LANDOVER, Md. – The majority of Monday night’s football game between Dallas and Washington, was a microcosm of a few well-established themes.
The home team continued to struggle attempting to play well in back-to-back games. The visitors continued to look lost with their star quarterback nursing a broken collar bone. The officials continued to make themselves a way-too-visible part of the game.
And the NFC East continued to resemble an ugly pile-up involving four dilapidated jalopies on a highway full of potholes.
Then the fourth quarter began and something that resembled a good, exciting football game emerged. The late flurry of action resulted in a lead change, a tie, another lead change, a tie with 44 seconds remaining and finally – unfortunately for the hosts – one last lead change with nine seconds left.
Dan Bailey’s 54-yard field goal gave Dallas a 19-16 victory, costing Washington an opportunity at sole possession of first place in the NFL’s sorriest division.
The contest ended the way it felt for most of the evening, a downer. Fans were worked up entering the game, a nationally-televised matchup against the hated rival, with much at stake for a change. But the product was buzzkill for three quarters, reminding everyone that these teams, like their division mates, are far from must-see TV.
A 3-3 halftime score began a 6-6 score entering the last quarter. There were more penalties (15) at that juncture than combined points. Neither team had cracked 200 yards of total offense. Dallas star wideout Dez Bryant hadn’t caught a single pass and Washington punter Tress Way was his team’s MVP.
Yet, even after the loss, Washington finds itself in a three-way tie for first at 5-7.
“The records aren’t good, but they’re good teams” coach Jay Gruden said. “There’s a lot of talent on these football teams that we’re playing, I promise you that. We’re all in a division where we’re 5-7 and we still have a lot to play for. It’s exciting down the stretch and that’s the way the NFC East is going to be, whether we’re 12-0 or 4-12.”
He has a point, although considering his team’s 0-5 road record and its consistent up-and-down, up-and-down performances, Monday didn’t create much hope among the faithful. This was Washington’s chance to make an emphatic statement, put some distance between itself and Philadelphia and the New York Giants. And even Dallas, for that matter, which is one game back.
Dustin Hopkins’ 46-yard field goal gave Washington its second and final lead, 9-6, just 45 seconds into the last quarter. Bryant came to life, laying out to make a spectacular grab down the left sideline under tight coverage, setting up a tying field goal. The home team was set to embark on a game-winning drive when DeSean Jackson tried too hard to make a play, yielding 20 yards on a punt return before fumbling with 1:26 left.
After Dallas scored a go-ahead touchdown seconds later, Jackson partially redeemed himself by toasting Morris Claiborne for a 28-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining. But Dallas took the ensuing kickoff and drove 20 yards to set up the decisive kick.
Twenty points in the final 4:22 turned a snoozer into a barn-burner. But the outburst didn’t obscure the facts about where Washington stands. The game merely highlighted the deficiencies, inconsistencies and bad tendencies that have plagued this team since the season began.
“It’s the little things,” cornerback Will Blackmon said. “You see the games are tight. Four or five plays will change the game every week for us, whether it’s on a positive end or a negative end.”
As has been the case following wins, there was not enough of one and too much of the other. Bryant was held in check, except for his three catches for 62 yards in the fourth quarter. Washington forced three turnovers, but got netted just three points. The usually reliable Hopkins missed a 43-yarder that would’ve put his team ahead midway through the fourth quarter.
“Tough losses are not foreign to us and close wins aren’t foreign to us,” quarterback Kirk Cousin said. You kind of expect it to be an up and down deal all the time.”
Truth be told, not much ascension was expected this season. But it’s easy to get greedy when playing with house money and there’s more right in front of you, ready to be taken. Washington still has hopes in the division and an 8-8 record. Mediocrity would be welcomed enthusiastically after the last two years of putridness.
“The fact of the matter is we have four games left and everything in our goals is still reachable,” Gruden said. “We just have to play better and do a better job.”
Them and the rest of the division. If misery loves company, these teams have nothing to complain about. Because it’s crowded at the top – lowly as it is.