There was a mixture of emotions that permeated throughout the Washington Commanders' locker room after the 2023 season finale.
Despite how some fans were rooting for a higher draft pick, which required the Commanders to lose their NFC East matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, the players wanted to end a frustrating season on a strong note. They had lost seven straight heading into Sunday's game, the longest streak in the NFL. With the playoffs no longer part of the picture, the most they could hope for was their first victory in two months.
At the same time, there was some solace that a long season had finally ended, and after months of needing to focus on the task, it was time to start thinking about the future.
The Cowboys were perceived to be the better team at FedExField, and the now-NFC East champions made short work of the Commanders in a 38-10 victory, despite a few exciting moments from the home team along the way. Dak Prescott only had five incompletions for 279 yards and four touchdowns, while his favorite target, CeeDee Lamb, tied a career high with 13 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
The Commanders end the season at 4-13, marking their eighth consecutive non-winning season.
There were a few consolations for the Commanders on Sunday, the biggest being that they have officially received the No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. It is the sixth time they have picked that high in the order, the last time being when they took Chase Young out of Ohio State in 2020. The Commanders will have a shot at selecting one of the top prospects in college football to address several positions, including quarterback -- there are at least three considered worthy of being picked that high -- offensive tackle, wide receiver and more.
When it comes to the current quarterback on the roster, Sam Howell struggled against a talented Cowboys defense, completing 19 of his 27 passes for 153 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. In many ways, it was indicative of how Howell's season had gone overall. There were moments when he looked like he had grown from his first start, also against the Cowboys, nearly a year ago to the day; there were also moments when it seemed like Howell, who was sacked four times, still needs time to develop into one of the league's better quarterbacks.
And yet, Howell's season is the most successful campaign for a Washington quarterback in years. He's the first since Kirk Cousins in 2017 to start an entire season, and his 3,946 yards are the sixth-best single-season performance in franchise history. After the game, Howell described the season as having "a lot of ups and downs."
"It was a tough year, not the year we expected to have, not the year we wanted to have," Howell said. "But with that being said, I think it was one of those things were I've learned a lot. I've grown a lot as a player, as a person, and for that I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders during their Week 18 game against the Dallas Cowboys. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
On an even smaller scale, Terry McLaurin, who entered the game needing 54 yards to surpass 1,000 yards, ended the night with six catches for 56 yards, putting him just over the mark for the fourth consecutive season -- an achievement that no Washington receiver had ever accomplished. At times, it felt like getting McLaurin his yards was more important than the outcome, as several of his teammates had expressed a desire for the captain to reach his goal. McLaurin had to wait until the second-to-last play of the game, when he caught a screen pass and turned it into a 15-yard gain.
"It means a lot to this team, this organization, and he's just such a great person, great teammate, great friend, and he's always had my back throughout this year, and even last year, too," Howell said. "He's just always had my back, and you couldn't ask for a better teammate than Terry McLaurin, so he deserves it."
Like their Thanksgiving matchup with the Cowboys, the Commanders were aggressive, electing to stay on the field for fourth down when their opening drive stalled at the Cowboys' 31-yard line. And like the first game, it didn't yield many results for them. Brian Robinson Jr. was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 conversion attempt, and the Cowboys marched down the field in eight plays and got in the end zone with a three-yard Jalen Tolbert reception.
The Commanders then fumbled on their first play of the following possession, giving Dallas the ball at their own 31-yard line.
Though both sides of the ball struggled to compete in the second half of the season, it's clear that the Commanders were still putting in effort, which has led to things being a little more interesting at the start of games. Jace Whittaker, who joined the practice squad last Tuesday and was elevated to the active roster on Saturday, picked up a blocked field goal attempt and ran it back 66 yards, allowing the Commanders to tie the score seven plays later with a bobbling catch from Robinson.
The Commanders even took the lead in the second quarter. Quan Martin picked off a tipped pass from Prescott, which led to Joey Slye drilling a 36-yard field goal to end a nine-play drive.
But just like in previous Commanders games this season, the Burgundy & Gold had no answer for when their opponent started to put their foot on the pedal. Tony Pollard punched in a one-yard score to retake the lead for the Cowboys, and after an interception from Howell intended for Curtis Samuel, Prescott went 5-of-6 and hit Lamb for a four-yard score to make things 21-10 at halftime.
From that point, it was all Cowboys. They opened the second half with a 12-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in another touchdown from Lamb. Tress Way's punt, his first of the night, was blocked and recovered at the 9-yard line, giving the Cowboys an easy path to put up another seven points -- this time with help from Brandin Cooks.
Howell threw his second interception five plays into the Commanders' next drive, which seemed to finally snuff out Washington's chances of making the score close.
And if there was still any doubt, the 50-yard field goal from Brandon Aubrey, which put the Cowboys up by 28 points, sealed it, leaving Washington just over a minute to run out the clock on the game and the season.