LANDOVER, Md. - With Tony Pollard inactive and Ezekiel Elliott seemingly still less than 100 percent, the Cowboys managed to have just enough success on the ground to squeak out a victory. But on a day when a dominant running game might have helped Dallas maintain their 24-0 halftime lead over Washington, the rushing attack looked far from back to its old self.
Pollard had made huge touchdown plays in each of the Cowboys' last two victories, but he tore the plantar fascia in his foot during a 58-yard touchdown against the Saints and was ultimately ruled out against Washington. The hope was that the long break between games would allow Elliott to recover from a knee injury that has been nagging him all season.
Corey Clement and JaQuan Hardy, both virtually unused in the offense this season, were the other running backs on the roster.
There was no doubt that Elliott would play, but he still did not quite look back to his old self, and his results certainly backed that up. He rushed just 12 times for 45 yards and was on the sideline for the majority of the second half, even as the Cowboys gave up their lead.
Still, after the game Elliott maintained his downplaying of the season-long injury.
"I felt good," Elliott said of Sunday's game. "I think just the way the game went in the second half they played Corey a little bit more, but I felt good today."
Indeed, Clement carried the ball 13 times for 44 yards, and after the game McCarthy implied that Elliott's health was the primary motivation.
"That was me being conservative," McCarthy said. "He wanted to go back in and I was cautious."
Clement said after the game that he didn't know that he would get a substantial opportunity to carry the ball until earlier in the day.
"I can't thank the coaching staff enough for the opportunity to still allow me to showcase my talents," Clement said. "It's fun as heck to be out there with the O-line and the quarterback and feel the game and get back into a rhythm."
The 27-year-old scored a touchdown in Super Bowl LII for Philadelphia in 2017 but had barely carried the ball in the years since. It had been two years since he received double digit carries, but he claimed after the game, "if you stay ready you don't have to get ready."
For what was once the leading rushing offense in the NFL earlier this season, the Cowboys struggled to control the game in the second half and relied heavily on the defense's ability to generate turnover while looking in all directions for playmakers on the ground. Hardy received one carry for three yards.
In fact, in what turned out to be the final drive of the game, the Cowboys needed just one first down to be able to fly home with a victory. Likely knowing that they were not at full strength, they chose to run a toss to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who had lined up at running back. The second down play went for five yards.
After the game, Lamb said he was excited to get the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, claiming that he hadn't received a carry lined up as a running back since he was in high school.
"I didn't do it in college," Lamb said. "It felt good to be back. I was a running back once, so I'm not really new to it. I'm just reading my blocks and reading my keys and doing what I got to do to get positive yards."
Lamb's run was still short of the first down and so it turned out to be Dak Prescott who scrambled and rushed on the ground for the game-sealing first down, finalizing a performance in which the running game provided the bare minimum of effectiveness. The team managed 135 rushing yards without any one player accounting for 50 yards on the ground.
Just as Elliott has continued to maintain the severity of his injury, he didn't seem overly concerned with his team's offense.
"It's a division game, so you know you got to be tough," Elliott said. "We know each other so well. We play each other twice a year. You expect it to be close and that's what this was."