The Washington Redskins (6-3-1; 2-1 NFC East) visit the Dallas Cowboys (9-1; 2-1) on Thursday afternoon with far more at stake than either team would have dreamed in Week 2, when a narrow victory by the Tony Romo-less Cowboys relegated the Redskins to 0-2. Led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys are now the hottest team in the NFL, and the Redskins are fighting for a playoff spot, with just one loss in their past eight games.
Here are five story lines to follow:
1. High stakes: The long-simmering rivalry between the Redskins and Cowboys has waxed and waned in intensity over the years. But this Thanksgiving Day’s installment is on high boil. The Cowboys boast the NFL’s best record, sit atop the NFC East by a comfortable margin and don’t need a victory to ensure their spot in the playoffs. Still, they’re not eager to see their franchise-record nine-game winning streak snapped by a reviled foe on a nationally televised stage (Fox, 4:30 p.m. ET). The Redskins, meanwhile, are even more desperate to keep their momentum going, rebounding from an 0-2 start to go 6-1-1 since. A victory Thursday would be the Redskins’ third in a row at AT&T Stadium, avenge a Week 2 loss and bolster their chances of a playoff spot.
2. Containing Ezekiel Elliott: With two particular selections in the 2016 NFL draft, the Cowboys appear to have set their offense up for years to come. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is half of that equation; quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick, is the other. Behind a stout offensive line, Elliott is the NFL’s leading rusher, with 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns. Run defense hasn’t been the Redskins’ strong suit, but it has improved since an alarmingly poor start. Still, Coach Jay Gruden knows they must be far better to contain Elliott on Thursday. “They can hurt you a couple of different ways,” Gruden said of the Cowboys this week. “We have to stop the run. We have to do a much better job against the run.”
3. Winning the time of possession: Largely because of Elliott, the Cowboys are doing a great job of controlling the clock. They rank sixth in the NFL in time of possession, hogging the ball for an average of 32:17 per game. Washington ranks 21st (29:01.) The Redskins must narrow that differential Thursday by doing two things: Dialing up a heavy dose of running plays for their own rookie back, Rob Kelley, who has been terrific since being elevated to the starting job, and, on defense, stopping the Cowboys on third down. That’s a tall order, given the challenge Elliott presents and the weapons Prescott has at his disposal, particularly wide receivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten.
4. Overcoming fatigue: In every NFL game, winning the time of possession is important, particularly for a team facing an offensive powerhouse such as Dallas. But it’s especially important for the Redskins on Thursday because they’ll be operating on less rest than Dallas, having played Sunday night, while the Cowboys wrapped up their victory over Baltimore more than seven hours earlier. Moreover, the Redskins must travel for this showdown, while Dallas had the luxury of back-to-back home games. If the Redskins’ defense can’t get Prescott off the field, there’s a good chance they’ll wear down in the fourth quarter. And the Redskins’ offense functions best, as Sunday’s 42-24 rout of Green Bay demonstrated, when the play-calling is balanced and quarterback Kirk Cousins isn’t forced to throw 40 or more times in frenzied comeback mode.
5. Tough task for Redskins defensive backs: The new-era Cowboys Triplets — Prescott, Elliott and Bryant — plus Beasley and Witten (49 catches, 520 yards, two touchdowns) will present more than a handful for the Redskins’ defensive backfield. Cornerback Josh Norman has shown a knack for punching the ball out but has been hunting without success for a second interception since Week 4. The picks won’t come easily; Prescott has thrown just two interceptions all seasons. When he doesn’t see a clear throw, he doesn’t make it. Witten poses a major challenge in his own right, and strong safety Donte Whitner, who allowed too many big plays in Sunday night’s victory over the Packers, must do far better whenever he’s tasked with handling one of the league’s top tight ends.
More from The Post: