The Cowboys entered FedExField for a Week 18 NFC East rematch with an outside shot at claiming the division, as well as the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed. Instead, they failed to capture both, and not only that, but turned in one of their most uninspiring performances of the entire 2022 season. Up against rookie quarterback Sam Howell, making his first career start in place of Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke, Dallas got next to nothing from its own signal-caller, with Dak Prescott throwing his 15th interception in 12 games and guiding the quietest output from his offense since a Week 1 dud against the Buccaneers. In the end, the Commanders easily claimed a 23-6 victory, assuring their divisional foe will enter the postseason on a low note.
Howell wasn’t particularly busy through the air, mostly taking a back seat to Washington’s ground game, which leaned on Jaret Patterson and Jonathan Williams. But he of course also contributed there, scoring one of his first two NFL touchdowns on an option run in the red zone. The rookie fifth-rounder also showcased his deep ball on a late shot to Terry McLaurin, clearly outplaying Prescott on a night in which the latter struggled to complete even 35 percent of his throws.
Here are takeaways from Sunday’s Commanders upset.
Why the Commanders won
Eliminated from playoff contention, Ron Rivera’s squad played a surprisingly sound game to close the year. Sam Howell is the big story, considering he made his NFL debut as a last-gasp QB1, and while the rookie did turn the ball over once, he was more efficient than both of his predecessors, averaging almost 9 yards per pass attempt going into the final minutes. Besides that, his arm strength was on display in a 52-yard bomb to Terry McLaurin, and he showed good vision on his TD run to assist a busy ground game, with Jarett Patterson headlining the backfield. If not for some red-zone hiccups, their rout would’ve been even more apparent on the scoreboard. Rivera’s defense was even more impressive: Dallas’ own tandem of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard went nowhere against their front, Kendall Fuller read Prescott like a book on a pick-six, and the unit excelled on key downs, handing the Cowboys their lowest point total since Week 1 against Tampa Bay.
Why the Cowboys lost
None of their big names on offense — QB Dak Prescott, coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore — showed up to take care of business, even with every regular starter in the lineup. It didn’t help that he never had a rushing attack on which to depend, with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard somehow managing just 29 combined rushing yards, but Prescott was seriously off the mark. A TD to CeeDee Lamb brought Dallas within range of a comeback at one point, but No. 4 was a legitimate issue for much of the day, forcing targets to Noah Brown and upping an already concerning turnover total. A failed fourth-down QB sneak didn’t help, and neither did a KaVontae Turpin fumble, or six penalties. All around, Dallas simply did not look prepared to contend for this matchup, let alone run away with it against an inferior rival.
Early in the second quarter, the Cowboys appeared to be gaining steam, stopping an 11-play Commanders drive that advanced deep into the red zone by picking off Sam Howell at their own 8-yard line. Just three plays later, however, Prescott forced an ill-timed outside throw to Noah Brown, and Kendall Fuller easily nabbed it, running it 29 yards for the score. Washington took a two-score lead with that pick-six and, frankly, never looked back, confirming Sunday as a down night for Dak and Co.
Play of the game
Sam Howell’s bomb to Terry McLaurin was both singularly more thrilling than anything the Cowboys did at FedExField on Sunday, and perhaps injected promise into Washington’s offseason ahead:
The Commanders (8-8-1) will enter the 2023 offseason with some major questions at head coach and quarterback. Howell had a promising debut to beat Dallas, but it remains to be seen how many resources Washington will pour into the position with both Wentz and Heinicke set to depart. Rivera, despite a strong Week 18, hasn’t logged a winning season for years. The Cowboys (12-5), meanwhile, will take on the NFC South-champion Buccaneers in the opening round of the playoffs.