The plan was simple: Take care of business against a supposedly lesser team, end the regular season with a win, and then hope for some help.
So much for that.
Wanting to go into the playoffs with some momentum, instead the Dallas Cowboys stumbled across the finish line in a disappointing 26-6 loss to the Washington Commanders. And while they ended the campaign with a still-impressive 12-5 record, the Cowboys would have headed into the postseason as the fifth seed anyway as the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New York Giants to take the NFC East crown.
Behind a reworked offensive line, the Cowboys struggled to create much offense against Washington's formidable front. Overall, the team was outgained 309 yards to 182, converted only 22 percent of its third downs, which included 10 three-and-outs, and lost the time of possession, 36:12 to 23:48.
Dallas' running game, which was dismal on first downs, managed just 2.4 yards per carry overall, so that left it to Dak Prescott to try to make something happen through the air. Unfortunately, the quarterback had perhaps the worst game of his career. Prescott completed just 37.8 percent of his pass attempts, his lowest mark ever, for 128 yards and a 45.8 quarterback rating, both of which were his third-lowest totals.
On the other side of the ball, despite the Dallas defense facing a rookie quarterback playing in his first career game and a Commanders offense without its leading rusher, Washington was able to move the ball when it needed to, especially as the game wore on.
Sam Howell only threw 19 passes for 169 yards and an 83.0 passer rating, but he also ran for 35 yards on five carries and scored both passing and rushing touchdowns. On the ground, Washington rushed for 151 yards on 41 carries.
The game couldn't have got off to worse start for the Cowboys, and special teams, which has been solid all year, was the culprit. Forced to punt from his own 33-yard line on their first possession, punter Bryan Anger dropped the snap and then was tackled immediately after picking up the ball.
Set up at the Dallas 20-yard line, the Commanders needed only two plays to reach the end zone. Howell's first career pass was a short dump-off to Terry McLaurin, the speedy receiver racing to the goal line for the 16-yard touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
But the Cowboys special teams unit wasn't done blundering. This time it was return man KaVontae Turpin who muffed his second punt of the season. Dallas caught a break, though, when its defense held and then Washington's Joey Slye pulled his 31-yard field goal attempt wide left.
The Commanders were on the move again late in the first frame, helped along by a 25-yard pass interference call on an underthrown ball on third-and-11. Given a new set of downs, Washington continued its march, working its way to the Dallas 2-yard line. But on second-and-goal, Howell threw into a bevy of Cowboys defenders, safety Malik Hooker coming away with the interception in the end zone to keep the home side off the board again. The pick was Hooker's third of the season, tying his career high.
Not that it mattered. After Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller nearly picked off a Prescott pass on second down, he stepped in front of a nearly identical throw intended for Noah Brown on third down and returned the interception 29 yards untouched for the touchdown. The extra point was missed, but the Commanders were now ahead, 13-0.
And they could have added to their lead again when on their next possession Washington again crossed into Dallas territory. But thankfully for the Cowboys, Slye's troubles continued as his 52-yard field goal try clanged off the left upright, no good.
Just before the end of the half, the Cowboys finally found their rhythm. Starting at their own 23-yard line with 2:37 on the clock, Prescott and company quickly invaded Washington territory and then converted a fourth-and-1 at the Commanders' 17-yard line with 32 seconds left.
Two snaps later, Dallas was in the end zone, Prescott throwing a strike to CeeDee Lamb from 15 yards out. Brett Maher missed his extra point on a tough day for kickers, but the Cowboys had to be thankful to be down only 13-6 going into the break after a frustrating first half.
Both defenses seemed to have the upper hand through most of the third. That is until Washington took possession at its own 41-yard line with 5:34 left in the quarter. That's when the Commanders proceeded to go on a six-play, 59-yard drive to the end zone. Howell completed passes of 22 and 20 yards to Jahan Dotson before eventually rushing the final 9 yards himself to the goal line to up the advantage to 20-6.
On the final play of the third quarter, Howell threw a 52-yard bomb down the right sideline to McLaurin, starting the final frame at the Cowboys' 15-yard line. The Dallas defense held the line, but this time Slye was good on his 29-yard field goal to tack on another three points.
When Slye then added another 22-yarder shortly thereafter to up the lead to 20, the day was over for Prescott and several of the other starters. Cooper Rush would take the quarterbacking reins the rest of the way as both sides essentially played out the clock.
With the loss, the Cowboys will now kick off the postseason next weekend against Tom Brady and the 8-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC South winner and fourth seed overall.