There are a few reasons the Cowboys dominate on Thanksgiving. The first is schematic. The Cowboys get to play at home on a short week every year, a significant advantage illustrated by the fact that, per Sportradar, home teams are 130-94 on Thursdays since 2000. The second is mental. Playing the Cowboys on Thanksgiving has a mystique to it, like Gillette Stadium in the playoffs or Lambeau Field in the snow. Washington Coach Ron Rivera remembers watching the games on TV as a kid.
“[The tradition is] part of it,” he said. “Think about it: You’re home. You’re playing relatively early. You still know that, when you’re done, you still have a chance to go home and have Thanksgiving dinner. Whereas typically the opponent has to … get on an airplane at 1 in the morning, and they’re wondering if they’ll have any turkey left over.”
For players and coaches, the game’s magnitude will be hard to ignore. This is a rare nationally televised appearance for Washington, and the spotlight shines on a rebuilding team struggling to stay consistent while trying to improve its 1-8 Thanksgiving record against Dallas. Defensive end Chase Young noted the size of the stage by pointing out that even NBA superstar and noted Cowboys fan LeBron James will watch.
“Everyone’s going to be watching,” Young said. “It’s time to get that money.”
The short week has challenged a young roster to prepare itself in a hurry. Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan encouraged teammates to move up their normal Monday recovery routine to Sunday night after that day’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and the coaches used the practice schedule to rest their players and focus on installing the game plan. On Tuesday, Washington walked through practice, and on Wednesday, the team flew to Dallas.
In Thursday’s matchup, the focus will sharpen on the promise and pitfalls Washington has dealt with all season. Can it avoid a slow start, drive-killing mistakes on offense or big-play breakdowns on defense? Can it maintain a strong pass rush, a complementary running game and serviceable production from the linebackers?
Rivera acknowledged the mystique of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving but isn’t too worried about it. He knows playing well is what matters most because, in 2015, the last time he was in this spot, his Carolina Panthers crushed the Cowboys, 33-14.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “the better team is going to win.”
Four key Washington players with ankle injuries took positive steps at practice this week. Star wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson did not participate Monday, but they looked good Tuesday. Gibson wasn’t on the final injury report, and McLaurin is questionable for Thursday.
Left tackle Cornelius Lucas looked more mobile during Tuesday’s stretch period than he has since he hurt his ankle in Week 10. But for the portion of practice open to the media, Morgan Moses again took all of the snaps at left tackle, with David Sharpe filling in at right tackle. Lucas is questionable for Thursday, and if he’s unable to go, the Moses-Sharpe tandem will need to hold up well for the second game in a row.
Free safety Deshazor Everett looked agile in drills open to the media Tuesday, but the team later ruled him out for the game. Everett’s absence probably means Troy Apke, who was benched in Week 5, will get the start. The Bengals targeted Apke several times deep; the Cowboys could do so as well.
Owner Daniel Snyder, his wife, Tanya, and team president Jason Wright will not attend the game in Dallas “due to team and NFL protocols,” the team announced Wednesday afternoon. The trio recently came into close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. The Snyders and Wright have tested negative, the team added. The Snyders missed the team’s first road game of the season, Week 2 at the Arizona Cardinals, for the same reason.
Washington’s plan at linebacker remains unclear. Rivera has often expressed disappointment in the unit’s indecisiveness and gap integrity, and he took substantive action for the first time Sunday, when the defense shifted away from the pairing of Jon Bostic in the middle and Cole Holcomb on the outside. Instead, Bostic and Holcomb alternated in the middle, while Thomas Davis Sr., Kevin Pierre-Louis and Holcomb rotated outside. That platoon could continue Thursday.
“We’re going to play different combinations of guys,” Rivera said after the Bengals game. “We’re going to try to get these guys to understand that this is how we want it done.”
Dallas canceled practice Tuesday after Markus Paul, its strength and conditioning coach, was rushed to the hospital after a medical emergency. The 54-year-old died Wednesday afternoon, the team announced. Rivera began his news conference Tuesday by sending “thoughts and prayers” to Paul, with whom he played on the Chicago Bears from 1989 to 1992.
For Rivera, the NFC East cluster means full steam ahead. Washington will try to power through the dogpile — all four teams in the division have just three wins — starting Thursday. A win over the Cowboys would move the team into first place for at least a few days. Dallas is a three-point favorite, though, and several statistical models give Washington the worst odds to win the division.
One glimmer of hope for Washington is its schedule. The team has a mediocre strength of schedule by opponent winning percentage (.516), just like the New York Giants (.525), while the first-place Philadelphia Eagles (.567) have the league’s fifth-hardest slate. But the Cowboys (.367) have the NFL’s second-easiest schedule, in large part because they’re the only team with three NFC East games left.
That’s one of the reasons Thursday’s game is so important. Washington must win to prevent the Cowboys from taking a small but significant lead in the division.
at Green Bay
at San Francisco
at New York
Injury report: Other than the four ankles, Washington’s most important injury is to kicker Dustin Hopkins. He has been battling a right groin ailment since at least Week 10, when he first appeared on the injury report. Hopkins has struggled this season and missed his seventh kick of the year Sunday. He is listed as questionable, but the team did not promote backup Kaare Vedvik from the practice squad, so Hopkins will kick Thursday.
Defensive end Ryan Anderson (knee), linebacker Jared Norris (hamstring) and Everett are out. Receiver Dontrelle Inman (hamstring) did not appear on the injury report and could return for his first game since Week 7 at the Giants.
Dustin Hopkins, K
Terry McLaurin, WR
Ryan Anderson, DE
Deshazor Everett, FS
Cornelius Lucas, LT
Jared Norris, LB
For the Cowboys, starting cornerback Anthony Brown (ribs) and kicker Greg Zuerlein (back) are the most significant injuries to watch. Both are listed as questionable.
One other player was limited in practice this week, backup tight end Blake Bell (back), but he did not appear on the final injury report.
Anthony Brown, CB
Greg Zuerlein, K
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