The Cowboys actually came out ahead today …. at least in terms of their future.
While nobody likes to lose, by falling to the rival Washington Redskins, 34-23, in front of a crowd of 90,127, Dallas only improved its positioning in the next NFL Draft, which in turn will hopefully lead to a better season in 2016.
Because this year was already a lost cause, the Cowboys having been eliminated from the playoffs two weeks earlier. And with the Redskins secure as the NFC East champion and the conference's fourth seed, there was nothing much on the line in this tilt.
Given that, along with the fact that so many of the Cowboys starters were sidelined, this game had a definite preseason feel to it. Gone already, of course, were the likes of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Lance Dunbar, as well as Barry Church and Gavin Escobar, who were added to the injured reserve list earlier in the week. But also scratched from this game for various ailments were starting linebacker Sean Lee, starting cornerback Morris Claiborne once again and starting left guard La'el Collins.
A win, therefore, would have been tough to come by even if Dallas had played flawlessly. Not surprisingly, they didn't.
Kellen Moore, making his second straight start, definitely made his case, lighting up the stat sheet with 435 yards off of 33-of-48 passing, throwing for three touchdowns and two interceptions. His primary target was Terrance Williams, who had a career day with 8 catches for 173 receiving yards while Jason Witten hit a milestone with his 60th career touchdown grab. He also reached 700 receiving yards for the 12th time in his career, second-most among tight ends in NFL history.
Add in Darren McFadden's 92 yards, which allowed him to top 1,000 rushing yards for the second time in his career, and on paper, it seemed a banner day for the offense. But turnovers limited them to only 23 points, and the battered Cowboys defense had its struggles in stopping the Redskins.
The onslaught began with Washington's second series of the game when quarterback Kirk Cousins hit receiver Jamison Crowder for a 44-yard completion down to the Dallas 5. He then found wideout Ryan Grant for the score and the early lead.
It turned out to be the first of four straight possessions in which the Redskins would put points on the board. Moore threw an interception shortly thereafter that led to another Washington score, and he followed that with a fumbled snap on Dallas' next try, which eventually resulted in the visitor's third touchdown.
At the end of the first quarter, Washington held a 21-0 lead. This after the Cowboys had given up only 45 points in the first quarter of their other 15 games combined.
Once Cousins led his team to a 27-yard field goal early in the second period, his day was done. Despite the limited playing time, he still completed 12-of-15 passes for 176 yards and three touchdowns for a 155.1 passer rating. He left having notched a scoring pass in 16 straight games, the second-longest streak in Washington's history, while also becoming the first in Redskins annals to top 4,000 passing yards with at least 25 touchdown throws.
But whether just by coincidence or perhaps thanks to a general let down by the entire Washington team, once Cousins left, Moore stepped up. He was nearly perfect in the second quarter, completing 14-of-15 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Following that field goal, Moore led the Cowboys right down the field, marching 80 yards in nine plays, the touchdown coming when the quarterback found Witten, who then broke the plane of the goal line before going out of bounds. Dallas then got the ball back with 1:27 remaining at their own 14-yard line and ran the two-minute drill to perfection. Moore went 7-for-7 on the drive, capping things off with a 5-yard strike to Cole Beasley to narrow the disadvantage to 24-14 at the half.
Unfortunately, the good times didn't last long. Turning to their ground game, the Redskins pounded through the Cowboys defense on their second possession of the third quarter, traveling 74 yards in 14 plays before Dustin Hopkins was good on a 33-yard field goal. Of course, that then opened up the passing lanes for Washington, as on the first play of the fourth frame, Pierre Thomas got behind a coverage breakdown to haul in a 71-yard touchdown pass.[embeddedad0]
Down 34-14, there wasn't much left to do, but just play out the clock. Dallas did add a safety, although it came after Moore threw an interception on second-and-goal at the Washington 2-yard line.
Then on their ensuing drive, the Cowboys looked like they'd get on the board again when McFadden went around the left end from 23 yards out, headed for paydirt. But the running back had the ball punched out at the 3-yard line, the fumble bouncing out of the end zone for the touchback, Washington's possession.
It was that kind of game. It was that kind of season.
Dallas added another score late, Moore finding Beasley again for his third touchdown pass on the day, but it was far too little, too late. The game came to a merciful end after the Cowboys were unsuccessful on an onside kick attempt, Washington then running out the clock.
The 34-23 loss drops Dallas to 4-12 on the season, the team's worst record since finishing 1-15 in 1989. But there could be brighter days ahead, as the Cowboys did guarantee at least a top-five pick in the 2016 NFL draft.