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Big Picture: 5 Storylines for Dallas & Washington

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In a year full of uncertainty, it is nice to see that Thursday brings a bit of normalcy with the --- straight year of celebrating the holidays with the Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.

This year, Washington comes to down for the first matchup this season where two NFC East foes have met the week after both secured a win. Dallas is coming off a highly competitive win over the Vikings while Washington took down the Bengals.

Oddly enough, first place in the division is on the line with the Eagles on a bye as the winner will be the first to four wins this season. Here are five more important storylines for each team heading into the Thanksgiving Day matchup with Washington.

Washington

  • Washington finally tallied their third win of the season with a victory over Cincinnati on Sunday, 20-9 after Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was carted off the field in the third quarter. At the time of the injury, Washington trailed 9-7 and followed with 13 unanswered points to take their first non-divisional win of 2020. Antonio Gibson finished with 94 yards on the ground and became the first Washington rookie to have a rushing touchdown in four straight games since Alfred Morris did so in 2012. Two of the three wins this season have come against NFC East competition as they defeated the Eagles in Week 1 and dominated the Cowboys the first time around in Week 8.
  • The defensive front of Washington remains one of the most intimidating in the country with players like Chase Young, Ryan Kerrigan, Montez Sweat and company barreling down on opposing offenses. Against Cincinnati, the Football Team tallied another five tackles for loss and six sacks to add to their season total of 32. Washington currently holds the second-best sack per pass attempt percentage (10.39%) in the NFL behind only Pittsburgh. Sweat (6.0) and Kerrigan (5.5) lead the way with their sack numbers and also registered a sack against Dallas back in October.
  • Washington has seen a vast improvement in pass protection since the last time they saw Dallas. Through the first six weeks of the season, the Washington offensive line had allowed 24 sacks for a loss of 171 yards before playing Dallas. Over the last four games, they've decreased that number to just 8 sacks and achieved a combined grade of 90.9 from Pro Football Focus, the highest of any non-QB positional group on any team in Week 11. The sub-par front seven of Cincinnati did Washington a lot of favors on Sunday, but the numbers don't lie when it comes to looking at a better set of linemen than in Week 7.
  • Quarterback Alex Smith is in a heated battle with former teammate and current Cowboys edge rusher Aldon Smith for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Alex led the way on offense for Washington this past week to the tune of 166 passing yards and a touchdown in his first win in over two years. His journey back from one of the most horrific leg injuries in the history of the NFL has been an inspiration to everyone around the league. Entering the year, it seemed like a long shot for Smith to receive a significant number of playing time with both Kyle Allen and Dwayne Haskins above him on the depth chart. But with uncertainty and injuries ahead of him, he has put together back-to-back starts and will face Dallas for the fifth time in his career on Thursday.
  • The two biggest contributors in the Washington win over Cincinnati did not practice on Monday with injury designations. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin who had 84 yards this past week and 90 yards with a touchdown against the Cowboys in Week 7 missed with an ankle injury. Tailback Antonio Gibson also missed practice with an apparent ankle issue after. The rookie out of Memphis torched the Cowboys defense for 128 yards and a score during his rivalry debut.

Cowboys

  • Dallas secured their first road win of the season this past weekend with a 31-28 win over the previously red-hot Minnesota Vikings. It took a total of 29 fourth-quarter points and four lead changes before Andy Dalton hit Dalton Schultz in the endzone with 1:37 left on the clock for the game winning score. The result simultaneously snapped the Cowboys four game losing streak and the Vikings three game winning streak and made Dalton just the fourth Cowboys starting quarterback in the past 10 years to get a win. Ezekiel Elliott surpassed 100-yards on the ground for the first time this season, breaking a career-long streak of nine games without hitting the century mark. The win allows Dallas to keep pace with the rest of the division with their third win of the season before the battle with Washington on Thursday.
  • Mike McCarthy said after the game that the win against Minnesota was well earned, but it "has to mean something." He was referencing the notable momentum that has begun to swing the organization's favor over the past three weeks against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and now Minnesota. The only difference this week from the two weeks prior was that Dallas made the necessary plays down the stretch to come out with a win, unlike the previous two games. McCarthy also stated that Sunday was the best all-around team win from all three phases of the game that the Cowboys have had all season, but it means very little if Dallas fails to compound the success moving forward.
  • In what has become a weekly occurrence, the Cowboys offensive line looked at least somewhat different as Dallas made a switch on the right side. All-Pro right guard Zack Martin swung out to the right tackle spot while second-year guard Connor McGovern slid into Martin's previous slot. The result was the best rushing totals that Dallas has had all season and the first time in seven games that the offensive line has not allowed multiple sacks. Barring any setbacks or injuries on the offensive line, the current five linemen look to be the unit moving forward until maybe Brandon Knight is fully healthy and ready to take over his previous spot at one of the tackle positions. That offensive line will certainly be tested again this week as the Washington front comes to town after six sacks and a couple of forced turnovers in the previous matchup with Dallas this season.
  • Just when Andy Dalton has seemingly found a groove at the starting quarterback, he has to look across the line of scrimmage and see the same team that sacked him three times for 30 yards in Week 7. In that same game, a late hit from linebacker Jon Bostic gave Dalton a concussion and knocked him out of the game and ultimately for the next three weeks as well. Dalton, however, gets a second shot against a Washington defense that held him for 75 yards on 47% passing. Dallas managed just three points in the contest, their lowest scoring output against a divisional opponent since December of 2002.
  • Donovan Wilson has emerged as a playmaking safety in the secondary for a Cowboys team that has been longing for that sort of player. He burst on to the scene against Philadelphia with a strip sack of Carson Wentz in Week 8 and has continued that aggression and impact now through Week 11. In the win over Minnesota, Wilson forced a pair of fumbles including one against Offensive Player of the Year candidate Dalvin Cook that flipped the field and led to points before the halftime break. Thanks to Wilson's efforts, Dallas no longer sits dead last in the NFL for takeaways (9) and turnover differential (-12). Overall, the defense has elevated their energy to match the intensity of Wilson's and as a result has not allowed 30 points to an opponent since Week 6 against Arizona.

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