Expect the unexpected when the Redskins play the Cowboys and don’t take anything for granted.
Case in point: With many believing the Redskins would push their fiercest rival further into oblivion this season while continuing their momentum toward an NFC East title, they came up short in aggravating fashion Monday night at FedExField. Dan Bailey’s 54-yard field goal in the closing seconds gave the Cowboys a 19-16 victory.
The win served as revenge for the Cowboys after the Redskins embarrassed them before a national television audience on Monday night last season, when back up quarterback Colt McCoy led his squad to a 20-17 win. This time, Cowboys backup Matt Cassel, subbing for the injured Tony Romo, pulled off the stunner.
The 5-7 Redskins are now tied with the Eagles and Giants in the NFC East, with the Cowboys breathing new life at 4-8. The Redskins are still atop the division by virtue of a tiebreaker in divisional record, but that should serve as no consolation for Monday night’s loss, which was painful to watch. The NFC East is so bad this year that a 6-10 record could be good enough to win the division.
Where do the Redskins go from here with four games remaining, all against teams now with losing records? Three of those games are on the road, where they’re 0-6 this season.
“Everyone needs to have a short-term memory,” linebacker Will Compton said in a despondent post-game locker room. “We have to move on because this is over with. We’ve just got to be hard on ourselves. At the end of the day, we control our own destiny.”
Defensive end Ricky Jean Francois: “I feel like we’re playing poker. These last four games are the highest stakes you can get. We’ve got to do everything in our power. We’ve got to play Redskin football. This is where the real test of the NFL comes in.”
For the Redskins to pass that test, they need to address some serious problems.
--- In their past two games, they’ve scored only three points off of five turnovers (two interceptions, three fumbles) that gave them possession in opposing territory. That's pitiful. They’re not going to win many games when not capitalizing on those opportunities, but hats off to an opportunistic defense for creating those chances.
--- The defense has to pressure the quarterback. Cassel was sacked only once for a loss of two yards and had a lot of time to throw behind the Cowboys' talented offensive line. He made some big throws as part of a 16 of 29, 222-yard performance. The Redskins played much of the game without two injured starters on the line, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Paea.
--- Penalties are crippling the Redskins’ ability to mount scoring drives. They were penalized nine times for 73 yards against the Cowboys, with an illegal crackback block by receiver Ryan Grant and a pass interference by receiver Pierre Garcon wiping out first downs. Tight end Jordan Reed, who has committed a slew of penalties in recent weeks, was called for pass interference, erasing a 3rd and 1 situation. Some of those calls appeared to be petty, but the players took the high road afterward. “The refs called a hell of a game,” Francois said. “We can’t get mad at them. We can only get mad at ourselves.”
--- The running needs to find a consistent footing. The Redskins rushed for only 73 yards against Dallas (2.8 average), with Matt Jones tallying a high of 49. Give credit to the Cowboys’ defense, which appeared to be very quick to the ball for most of the game, but the ability to gain yards on the ground is a must because it keeps defenses honest. In six of the last seven games, The Redskins haven't even averaged three yards a carry.
--- Special teams needs to do better. Almost automatic Dustin Hopkins missed a 43-yard field goal with the chance to put the Redskins up by six midway through the fourth quarter. Hopkins also failed to force a touchback on a kickoff that Cowboys speedster Lucky Whitehead returned 46 yards, setting up the winning score. Whitehead returned three punts for 31 yards and two kickoffs for 70, including the 46-yarder. Then there's Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson, who I'll get to in a minute.
You can’t put this loss on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who continued to make a solid case for a contract extension (22-31, 219 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT). He’s thrown no interceptions in his last six home games, the longest home-interception streak by a Redskins quarterback since at least 1960. He also became the first Redskins quarterback to open a season with a touchdown pass in 12 straight games since Sonny Jurgensen in 1967. Cousins' lofted a pretty 28-yard pass to Jackson that tied the game at 16 in the final minute.
Just prior to that, Jackson made a colossal mistake when fielding a punt with the score tied at 9 and less than two minutes left. As Redskins faithful watched in horror, he tried to find room by running backward and across field, nearly going into his own end zone before fumbling the ball, which Dallas recovered on the Redskins’ 15. Two plays later, the Cowboys scored to go up, 16-9. Redskins coach Jay Gruden exonerated him afterward, but if nothing else, this game will be remembered as the "DeSean Jackson Blunder Game."
Next week, the Redskins find themselves in Soldier Field to face the 5-7 Bears, followed by Buffalo at home and the Eagles and Cowboys again in enemy territory. Gruden, who's 9-19 in his second season and has won only one road game, talked about the urgency of piecing together back-to-back wins and winning on the road for the first time this season.
“We’ve shown flashes, good quarters, good games here and there,” he said. “The great teams, the ones that advance in the playoffs and win Super Bowls, are consistent, and we have not been. That’s something that is a challenge for us as a coaching staff and players.”