- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

November shows up just after the Dallas Cowboys do Sunday, amplifying what the afternoon’s installment of a decades-long feud will mean by the end of this season.

Washington careens in at 3-3, recent losers in Philadelphia, which has delivered two of its losses. Dallas is also a middling curiosity at 3-3 heading into its game with the Redskins at FedEx Field on Sunday.

A look down the line shows why their should be an emphasis beyond the norm Sunday. It’s a division game, so it already carries extra weight. It’s the Cowboys, self-explanatory there. But, coming along in the second half of the season is a second game in Dallas between these teams. If the Cowboys repeat their series sweep of a season ago, Washington’s odds of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season grow exponentially. If the Redskins win Sunday, Dallas is suddenly 3-4, looking at a remaining schedule that still has Philadelphia twice, a trip to Oakland, a visit from Kansas City and a tussle with the suddenly surging Seattle Seahawks.

“These division games are always tough, we know each other’s skills so well,” Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott said Wednesday.

Elliott will be there Sunday, as he has each game week this season despite an August suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Elliott was suspended after the league concluded that he had several physical altercations with his girlfriend. Since, his case, pitting the NFL Players’ Association against the league, has staggered through the legal system in two states while Elliott has racked up yards. Last week was the best performance of his career. He finished with 219 total yards. An injunction hearing is scheduled for Oct. 30, one day after he tries to ram through the Washington defense.

After providing a staid answer about preparing week by week during a Wednesday conference call with Washington reporters, Elliott bristled at a follow-up question on the topic.

“I agreed to do this call so I could talk about football and the season,” Elliott said. “I’m not going to do the whole conference [call] about that. I’m not talking about that no more.”

The Cowboys at least know, for one more week, who is running the ball for them. Washington cannot say the same.

The stops and starts of its running game have persisted into the middle of the year. Rookie Samaje Perine leads the Redskins in carries, though his role hit a season-low Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. He did not carry the ball.

Instead, Rob Kelley was the sort-of featured sidekick to multi-faceted Chris Thompson. Kelley ran seven times in the game. He gained 16 yards, or the equivalent of eight Rob Kelley’s laid end to end.

“I’ve got nothing against Samaje,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s not like we’re punishing him or anything like that. First half, we tried to get Rob [Kelley] going. In some of our other packages, Chris [Thompson] is our main guy and in the second half we’re in a lot of three-receiver sets and Chris is the main guy for pass protection and routes out of the backfield.

“Unfortunately in the second half, we were 10-10 with three minutes to go in the half and, really, I think that drive was the one that really hurt us the most. We had second-down-and-four, I tried a little one-back power, we got stopped for a two-yard gain, then we had third-down-and-two and failed to convert and we punted. The next time we got the ball to start the third quarter, we’re down 24-10 and that kind of took us out of our game plan a little bit and we had to play catch-up.”

That was against the Eagles, the league’s second-most troublesome defense to run against. Dallas resides in the middle of the pack against the run. So, maybe, it’s a week that will enable the Redskins to find a window for that aspect of the offense. At this rate, Gruden, who resumed play-calling duties this season, is in a tussle with results and a pursuit of balance. Washington was seventh last season in pass attempts. It is all the way down to 28th this season. Things like score, personnel and opponent influence attempts. Still, it’s a dramatic reduction in throwing the ball despite mediocre rushing results.

In part, ongoing receiver questions are to blame. Washington did not re-sign Pierre Garcon nor DeSean Jackson in the offseason. In were second-year receiver Josh Doctson and former quarterback Terrelle Pryor, both projects, both playing the same position. Monday against the Eagles, Pryor, who was supposed to provide many of the large and round numbers that Garcon and Jackson did in earlier years, was rarely on the field. Gruden opted to use Doctson more often.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s about the team, number one, and they have to control what they can control,” Gruden said. “If they’re in there for 10 plays, 30 plays or 60 plays, they have to play their best football and we’ll adjust as a team and try to get the best players out there.”

Being not quite right is the typical situation for any .500 team. Dallas lost two close games before a get-well win last week against the hapless San Francisco 49ers. Washington’s 2-1 start suggested it may be better than expected. A 1-2 stretch followed the next three weeks, then was topped with a scoop of lard when Monday night’s loss also produced a bevy of injuries across the offensive line. The Redskins did not practice Wednesday, but are mandated by the league to distribute an injury report which would approximate participation if they had. Center Spencer Long, right guard Brandon Scherff and Pro-Bowl left tackle Trent Williams were also listed as did not participate. Right tackle Morgan Moses fell under “limited.”

Remaining for the now ailing Redskins is a run against opponents that are 30-35, at this point, a record skewed by two waiting games with the woeful New York Giants. Remove New York’s combined 2-12 influence on the remaining schedule and Washington’s future opponents are 28-23.

Dallas has more daunting foes ahead. Their remaining opponents are a combined 37-29, thanks in part to home-and-road games with 6-1 Philadelphia still remaining. Even two games against teams .500 or less are more challenging than the records suggest. Dallas travels to face the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons (3-3) in Week 10 and to Oakland (3-4) in Week 15.

That makes Sunday all the more crucial for both parties. Legacy already has the game as one the jumped out in the schedule. The current situation makes it a midseason matchup that will push one team on a much clearer path toward the playoffs and perhaps, by the end, the other out.

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