The Washington Redskins are running away with the NFC East.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the rest of the NFC East is retreating from the Redskins.
The Dallas Cowboys’ surprising 27-20 victory Sunday night in Philadelphia means that the Redskins, who won in Tampa earlier in the day, have a two-game lead in the division. They also are the only NFC East team even with a .500 record. And the Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champions, do not exactly look poised for a second-half run to a repeat division title.
“We keep waiting on Philly to be Philly …. Washington is gonna win this division …. Philly ain’t Philly,” Deion Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback who had stints with both the Cowboys and the Redskins, said on the NFL Network’s postgame show.
The Cowboys won on a night when quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott recaptured the magic from their successful rookie-tandem season in 2016. Elliott ran for 151 yards and a touchdown. He added a touchdown catch to assist a 26-for-36, 270-yard passing performance by Prescott. The Dallas offense rarely has operated so efficiently this season.
“We just had to come out and play Cowboy football,” Elliott told NBC after the game. “We’ve been having a rough year offensively 100 percent. We haven’t been doing what we’re capable of doing. Today we came out. We started fast. We executed and we finished the ballgame.”
The Cowboys rebounded from a deflating loss to the Tennessee Titans last Monday night that dropped their record to 3-5. Their trade with the Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper, which cost them a first-round draft pick, put them in win-now mode. The problem was that they weren’t winning now. The job security of Coach Jason Garrett came under scrutiny after the Tennessee defeat, as did the long-term prospects for Prescott to be a franchise quarterback.
Garrett coached aggressively Sunday night, almost as if his job depended on it. The Dallas offense lined up for a fourth-and-one gamble on its own side of the field in the first half, only to commit a false-start penalty and then punt. The Cowboys turned a successful fake punt into a field goal.
They also got a first-half field goal after Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz threw an early interception to rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Prescott put together a very good drive just before halftime and the Cowboys had a 13-3 lead at the break.
Both offenses got moving in the second half. The Eagles used two touchdown passes from Wentz to tight end Zach Ertz to tie the game, first at 13 and then at 20. But the Cowboys had a reply from Elliott each time, first with his touchdown catch and then with his touchdown run.
The Cowboys withstood a second-half missed field goal by kicker Brett Maher and made the necessary plays on defense down the stretch to hold on, albeit just barely. Vander Esch had a key tackle on the Eagles’ second-to-last drive, which ended with a fourth-down completion short of a first down. The Eagles would get the ball back, but Ertz’s 14th catch of the game came on the final play, which resulted in a lateral to wide receiver Golden Tate, who was tackled at the Dallas 9.
Dallas has played well on defense practically all season, and Vander Esch played a starring role Sunday night in the absence of injured linebacker Sean Lee.
“We’ve just got to go,” Vander Esch told NBC. “We’ve just got to keep attacking every single play, go after the ball. We’ve got to create turnovers. We’re a defense that’s gonna run to the ball every single snap and we’re always gonna be around it. You snap on the film and you’re gonna see guys running.”
All of it worked out very well for the Redskins. The Cowboys and Eagles are now tied for second place with identical 4-5 records. A win by the Eagles would have created some momentum for the champs to perhaps get on a second-half roll and overtake Washington. Instead, the wait continues for them to resemble the Eagles of last season.
Wentz again had good numbers Sunday night, throwing for 360 yards and the two touchdowns to Ertz. But he made the key mistake with the early interception to Vander Esch. And the Eagles again had trouble turning their offensive efforts into points. Tate, obtained in a trade with the Detroit Lions to provide a spark, had only two catches for 19 yards in his Eagles debut. Even the gambles by Coach Doug Pederson are backfiring. The Eagles failed on a fourth-and-one try from the Dallas 20 in the first half.
The Redskins are not an overpowering team. The injuries on their offensive line have made their offense close to nonfunctional at times recently. But their defense rebounded from a poor performance in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons to perform extremely well Sunday against the Buccaneers.
It remains to be seen if anyone in the division can mount a serious challenge.
The Cowboys already have lost to the Redskins, meaning that they are, in effect, three games behind. Cooper was more of a factor in his second game with the team, catching six passes for 75 yards Sunday night. But standout guard Zack Martin is playing on an ailing knee — he left the game Sunday night but returned — and the interior of the offensive line is depleted. When the Cowboys cannot establish Elliott and the running game, the offense has struggled. Sunday night’s triumph was their first road victory of the season.
The Eagles still face the Redskins twice, giving them a chance to gain ground with a sweep. But they also have road games left at New Orleans this week and at Los Angeles against the Rams in mid-December. If they lose both of those games, they would have very little margin for error left to remain a playoff contender.
The New York Giants, with a record of 1-7, long ago were ensured of slogging through a lost season.
Only one other division, the NFC West, has a second-place team with a losing record.
Much remains to play out. The Redskins still could fall apart. But the Cowboys did them a big favor Sunday night, and the rest of the NFC East looks more and more like a mess.
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