ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) argues a call with the officials during their loss to the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Before the Washington Redskins could lose this game, they had to take extraordinary measures just to resuscitate the Dallas Cowboys. They had to stretch the powers of their chronic incompetence. Only an enigma so rare and irksome could conjure its demise in this manner.

The Cowboys were done. You couldn't even call them toast because toast would have been offended. They had been outscored 92-22 in their previous three games, all losses. They couldn't function without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott, and they knew it, and owner Jerry Jones became so mad at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he resorted to Machiavellian tactics.

On Thursday night, lifeless Dallas came to AT&T Stadium and promptly punted on its first four possessions. It ran 12 plays and gained eight stinkin' yards. Washington just needed to show up and play like it cared. It did neither. The result was the most humiliating night of a season that is effectively over.

Every Washington mistake, every instance of uninspired play, revived the Cowboys. They awoke, stopped feeling sorry for themselves and destroyed their lethargic foe, 38-14.

Dallas lives. It's a miracle.

Washington is done. It's what this unprepared team deserves.

In a matchup of undermanned 5-6 teams with wild postseason imaginations, this was a game that would eliminate one dreamer. The team dressed in all burgundy, looking like a bunch of Dr Pepper cans, fizzled. At 5-7, Washington could win its final four games and still miss the playoffs. The field isn't going to come back to Washington this late in the season; the wild-card contenders are too good. The Cowboys (6-6) limp on, thankful that Washington was so determined to help them recover.

The Redskins assisted by committing three turnovers in the first 20 minutes. At that point, they had as many giveaways as first downs. They ruined a chance to score midway through the first quarter when Kirk Cousins threw an accurate pass that Jamison Crowder couldn't handle. He deflected the football into the hands of Dallas safety Jeff Heath, the first of two Cousins interceptions.

In the second quarter, Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence sacked Cousins and caused a fumble that Maliek Collins recovered. The play led to a field goal that gave Dallas a 10-0 lead. Less than two minutes later, Ryan Switzer made the score 17-0 with an 83-yard touchdown on a punt return.

Again, the Cowboys started this game by gaining eight yards on their first 12 plays. They couldn't have gotten a first down if you gave them six downs and played defense with only six players. They were done, too dead to be toast. And then they led by three scores without doing anything special.

At 17-0, Dallas had 79 total yards to Washington's 69. Include Crowder's fumble on a punt return in the first quarter, and Washington's offense and special teams were an embarrassment. And Crowder was lost.

The lead meant that the Cowboys could play to their strength, be patient with the running game and play off an offensive line that, though depleted, still can be overpowering. They were so good that they could overcome a hand injury that limited Dak Prescott for more than two quarters. The second-year quarterback threw for only 102 yards, but he made a few key throws, including two touchdown passes. By the end of the night, the Cowboys' line had worn down Washington's defense, rushed for 182 yards and controlled the game. Alfred Morris, the former Washington tailback, rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown.

"It was this attack demeanor that we all had," Prescott said.

Later, he added: "That was Cowboy football. That was to our expectations and our standards."

On the other side, we wonder: What was that, Washington? There was no attack demeanor. The team sank well below its expectations and standards. Although we're not sure what Redskins football is because the squad is so inconsistent, there was an assumption — supported by 11 games of evidence — that these players would compete, make no excuses and turn in a credible performance no matter how injured.

And in the 12th game of their season, they obliterated that belief.

Even worse, they denied how pathetic their performance was.

"I wouldn't say it was flat," Coach Jay Gruden said. "I'd say we just dropped the ball. We had two fumbles and a dropped pass that resulted in an interception, so I don't think we came out flat. We didn't protect the football."

Okay, sure: We get that Washington didn't come to Dallas thinking, "This will be easy. Let's not try hard and see if we can still win the game." The effort wasn't terrible, but the level of competitiveness was atrocious. It's not about simply playing hard. That's a rudimentary standard for a professional team. It's about playing hard with focus, about displaying the concentration to avoid silly errors that can't happen in the 12th game of a season, especially when the expectation is to make a late push into the playoff conversation.

"The effort's fine," Gruden said. "We just got beat tonight. We gave them too many opportunities. . . . Credit them for making the plays. We just didn't make any. You have to make plays in this game. We tried to fight back."

Cousins gave a stronger defense of his team.

"If you think it's a lack of effort, you just don't know football," he said. "We were playing hard. It was just miscues."

Again, the focus was absent. Dallas started this game ugly, and Washington responded by playing uglier. You can't play a game on the last day of November with something at stake, commit four turnovers in an enclosed stadium with no interfering weather and then shrug and figure, "It just wasn't our day."

Washington wasn't playing in New England or Pittsburgh. It wasn't playing Philadelphia during its flawless phase. It was playing a broken team that couldn't see hope until Washington provided it.

Quibble over whether the effort was there. But the performance? It was shameful. It was so bad that you have to put it on Gruden for not having his team ready to play. It was so bad that, for all the positives the team has shown in remaining competitive despite an injury plague, you have to consider this a troubling black eye. And if it happens again down the stretch, against opponents that should not be blowing out Washington, then you have to reopen the conversation about the franchise's direction.

"It is devastating," cornerback Bashaud Breeland said. "A game that could help us clinch a playoff spot, and we are going to lay an egg like this, it hurts."

At least Breeland was honest. Washington wasn't the victim of random mistakes. It played poorly at the worst time. It played an uninspiring game. There should be more anger coming out of that locker room.