- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2021

LANDOVER — Cole Holcomb was asked about the lead-up — the victory guarantee from Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, the trash-talking from owner Jerry Jones and even the opposing sideline benches that were flown in and featured the logo of the Washington Football Team’s most-hated rival. This is the linebacker’s third year in the NFL, but he hadn’t quite experienced the Washington-Dallas rivalry like this. 

None of that mattered, Holcomb said. He was focused solely on the frustration of Sunday’s result on the field: A 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

“They can do what they want,” Holcomb shrugged. “I really don’t give a (crap).”

Sunday was a strange day for Washington. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke got hurt and couldn’t finish. The Burgundy and Gold, after getting blown out for most of the afternoon, suddenly found themselves in a one-score contest with less than five minutes left. And despite failing to gain ground on the Cowboys in the NFC East, 6-7 Washington maintained its hold on a playoff spot.

But whether Holcomb and his teammates cared to admit it or not, Sunday had a lot to say about where Washington stands in its long-standing rivalry with the Cowboys. After sweeping last year’s two games, Washington had the chance to win three straight against Dallas for the first time in more than 30 years. 

Washington coach Ron Rivera talked all week about the need for fans to show up at FedEx Field — and they did. Yet, when Heinicke went down, the crowd initially cheered because the Cowboys recorded a sack. 

There aren’t too many stadiums that cheer when the home quarterback is dragged down — but that’s FedEx Field. With Washington drawing a season-high crowd of 61,308, the majority in attendance were decked in Dallas’ blue and white. 

Washington missed a chance to make a statement on its home field. Even if that home field wasn’t an advantage.

“I feel like I let them down,” Rivera said, adding later, “Even though there were a few more Dallas fans than I would’ve liked, it was good to hear our folks.”

The Washington contingent came alive when Holcomb picked off Dak Prescott with 4:13 left and returned the interception for a 36-yard touchdown. The buzz in the building grew even louder after Washington’s defense made an ensuing stop, giving the offense an opportunity to engineer a possible game-tying (or perhaps even game-winning) drive. 

But as it was for most of the afternoon, Washington‘s offensive unit was maddeningly ineffective. Kyle Allen, Heinicke’s replacement, fumbled on third and 3 in the team’s own territory — handing possession over to the Cowboys, who ran out the clock over the final two-plus minutes. 

Neither Allen nor Heinicke was particularly effective against the Cowboys. Washington fell behind early and got away from the run-heavy game plan that fueled the team’s four-game winning streak.

With Dallas surging to an 18-0 lead in the first quarter, the Burgundy and Gold often abandoned the run and when it did go back to it, the backs largely went nowhere. Running back Antonio Gibson finished with 10 carries and 36 yards.

Forced to pass, Washington’s offense faltered. Heinicke was just 11 of 25 for 122 yards, a touchdown and an interception — his lone highlight coming on a 43-yard bomb to Cam Sims in the third quarter. Allen, appearing in his first regular-season game since last year’s ankle injury, wasn’t much better as he went 4 of 9 for 53 yards. 

Rivera said Heinicke would remain the starter as long as he’s healthy. Heinicke said afterward it was his elbow — not his knee — that bothered him over the course of the game.  The quarterback said his knee was fine and he should be ready for next week’s game in Philadelphia.

“We just have to keep responding,” Heinicke said. 

During its win streak, Washington’s identity centered around establishing a physical presence up front, but against the Cowboys, the team was unable to control the trenches.

Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons accounted for two of Dallas’ four sacks, including stripping Heinicke for a fumble returned for a touchdown. Dallas forced four turnovers.

On defense, Washington was without its top four edge rushers. Chase Young tore his ACL last month and in recent days, Montez Sweat, James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill were added to the COVID-19 reserve list. Toohill was the latest addition, placed on the list hours before kickoff.

The Cowboys didn’t carve up Washington’s defense — Prescott threw for only 211 yards and had two interceptions — but they did what Washington had done to teams for the past month: Control time of possession. 

Dallas held a near nine-minute advantage, while Washington was forced to punt after failing to convert on a handful of third and longs.

“We didn’t capitalize,” Rivera said.

If there was a silver lining, it’s that Washington gets to face the Cowboys again in two weeks — a day after Christmas. Washington was able to climb back and make the game competitive, perhaps a suggestion a rematch won’t be as one-sided as it was for much of Sunday afternoon.

For now, the Cowboys have reclaimed bragging rights and in the process ballooned their lead in the division to three games.

“It’s Dallas,” Holcomb said. “They hate us. We hate them.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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