The Washington Redskins’ game Thursday against the Dallas Cowboys has most of the elements of a big game. It’s a spirited rivalry being played on the significant stage of Thanksgiving Day, with a national television audience looking on and plenty at stake in the NFC East.
What it lacks in the big-game formula is a single participant with a winning record. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to those involved as the Redskins, with their modest 4-6 record, and the Cowboys, who are 5-5, square off to see which of them might emerge as the main challenger to the first-place New York Giants in the most forgiving of divisions.
“Both teams right now still are battling, trying to keep their hopes alive,” Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said this week. “Regardless of what the teams’ records were, if we were both 10-0 or 5-5, it wouldn’t matter. It’s a Cowboys-Redskins game. So it’ll be a hard-fought game. There’s always a lot of intensity in the game, a very competitive game. So the fact that we’re still just battling in a Thanksgiving Day game, it just adds to it.”
The Redskins have won only once since Oct. 14. That was last Sunday’s 31-6 triumph at home over the reeling Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys barely scraped by against the two-win Cleveland Browns last Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, winning on a field goal in overtime, and they’re on their first two-game winning streak of the season.
But in the current NFC East, that is enough to fancy one’s self a contender. The Giants are 6-4, the worst record of any NFL division leader, and are on a two-game losing streak. They have a demanding schedule down the stretch that includes a matchup Sunday with the Green Bay Packers and games later against the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.
So if the Redskins win in Arlington, Tex., on Thursday and the Giants lose Sunday night to the Packers, the Redskins would be playing for a share of first place when they host the Giants in a Monday night game on Dec. 3.
“Both teams are very much in the playoff hunt and this game is a very pivotal game in both of our seasons,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. “So I would call it a must-win for both teams. The short week just adds to the anxiety of the game. . . . There’s a lot of game-planning [but] not much time to practice the game plan. So it’s going to be a very, very tough game but I look forward to it.”
The Cowboys have some built-in advantages. The conventional thinking is that playing a game on such a quick turnaround favors a team with a veteran quarterback and the home team. The Cowboys, with Tony Romo, have the experience edge at quarterback, with Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III playing his first Thanksgiving game in the NFL as he returns to the state where he starred in high school and college.
The Cowboys have won five of their last six Thanksgiving games in their role as one of the traditional host teams on the holiday. They’re 28-15-1 on Thanksgiving, including 6-0 against the Redskins. The Redskins haven’t won on Thanksgiving since beating the Detroit Lions in 1973.
“It’s extremely tough, especially when you’re on the road,” Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “This is the second time I’ve done it. It was definitely tough the first time. I’ve been just trying to tell guys to take care of their body. Realistically, physically you’re not meant to do it. So it’s just got to be a mental thing. We’ve just got to think about everything that we’re playing for, try and build on the momentum of last week and I think mentally the professional, the personal accountability, all of those things that you have to rely on to get through this type of game will kick in.”
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan won two Thanksgiving games in Dallas, in 2001 and 2005, while with the Denver Broncos. And Redskins players said they were savoring the chance to play on Thanksgiving.
“People will be sitting around, watching football, eating their Thanksgiving meal,” Fletcher said. “There’s only going to be one game on at that time. The country will get to see it. Family and friends will get to see it, the Cowboys and the Redskins. It’ll be a special game.”
The defense will be without safety Brandon Meriweather, who had an interception against the Eagles in his Redskins debut but suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that ended his season after only one game. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon has said he expects to play even though the quick turnaround and the game being on artificial turf create demanding circumstances for his ailing right foot. He had three catches for only five yards Sunday after missing the previous four games.
But the Cowboys face their issues as well, particularly along an offensive line that has had to be patched together lately, and Shanahan called the demands roughly equal for both teams. The Redskins seem to know they are fortunate to be playing for something.
“I hope everybody enjoys this show because they get to sit on their couches and enjoy their food with their families, and we’ll be out there working,” Cofield said. “This is definitely special. It’s something you watch growing up, something that you envision doing in the back yard with your friends and you’re playing touch football. . . . You actually get to do it on the big stage. It’s a great opportunity.”
Redskins note: The team listed Fletcher as questionable for the Dallas game. Fletcher has played in 234 straight games but suffered a sprained left ankle during Sunday’s victory over the Eagles.
Fletcher did not practice Tuesday and said afterward he would receive treatment on his ankle through early Thursday before testing it during pregame warmups to determine whether he is able to play.
Fletcher’s streak is in jeopardy for the second time this season. He played at Pittsburgh last month after a week in which he missed two practices because of a hamstring injury and underwent testing by a neurologist due to issues with his balance.
More Redskins and NFL coverage: