A playoff game is being played at AT&T Stadium tonight. It won't resemble one, and of course it factually isn't one, but the latest installment of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins rivalry features two teams trying to save their seasons in week 13.
Both sitting at 5-6, it feels safe to say the loser of this Thursday Night Football game is out of playoff contention in a deep NFC.
Trying for the third straight week to defend their home field and gain some traction before it is too late without Ezekiel Elliott, tonight's Cowboys will hardly resemble the team that defeated Washington 33-19 back in week eight.
As was the case in that late October game though, the Redskins remain banged up at key positions on both sides of the ball, giving Dallas hope should they take advantage of the following match ups.
Here is a one match up on both sides of the ball that I believe the Cowboys can (and need to) capitalize early and often on.
Cowboys Offense: WR Dez Bryant Vs Redskins Secondary
When the Cowboys traveled to the Redskins in week eight, Dez Bryant was one touchdown away from the franchise's receiving TD record. By any standards, Bryant has struggled through nearly this entire 2017 season, catching just 21 passes since this game and of course failing to find the end zone four weeks later.
Historically, Bryant has had some of his most efficient games when facing the Redskins. It is no secret that Dak Prescott is going to have to make more big plays through the air if the Cowboys have any chance this Thursday, and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan has typically found ways to do this against Washington by routing Bryant over the middle.
The Redskins rank 19th in passing yards allowed per game on the season, and S Montae Nicholson has already been ruled out for this game.
So much of what the Cowboys do offensively is built around a rushing attack gaining mostly “empty yards” right now without Zeke Elliott, including the ways their physical outside receivers in Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams win down the field.
Dez Bryant is still earning the respect of opposing defenses, but he will need to make the plays that number one receivers make throughout the night tonight if Dallas wants to finish drives with seven points.
Cowboys Defense: DL David Irving Vs Redskins Interior OL
The most depleted unit on this Washington team right now is their offensive line, where five linemen appear on this week's injury report – with center Chase Roullier already ruled out. Starting right guard Brandon Scherff is also questionable to play, creating an even more favorable match up for the game-wrecking David Irving.
Irving was a force against a similarly banged up Redskins front in these team's first meeting, sacking Kirk Cousins twice, pressuring him throughout the game, and defending the run well.
Irving's production may have dipped these past few weeks, but the same can be said about an entire Cowboys defensive line struggling to meet the standards they set with their fast start to the season.
A big part of this pass rush ineffectiveness may also be attributed to a secondary that is allowing the ball to leave QBs hands early, and that shouldn't change tonight with Chidobe Awuzie making his first start at CB for Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods filling his role more prominently at S.
With his length and speed, David Irving has the ability to get on opposing guards in a hurry and move them as needed to find the football and make plays. Throws are going to be there for Cousins and the Redskins against this Cowboys defense, but forcing him into a critical mistake or flipping field position with a sack may be all it takes for Dallas to feel like they're in this game.
It was Irving driving into the face of Cousins late in the fourth quarter of this Cowboys win that led to Byron Jones' game sealing pick six.
More relentless efforts and technique plays like these will be needed from Rod Marinelli's unit at all three levels, starting up front with these DTs working against a weaker Washington OL – particularly David Irving, playing at the disruptive 3T spot while Maliek Collins has done his best to contribute at 1T.
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The Cowboys are already on the wrong side of history entering tonight's NFC East match up – the first team in franchise history to not score at least 10 points in three consecutive games. This alone is reason for pessimism ahead of Thursday Night Football, but rivalry games between desperate teams can always go any way.
If the Cowboys come out as the more desperate team, losers of three straight games, and win these favorable match ups they can go to 6-6 with everlasting hope that this grueling season will see more than 16 games.
The Cowboys' third game in 12 days is set to define their 2017 season for better or worse tonight.