular-season games to sort them out. Beginning now, they can either buck the trend in the postseason, or once again finish a season the way they’ve become accustomed to — far sooner than anyone wanted.
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David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.
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