By Norm Elrod
As Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles were the obvious favorites to represent the NFC again come January. It’s not quite working out that way, at least not yet.
The Washington Redskins sit atop the NFC East at 3-2. That’s right, the same Washington Redskins that feature Alex Smith, an older version of the quarterback they let get away, and Adrian Peterson, an older version of every NFL running back not named Frank Gore. The Dallas Cowboys, their opponent this Sunday on CBS, are tied with the Eagles for second place at 3-3, after completely dismantling the Jacksonville Jaguars. The winner will, for now, secure at least a share of the division lead.
The Cowboys offense had been mostly moribund all season before dropping 40 points on the Jags last Sunday. They were averaging 16.6 points per game, with a season high of 26, which came in their Week 4 win over the Detroit Lions. Dak Prescott deserves a fair share of the blame. He didn’t top 200 yards passing until the fourth week of the season, and has only done it one more time since. The Cowboys currently have one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL, averaging just 172 yards per game.
Prescott is among the NFL’s more mobile quarterback, and lately he’s been making things happen with his feet. Add his 11 carries for 82 yards against the Jaguars to his 183 yards passing, and he becomes way more of an offensive threat. Defenses have to respect an effective scrambling quarterback, which could then open up the passing game. But can this offense leverage the Prescott running threat to get the ball in the hands of its receivers? Cole Beasley is effective in the slot — he just produced the first 100-yard game from a receiver this season — but the trio of Beasley, Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin doesn’t scare many defenses.
Ezekiel Elliot, on the other hand, is the second-leading rusher through six weeks, and should absolutely keep defensive coordinators up nights. A battering ram of a runner, he gets going downhill in a hurry. Opposing defenses know the Cowboys are going to feed him the ball 20 times per game, yet no one can stop him, even if they key in on the run.
The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s better defenses, giving up just 17.2 points and 315.2 yards per game. Their stingy run defense allows just 3.5 yards per carry and 90.7 yards per game, and has held up without Sean Lee, who will likely return this week from a hamstring injury. His presence will only help.
The pass defense is giving up a respectable 224.5 yards and about a touchdown per game. The menacing pass rush has 18 sacks, including 5.5 from Demarcus Lawence, one of the more underrated defenders in the league. They do a good job of getting after the quarterback, even if the hurries aren’t leading to turnovers. Dallas has only managed to haul in two interceptions so far.
That pass rush could be a problem for the Redskins and Alex Smith, who’s struggled the last couple weeks and has yet to really live up to the expectations he set in Kansas City. The efficient game manager, who was brought in to replace Kirk Cousins, is averaging 241 yards per game over five games and has tossed a total of six TD passes. His only real receiving threat — tight end Jordan Reed — has been relatively quiet, averaging four catches and 45 yards per game and scoring just one touchdown.
Much of the Redskins’ offensive production has come from the 33-year-old Adrian Peterson. Though not the back he once was, Peterson has put together a few solid games, including a 120-yard, two-touchdown outing against the Green Bay Packers in Week 3. In both Redskins losses, however, he disappeared. Relying on an aging running back to carry a team is a risky proposition. (As of this moment, he’s questionable for Sunday.) While Peterson may continue to produce, it’s troublesome that the team’s chances of winning seem to depend on it.
The Redskins defense has quietly become one of the NFL’s better units. Despite the shellacking it endured from the New Orleans Saints, it’s still giving up just 326.2 yards and 20.8 points per game. Take out the Saints game, and those averages drop to 296 yards and 15. 3 points. The run defense, in particular, has looked good, holding opposing backs to 90.2 yards per game.
The Cowboys have not won on the road this season, but they haven’t lost at FedExField since 2012. Elliott is the second-best back in the NFL, but the Redskins run defense is the sixth-best in terms of yards allowed. Something has to give.
With these evenly matched teams, the outcome likely depends on how much success Dallas finds on the ground. Look for them to ride Elliott and let Prescott move around and make plays. The Cowboys won’t rack up points like they did against the Jaguars. But they’ll do more than a nicked-up Redskins offense that struggles to put up points even when healthy.
SportsLine analyst Adam Thompson seems to agree:
The Cowboys have been a much-maligned group — until last week when they routed the Jaguars 40-7. Regardless, these two teams are evenly matched, each has a top 10 defense and an offense that sputters but shows sparks. Adrian Peterson has been a nice surprise for Washington, but the difference here should be Ezekiel Elliott and the legs of Dak Prescott. The Cowboys have covered the last four years in Washington.