Cowboys at Washington score: Dallas holds off furious Washington comeback, pads NFC East lead

The time for pregame bulletin board material is over and the fight was on at FedEx Field, but the Washington Football Team turned into a punching bag en route to losing 27-20 to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Mike McCarthy made good on his plan of going into Maryland and leaving with a win, putting the impetus on Ron Rivera now following the accusation that McCarthy "made a big mistake" in voicing his confidence. As it turns out, it was McCarthy who had his club ready to play ball, aided by the return of starting defensive linemen Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore. 

Contrarily, for Washington, the name of the game was "next man up", but it never happened. Washington instead laid down and caved in the face of pressure, in a game that could've sent a potent message to both the division and the conference that its poised to make waves going down the stretch and potentially into the playoffs. But, insert Jim Mora Sr. gif here, because the latter is once again a huge question mark in Washington, while Dallas goes to 9-4 and are still in play for a possible No. 1 seed in January.

There's no love lost between these two teams, as seen in the fight sparked by what Ezekiel Elliott and La'el Collins deemed a late hit in the fourth quarter against Dak Prescott -- leading to Collins being ejected -- and a late-game pick six by linebacker Cole Holcomb that changed the tone, if only for a moment, because Gregory's sack fumble against Kyle Allen (who entered in the fourth quarter for an injured Taylor Heinicke) allowed the Cowboys' defense to truly establish itself as the hero of the day for Dallas.

It all sets up an even more critical matchup to come between these two teams in two weeks, this time at AT&T Stadium, and considering how this one ended, expect more fireworks in Week 16.

Why the Cowboys won

Prescott and the offense were able to take advantage of the first drive of the game by putting a field goal on the board from Greg Zuerlein, and then their defense went to work -- throwing haymakers right out of the gate against Heinicke and putting on an early show for McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

With the return of Gregory and Gallimore to a unit that saw All-Pro pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence retake the field a week ago, the Cowboys' defensive front made Heinicke wish he stayed in bed. Gregory negated a Prescott interception by creating a tip drill that he then reeled in for his first career interception, and Prescott rewarded him by driving down the field and finding four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper for a touchdown. The defense then went back to work on Heinicke, with rookie phenom Micah Parsons burying the Washington quarterback for a sack fumble that was recovered by defensive end Dorance Armstrong for a defensive touchdown, following a convoy into the end zone.

A gutsy two-point conversion call by McCarthy was next, and successful, and Washington was forced into trying to dig themselves out of an even deeper hole. They couldn't figure out how to contain Parsons, who sacked Heinicke yet again to start the second quarter and a mostly whole Cowboys defense had its way with their bitter rival. And to think what the score might've been if they reeled in every INT opportunity afforded them by Heinicke. That, in and of itself, tells you how cavernous the difference was between the quality of the two teams on Sunday, even as the Cowboys offense tried to implode when it mattered most.

Why Washington lost

They made a ... big mistake ... in underestimating the Cowboys' defense. Washington ran into a buzzsaw with the return of Gregory and Gallimore, an item that made it impossible to account for Parsons, not that any team has been able to stop him before now anyway. Parsons proved he can sack opposing quarterbacks from the second level of the defense just as effectively as he can from the edge of the defensive line, adding two more sacks to this rookie resume. Heinecke was under siege for most of the day and, mixed in with mistakes not fueled by duress, had a passer rating of 0.0 late in the second quarter and finished the first half with a rating of just 4.9.

To drive further home the ineptitude of Washington's offense, it amassed only 29 total yards and were 0-for-6 on third down at the half. Adding insult to injury was the fact Rivera's defense couldn't take advantage of a still uneven Cowboys offense, who saw Prescott mix in questionable throws with his good ones, unable to turn him over more than once (an interception) despite a subpar outing by the rushing attack -- led by an injured Ezekiel Elliott and harmed further by the absence of Tony Pollard with a partially torn plantar fascia. You'd think that a one-dimensional, inefficient offense would be easy pickings for any NFL defense, but Prescott made the plays he needed to make (both on the ground and in the air) and spread the ball around aplenty, as Cooper, Lamb and Gallup all finished with nearly the same amount of production in the receiving game. 

Washington lost in every category that mattered: time of possession, number of first downs, rushing yardage, passing yardage, takeaway margin, number of offensive plays and, most importantly, the final score. A red-hot four-game win streak not only comes to a halt for Washington, but in humiliating fashion against a bitter rival who, even playing less-than-stellar football, simply outclassed them on their own field. Credit them for showing grit in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late, because the Cowboys defense weren't done teaching a lesson.

Turning point 

This play made it an 18-point game, demoralizing WFT in the process, and showing Heinicke that no matter where he's lined up -- the lion always eats.

Play of the game

This is one of the rare weeks that see two plays in this category, and even more rare is in how they were both delivered by the same person. Gregory was a man possessed in his first game back from injury, and Washington couldn't exorcise him. 

First, he tips a Heinicke pass and reels it in for an interception:

Second, he saves the day by blasting Allen for a sack fumble that was recovered by Jayron Kearse, securing the win.

No punchlines, just all punch from the line

"This Cowboys defense is no joke." -- Michael Fabiano of SiriusXM

What's next

The Cowboys will look to down a second NFC East rival in as many weeks when they travel to take on the New York Giants, while Washington tries to bounce back against another division rival, taking on the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 15.

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@WashingtonNFL via Twitter
December 12, 2021, 9:41 PM
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Massive call here: Ruled fumble and recovered by the Cowboys and upheld upon review. 

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Dak Prescott with the pick six after tossing it directly to Cole Holcomb... wow.

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@WashingtonNFL via Twitter
December 12, 2021, 9:13 PM
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WFT got a bit frisky with the late hit on Dak Prescott and that sparked a fight that saw Collins get ejected. There is no love lost between these two teams.

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@WashingtonNFL via Twitter
December 12, 2021, 8:57 PM
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Sack by Lawrence is his first in his return from injury -- having now impacted his first two games back. 

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Terry McLaurin has been downgraded to out (concussion). 

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@WashingtonNFL via Twitter
December 12, 2021, 8:37 PM
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Tyron Smith is down and being evaluated by #Cowboys medical staff. He walked to the sideline but a bit gingerly. Smith has missed time this season with injury.

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