With five games left to play in the 2021 season, the Dallas Cowboys (8-4) hold a two-game lead on top of the NFC East. A two-game lead that could evaporate in the matter of a couple games as Dallas faces divisional opponents in four of their final five contests.
Starting with the Washington Football Team (6-6), who is arguably the hottest team in the division and a team that swept the Cowboys in 2020.
Here are five additional storylines for each team heading into Sunday's matchup at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
- Washington has officially re-entered the playoff picture with their fourth-straight win, 17-15 over the Las Vegas Raiders. The Raiders, fresh off their overtime win over Dallas, was dealing with a multitude of injuries on their offensive side of the football with no Darren Waller available for Week 13. The Football Team took full advantage by holding the Raiders to just 310 yards and 15 points over a defensive battle.
- Ron Rivera deserves a lot of credit in finding a rhythm after the bye week and leading Washington to four straight wins. The streak started at home in Week 10 with a 29-19 stunner over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that eliminated Washington in last year's playoffs. It then continued with wins over Carolina, Seattle, and Las Vegas, with all three games being within a single score as time expired. To put into perspective of how well Washington has been playing, the Football Team has not allowed a team to score over 30 points since the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6. Opponents scored at least 30 in four of the first six games against Washington this season.
- Despite their recent success, Washington has had to deal without some of their key pieces throughout the season. Chase Young (ACL), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Hip), Samuel Cosmi (Hip) and now Logan Thomas (MCL) have all suffered extensive injuries that have placed them on the Injured Reserve list. While others like J.D. McKissic, Landon Collins, and Khaleke Hudson have missed time recently as well.
- Offensively, Washington has found a groove behind backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke and a run-first approach in-spite of injuries to key offensive players. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel and the forementioned McKissic have missed games at different points during the winning streak, but somehow Washington still finds a way. They are currently sporting the ninth-ranked rushing attack (124.4 yards per game) in the league and have flipped that into a top-five ranking in time of possession as well (31:58).
- Even against a well-rested Raiders team, Washington was able to get on the board first with an impressive touchdown drive to silence the crowd in Las Vegas. It marked the third time in the four-game streak that the Football Team has scored first, which prior to the streak, had not been the case. In Washington's 2-6 start to the season, they managed to score a touchdown in the first quarter just once. Since then, they have jumped out on top early, and it has played a huge role in their recent success.
- After losing three of their previous four games, Dallas was able to get back in the winning swing of things as they took down the Saints last Thursday, 27-17. The defense shined bright under the Thursday night lights as they picked off Taysom Hill four times in the win and returned their fourth interception for a touchdown this season. Dallas now holds the second-highest interception rate (4.35%) in the NFL behind only the New England Patriots. The win was the first for the Cowboys in New Orleans since 2009 and it kept their lead on top of the NFC East steady at two games.
- The toughest scheduled stretch of the season is now in the rear-view mirror as Dallas completed three games in the span of about 13 days between Week 11 and 13. Now there is some added rest for Dallas as they have 10 days in-between games and can gather some reinforcements from the injured reserve. Jerry Jones said earlier in the week that there is a good chance that Dallas gets both Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore back from injury to pair with the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons in the front seven.
- Additionally, the Cowboys front office is hopeful that head coach Mike McCarthy will make his return to the sideline after missing last week's game due to Covid protocol. Thursday looks like an early target for possibly getting the head coach back at The Star, but either way, there is a lot of optimism around him being available for Sunday's game. McCarthy was the fifth head coach to miss a game due to Covid over the last two seasons. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn filled in during his absence and will continue to do so until McCarthy can return to the facility.
- Quinn's defense continues to post phenomenal performances and did so while he was working double-duty in New Orleans. Four turnovers, all interceptions in key moments in the ballgame, is exactly the type of defense that Quinn has wanted to cast in on. DeMarcus Lawrence made his return to the rotation and Micah Parsons stole the show again with his 10th sack of the season. Parsons is now the first NFL player since James Harrison 2010 with 70 tackles and 10 sacks in their first 12 games of a season.
- The Cowboys struggle on the ground continued against the Saints, who entered the game as the third best team against the run in the NFL. Dallas tallied 146 yards rushing which, at first glance, looks like a solid total. However, take away a 58-yard run from Tony Pollard and a screen pass to Ceedee Lamb, Dallas managed just 55 yards on 22 carries (2.5 yards per carry). Kellen Moore's offense did what they needed to break open some big plays, but if the film is any indication, there is still much to be desired from the run game over the final five games.