Redskins vs. Cowboys: Five story lines to follow Sunday

Mike Shanahan

Mike Shanahan could be coaching in his last game at FedEx Field. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Because of the never-ending off-field controversy surrounding this team, you’d hardly know that this was Dallas Week. But the Washington Redskins will indeed host their old rivals Sunday at 1 p.m. on FOX.

The Redskins enter the game with a 3-11 record and mired in a six-game losing streak. A Mike Shanahan team has never lost seven straight games, and the Redskins haven’t lost seven in a row since Norv Turner’s 3-13 campaign in 1994. Can they end the skid this week, or will this game feature more of the same?

Here are five story lines to follow:

1. Levels of desperation: The Redskins have very little to play for while the game carries utmost importance for the Cowboys. After losing its last two games, Dallas now trails Philadelphia by one game, but remains in control of its own fate. The Cowboys (7-7) need a win Sunday to remain in the hunt. A victory over the Redskins would set up Dallas to play the Eagles (8-6) for the NFC East title in Week 17. Washington’s players say they will embrace the role of spoilers. But saying and doing are two entirely different things. Owners of a six-game losing streak, the Redskins haven’t managed to put together a complete game all season, and it likely will take such an effort to pull off the upset Sunday.

2. Fletcher’s farewell: The 16-year-veteran announced this week that he expects to retire at the end of this season, and so, this will represent Fletcher’s final game at FedEx Field. At 38, Fletcher hasn’t had the impact that he has in years past, but he would like to put on a strong performance for the Redskins faithful, and his teammates say they want to give him a good home send-off by beating the Cowboys. Sunday’s game marks the 255th consecutive game for Fletcher (the league’s longest active streak), and the 214th straight start (an NFL record for a linebacker). Fletcher has ranked among fans’ most-loved Redskins. Can he give them one final memorable performance?

3. Cousins’ improvement: Kirk Cousins did well last week in his first start since taking over for Robert Griffin III as the starting quarterback. He threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns and nearly led Washington on a game-winning drive. He displayed a good command for the offense, good accuracy and ball placement and resiliency. But Cousins did turn over the ball three times. Two interceptions and a fumble stood out as the spoiler for his day. How will he do in his second consecutive game? He hopes that continued playing time will lead to improved effectiveness. Cousins obviously will have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. But that has long proved a challenge for him. In six games played, he has turned over the ball eight times (seven interceptions and a fumble). In college, despite having a strong career at Michigan State, he threw 30 interceptions in 43 games. He’s a smart quarterback and good leader. If he can cut down on the turnovers, he could drive up his trade value.

4. Special teams play: The Redskins had one of their worst special teams outings of the year the last time they faced the Cowboys. Dwayne Harris racked up 222 total return yards versus Washington in October, with an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return serving as the highlights. The Redskins have to do a better job of containing the third-year pro if they expect to have a chance.

5. Fan support: FedEx Field wasn’t even half-full for Washington’s last home game, two weeks ago against the Chiefs. The record is even worse now, and the turmoil surrounding the team even greater. The weather forecast calls for more enjoyable conditions, and although this game has little to no buzz about it, it IS against the Cowboys, which could prompt an improved showing from the Burgundy and Gold following. But because of the importance of this game for Dallas, and Washington’s terrible record, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sea of blue Sunday. That’s definitely not what Dan Snyder wants as he wrestles with what direction this franchise should go in the offseason.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesdays.

What’s ahead:

●  The Redskins practice Friday at 11:50 a.m. Mike Shanahan will speak with reporters afterward.

More on the Redskins and NFL:

K. Shanahan defends assistants, says he wants to stay

J. Reed done for season | Griffin listens to Fletcher

Redskins clinch last place | Singing Fletcher’s praises | Hall of Famer?

Reid: If Shanahan returned, who’d want to come along?

Jenkins: Romo isn’t the problem in Dallas

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