NFLpickwatch.com compiles a list of every prediction from every expert each week of the NFL season. A quick glance reveals one very obvious thing: across the web, the picks are either very, very right, or very, very wrong. This should surprise no one, because that’s what the NFL is – a sport where favorites win most of the time, but two or three surprises crop up every week. For example, the Internet came to a 99% consensus the Bengals would defeat the Browns. An octopus snorting cocaine could have called this game right, and the Bengals atomized Cleveland in every facet.
But the Internet also determined the Patriots had a 97% chance to win against the Eagles. Again, solid choice. The Patriots had been 47-4 in their last 51 home games, had lost consecutive games only five times with Tom Brady at the helm, and were playing an Eagles team that had given up 90 points in consecutive losses to the Buccaneers and Lions. Of course, the Eagles scored 35 points in a row and stunned the Patriots in Foxborough.
The point is this. All week, I’ve heard experts and pundits claiming the Washington Redskins will clean the Dallas Cowboys’ clocks. I’ve never heard such consistency across the board. For a game that Vegas considers nearly a draw on a neutral field, I find it strange. NFLpickwatch.com pegs the Redskins as 92% favorites. Ninety-two percent! The spread is 3.5 points and the experts think the Redskins will win 92 times out of 100!
I’m not here to spell doom and gloom and say the Redskins will lose the game. Personally, I do think they’ll win. Stop the run, win the turnover battle. If they do those two things, they will win.
But my god, people. You’re acting like the Redskins are a world-beater and the Cowboys are a college team. Yes, the Redskins play well at home. Yes, the Cowboys are terrible offensively without Tony Romo under center. But this is still the Cowboys. They still have Dez Bryant on the outside and Jason Witten up the middle. They still have arguably the game’s best offensive line, by a lot. They still have the 6th-ranked defense in the NFL and the most accurate kicker in the history of the sport. This is not a team the Redskins will roll over, barring some turnover-fest in favor of the burgundy and gold.
The Redskins are in control of their destiny and the Cowboys have less than a prayer of making the playoffs. This is what happens in the NFL. In reality, though, this game is so much closer than people are claiming. A 5-6 team against a 3-8 team is like a 47-win NBA team going up against a 41-win opponent. You’d never come to a 92% consensus on that. Never!
Here, the Redskins have a clear advantage. Matt Cassel is terrible, Kirk Cousins is a top-15 quarterback (I will back that claim up later this week, I promise). Each will probably throw an interception and struggle at times, but Cousins has far more going for him than Cassel. Namely, Cousins like to get rid of the ball and Cassel likes to hold it. Advantage: Redskins
This is dumb. I believe the Redskins have better running backs, but I’m almost positive the Cowboys will outrun their opposition. Not because Washington’s run defense is terrible, but because the Redskins just cannot run the ball. I don’t understand it. They have a grind-and-pound starter, a fast and punishing backup, and a change-of-pace third down back. They have the full package! Yet that starter has no burst, that backup cannot hold on to the ball, and that change-of-pace back is too small to withstand regular carries. It’s running back purgatory. On Dallas’ side, Darren McFadden isn’t much better. He’s actually pretty terrible, a 60-yards-per-game guy who sprinkles in 150 every now and then. It will probably come tonight, but I’m still giving the edge to the Redskins on depth alone. It’s the most uninspiring position comparison I think I’ve ever written in my life. Advantage: Redskins, somehow
If DeSean Jackson plays tonight, this comp will be a lot closer. But it still stands that Dallas has one of the best receivers in the league in Dez Bryant, as well as a host of little dudes that compliment him quite well. Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley stack up pretty well against Jackson, Garcon, and Crowder. It’s just that Bryant is good enough for the entire lot of them. Advantage: Cowboys
I can’t remember the last time the Redskins had an offensive player as good as Jordan Reed. These players just don’t come to Washington very often. Reed is a bona-fide star, a top-5 tight end who, when he plays, instantly makes the offense that much better. I don’t care who the Cowboys use to cover him tonight, it won’t work. Expect Reed to thoroughly outplay Jason Witten (who is still quite good, I might add). Reed is automatic for at least six catches and a chance at a touchdown. No one in the entire league can cover him and on a pound-for-pound basis, he may be the most talented tight end in football. Now if only he’d stop grabbing the dang opponent’s jersey so much! Advantage: Redskins
Just because McFadden isn’t channeling his inner DeMarco Murray, and Matt Cassel likes hitting the ground a little bit too much, it doesn’t mean that Dallas’ offensive line has regressed. It is still a force to be reckoned with, and boasts at least three All Pro-caliber players.
This is the most important match-up of the game, bar none. When the Redskins get pressure on quarterbacks and stop the run, they win. When they don’t, they lose. It’s that simple. All of you expected a Washington romp need look no further than the trenches to see where this game will ultimately be decided. Advantage: Cowboys
Here, we reach another worrying part of the game: Dallas’ defense. Remember how these guys were the worst unit in league history a few years ago? No longer. In fact, if the Cowboys scored 21 points per game, they probably would have left the Redskins in their wake long ago. The defense feeds off the line, which is underrated. Everyone talks about Greg Hardy (who is having something of a down year). But Tyrone Crawford is a monster in the middle and Jeremy Mincey is solid off the edge. They may not get gaudy numbers but they still produce.
Enough harping on the Cowboys’ line, though. Here, the Redskins do have an advantage. Terrance Knighton will be an absolutely critical part of disrupting Dallas’ offensive line plans, Jason Hatcher will no doubt be motivated to stick it to his old team, and Chris Baker has been arguably the defense’s top performer short of Bashaud Breeland. The Redskins get a slight edge here, though it is important that they work hard so that Dallas’ offensive line doesn’t negate their effectiveness. Advantage: Redskins
This was likely a Redskins sweep until the news broke that Perry Riley would be out three to six weeks with a foot injury. Keenan Robinson is questionable. It will be up to Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Will Compton, and Preston Smith to cover Witten and stop McFadden. Still, the Cowboys’ dynamic combo of Sean Lee and Rolando McClain can hold its own against most teams. Because of the injuries, I’d call this a push. Advantage: Push
This is such an interesting position in Washington. On paper, it looks like a trainwreck – but then you get performances like last week. People say it was inspiring in the absence of Chris Culliver, I say it was partially because Culliver was out. We shall see. Breeland is absolutely an ace in the hole and if he plays Bryant as well as he did in Dallas last year, the Redskins will more than likely win the game. The Cowboys, though, have more depth at both corner and safety. It looks like a push until you also learn that the Cowboys’ corners haven’t had an interception in over 400 passes. The Redskins eke out an advantage. Advantage: Redskins
This hinges on one thing, and one thing only: if DeSean Jackson is back there returning punts, the Redskins automatically gain a huge advantage. Say what you want about Jackson, he’s dynamic in the open field in a way that no one in the NFL can match.
Kicker and punter could not be more of a push. Tress Way averages 45.9 yards per punt for Washington, Chris Jones is at 45.8. Dustin Hopkins and Dan Bailey have been similarly superb. But the Redskins’ potential return game gives them a slight edge. Advantage: Redskins.
I’m in the minority. I love Jay Gruden. I think he’s the best coach the Redskins have had since Gibbs 2.0 and I think his gameplanning abilities are of a quality displayed by only a few other coaches in the game. He still has a lot to prove and I’m not entirely sold on his overall coaching acumen – but from an X’s and O’s standpoint, I do believe the Redskins have a clear advantage over the puppet that stands on the opposite sideline. How does Jason Garrett still have a job? Advantage: Redskins
Hey, look at that! I count seven advantages for Washington, two for Dallas, and a push. Now it seems like this game is more in the Redskins’ favor than previously assumed, especially considering it’s at home.
I’m still calling a close one, though. Redskins win 23-17.
The utter importance of tonight’s game
The Redskins are 5-6. They are a mediocre team. I’m as thrilled as anyone that they sit atop their division, but this fact still stands. Their remaining schedule is a cakewalk, but they could just as easily go 5-0 as they could go 0-5.
It is this thought that makes this game so important. The Redskins should not expect to win their final five games, no matter what prior history tells us is possible. They cannot win on the road and they still cannot win consecutive games. You have to assume that they will lose one or two or even three in the next five weeks.
Tonight, they play a 3-8 division opponent at home. Losing this game would not derail the season, but it would make winning the division that much harder. Road dates at Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas still loom.
If the Redskins want to make the playoffs, this is the game they have to win. It provides them with a much-needed room for error for when that inevitable loss comes. Right now, they remain in the driver’s seat. It’s up to them to continue pressing the gas.