Redskins.com's Andrew Walker breaks down the key players and matchups to keep an eye on during Sunday's Redskins-Cowboys 2014 Week 17 showdown at FedExField.
"Redskins-Cowboys: 4 Keys To The Game" is presented by Papa John's. Every Monday, fans can order a large cheese pizza for only $9.99, plus for each touchdown that the Redskins score, fans get one free topping. And with a Redskins victory, fans get double the toppings.
THEIR BEST SHOT[
Unfortunately, the Washington Redskins on Sunday won't experience the thrill of knocking a division rival out of the playoff hunt for a second straight week.
Their opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, clinched the NFC East Division crown last Sunday, when they defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 42-7, in Arlington, Texas. Thanks to that win — and the Redskins' 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles the previous day in Landover, Md. — Philadelphia's playoff hopes were dashed.
So even though the Cowboys have a playoff appearance wrapped up, it doesn't mean they're taking their foot off the accelerator in their regular-season finale — or so their head coach says.
"There is something on the line," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett told reporters this week after being asked why he was going to play his starters on Sunday. "The outcome of our game matters in certain scenarios, and we just believe in practicing and playing and getting ready to go play in the playoffs. I think we've played well the last month or so and are excited about this opportunity against the Redskins on Sunday."
The Cowboys come into the Week 17 matchup on fire, having won three games in a row and five of their last six. Their offense over that six-game span has averaged more than 32 points per game.
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden knows how important momentum can be for a team heading into the playoffs.
"You prepare for the Cowboys and you expect to play their best," he said. "You expect Dez Bryant and Tony Romo. You expect DeMarco Murray, you expect all their guys, and they have got a lot of them."
If you're Washington, you're hoping a lopsided score in your favor at some point in the game forces Garrett to choose to remove his starters, anyway.
Few gave the Redskins' offensive line a chance Dec. 20, when they went up against an opportunistic Eagles defense, which came into the game ranked second in the league in sacks.
Up to that point, Washington's line had allowed 53 sacks — the second most in the NFL.
But with a little better execution — and a confident, quick-thinking quarterback under center — the Redskins came away from their game against Philadelphia having allowed just two sacks. The performance snapped a streak of six consecutive games in which a Redskins quarterback had been sacked at least five times.
"Our tight ends were asked to stay in a couple of times, our backs hung in there, but overall I think the five offensive linemen that played did a great job," Gruden said.
The first-year head coach said being in the game — and, in turn, being able to unleash their running attack — also helped matters for the offensive line against the Eagles.
"We were in pretty good down and distances," he said. "We had a couple third and longs that we were very close to converting, couple third and shorts but we stayed in the game and we stayed pretty much ahead of the sticks pretty much the whole night, which enabled the pass protection to be solid and kept the defense off-balance."
On Sunday against the Cowboys, Gruden hopes to continue the theme of keeping quarterback Robert Griffin III clean, especially considering he suffered a minor sprain to his throwing shoulder against the Eagles.
"I don't think it's a serious deal, but if it affects throwing then it could be an issue," Gruden told reporters Wednesday. "But right now we are just taking it very precautionary and making sure we get him rest and hopefully he will be ready to go Friday."
RATTLE ROMO — AGAIN
While the Redskins obviously want to protect their own quarterback on Sunday, their defense will try to replicate its Week 8 performance in which they were harassing the Cowboys' signal caller throughout the night.
Led by a blitz-happy approach from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the Redskins came away from Arlington, Texas, that night with five sacks to go along with several other quarterback hurries, even temporarily knocking Romo out of the game with a back injury.
After the game, Haslett said he was proud with the way the Redskins — playing with multiple rookies and first-year contributors — executed what he admitted was an "over the top" game plan.
"Going into the game, we had a plan. Nobody wanted to do it based on personnel groupings and who was into the game," he said. "Then we just got into it and kept running the stuff. The guys were good with it. They mixed things up and they kind of were into it in the game so we just kept going with it."
Haslett said he felt good about the aggressive plan that week, as he goes into each matchup creating an attack "based on who we're playing, protections, what type of [team] we're playing."
"It was all the coaches [that] did a nice job getting the gameplan together for the team, and then obviously the players executing the plan and we just did a good job with it," he said.
Not taking that Redskins game into consideration, the Cowboys' offensive line has been solid throughout the 2014 season, as their 51 quarterback hits allowed is tied for the third fewest in the league.
With a few new faces in the mix on defense for Washington, it'll be interesting to see how they attack Romo and the Dallas offense on Sunday.
Simply put, the 2014 season hasn't gone to plan for the Redskins. Even after considering the barrage of injuries or troubles with execution Washington experienced week after week, nobody within the organization during the preseason would've predicted the Redskins would have four wins going into their last game of the season.
From an outsider's perspective, one might wonder: is there really a difference between finishing the season 4-12 or 5-11? Other than potentially moving up or down a spot or two in the draft order, if you're the Redskins, is there really anything to play for Sunday at FedExField?
The answer to that question is an unequivocal "yes."
First, consider the Redskins fans. In a season in which there hasn't been much to brag about, a season sweep over the Cowboys — during a season in which Dallas had one of its most successful performances in years — would be a huge accomplishment. Often, fans tell players, "If you're not going to make the playoffs, then do one thing for me: beat Dallas." So, after playing a huge part in knocking the Philadelphia Eagles out of the playoff hunt, the Redskins — with a win on Sunday — could send their rivals into the playoffs on a sour note.
Secondly, the Redskins' players, coaches and front office personnel — each of whom have worked so hard throughout the season — could draw a little something from the momentum of a season-ending win and sweep over the Cowboys.
Now, that's not to say that the victory over the Eagles Dec. 20 hasn't already gone a long way. But, if you're one to buy into momentum — and there's many of those types of people within the team facility in Loudoun County, Va. — then a win on Sunday could certainly do lots of good heading into the offseason.
A look back at some of the top images in games between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
"You just want to have something positive to go into the offseason with," Griffin III said. "Everybody wants to win their last game of the year, whether it's the Super Bowl or it's the last game of the season for you because you're not going to the playoffs. The way we approach it is this is our last game. We want to go off into our offseason on a good note."
But before the Redskins can get going on their offseason plans, they have one more game, one more opponent to worry about.
"We just want to get a win," Griffin III said. "I know our fans really want this game, our players want this game, and that's what it comes down to. It's another opportunity to go out there and get a victory. That's all that matters."
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