Reporting David Elfin
The oddsmakers favor the not-so-long-ago reeling Redskins to beat the Cowboys and win their first NFC East title of the millennium on Sunday night in Landover. After all, Washington is the NFL’s hottest team with six straight victories while Dallas is a more down-to-earth 4-2 during that stretch.
But even with their post-Election Day tear, the Redskins are just 20-27 since Mike Shanahan became their coach in 2010. The Cowboys are only 22-25 over that same span, 21-18 since Jason Garrett was promoted from offensive coordinator at midseason 2010. And Garrett is 3-1 against Shanahan despite Washington’s 38-31 survival on Thanksgiving Day at Dallas.
The Cowboys are 4-3 on the road, having beaten the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and playoff-bound Cincinnati. The Redskins are 4-3 at home, losing to mediocre Carolina in their last game before beginning their remarkable renaissance in Week 11.
Dallas has more starters (nine) who have been part of a victorious playoff team with stars on their helmets than Washington has players (seven) who have been part of a team that even reached postseason wearing the burgundy and gold.
Only 10 coaches in NFL history have won more games than the 60-year-old Shanahan’s 174 (including two Super Bowls, but just one playoff victory in his 12 full seasons since). Garrett, 46, has yet to win a really big game, losing the final two contests of 2011 to miss out on a chance at a 10-6 season and a postseason berth.
Led by rookie standouts Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III, Washington leads the NFL in rushing. Dallas is just 17th against the run.
Led by veteran quarterback Tony Romo and his trifecta of terrific targets, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are third in passing. The Redskins have the third-worst pass defense.
Griffin is second in passing, first in average gain and tied for the fewest interceptions. Romo is third in yards but tied for 26th in interceptions.
Despite losing top pass rusher Brian Orakpo for the year in Week 2, Washington has 30 sacks while allowing 32. Orakpo’s replacement, Rob Jackson, has combined with fellow starting outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan for 13 sacks. Their Dallas counterparts, All Pro DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer have 21.5 between them but the rest of the Cowboys have just 11.5. Dallas’ offense has allowed 34.
Shanahan attributes much of Washington’s turnaround to the return of No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon from a lingering foot injury. Garcon’s 30 catches, 439 yards and three touchdowns the last five games have indeed made the free agent signee “a difference-maker.” However, Bryant has been a game-changer for Dallas with 31 catches, 576 yards and eight (count ‘em, eight) touchdowns during those same five weeks.
Redskins newcomer Kai Forbath has set an NFL record by making the first 17 field goal attempts of his career, but Cowboys second-year kicker Dan Bailey has been almost as deadly, nailing 28 of 30 attempts.
Dallas is better on third downs. Washington is better in the red zone. The Redskins have superior coverage teams and rank fifth against the run while the Cowboys are second-to-last in rushing.
Griffin, left tackle Trent Williams and special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander were chosen this week to represent the Redskins in the Pro Bowl. Only Witten and Ware were picked (by Bryant wasn’t somehow) to represent the Cowboys.
Ten of the last 12 Washington-Dallas games have been decided by no more than one score, including all five contests since Shanahan became part of “America’s Rivalry.” The Redskins are 6-5 in such nail-biters this year, including their seven-point victory at Dallas. The Cowboys are 7-5.
If, as Shanahan — like so many coaches — preaches, turnovers are the most important statistic, then the Redskins can look forward to their first home playoff game since 1999 next weekend since Washington’s plus-14 turnover ratio is tied for third while Dallas is 25th at minus-10.
A Cowboys triumph wouldn’t be part of a terrific tale, but a Redskins victory would continue one of the best stories of this NFL season and provide the franchise with its biggest highlight in the stadium since the first-round victory over Detroit in January 2000.
Since then, Dallas fans have celebrated the Mavericks winning an NBA championship and two Western Conference titles, the Rangers reaching consecutive World Series, the Stars advancing to the Stanley Cup finals and even the Cowboys capturing a playoff victory.
Washingtonians relished the Nats winning the National League East this fall, but they lost right off the bat in postseason as the Caps (three triumphs in 11 playoff series dating to 2000), Wizards (just one in five tries) and Redskins (one postseason victory since that conquest of the Lions), usually do.
Romo and Co. have had plenty of chances to make some postseason noise. It’s time for RGIII to seize his first opportunity.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin