Ah, meaningful December football. There’s nothing quite like it. The weather has turned (anyone catch Patriots-Bills on Monday?), and most every team is looking to help itself — and get help from others — as the playoff races tighten.
One month ago, the Cowboys visiting Washington in mid-December didn’t look like a game that would have playoff implications for both teams. Dallas was 6-2 and Washington was 2-6. Dallas was surging thanks to Dak Prescott’s strong return from last year’s season-ending injury. Washington, meanwhile, was still reeling from losing Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 1 — Taylor Heinicke hadn’t found his groove yet — and the defense had been a major disappointment.
Fast forward to Week 14 and Washington’s four straight victories represent the longest active winning streak in the NFC while Dallas has lost two of its last three. Washington is still an underdog, but there are some areas it can take advantage of on both sides of the ball. The same holds true for Dallas as it looks to create some separation in the division.
How to watch
Date: Sunday, Dec. 12 | Time: 1 p.m. ETLocation: FedExField (Landover, Md.)TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)Follow: CBS Sports AppOdds: Football Team +4.5, O/U 48
When Washington has the ball …
Washington hasn’t discovered some sort of magic touch offensively during its winning streak. Rather, it has simply done a better job doing the basic things correctly. Washington’s offense leads the NFL in third-down conversion rate (50%) during its winning streak and, in turn, also leads the league in average time of possession (37:36) over that span.
Heinicke has been a major reason behind those stats. Check out his third-down numbers before and during the current four-game winning streak:
Taylor Heinicke On Third Down This Season
1st 8 Games
Last 4 Games
Yards per attempt
1st-down conversion rate
That final row really stands out. Over the past four weeks, 22 quarterbacks have dropped back to pass at least 30 times on third down. Only two have not been sacked: Heinicke and Tom Brady.
So, how can Dallas stop an undersized, unheralded journeyman from being mentioned in the same sentence as the GOAT? It may seem counterintuitive, but the answer has been “Don’t blitz.” Over the last four weeks, when blitzed on third down, Heinicke has a passer rating of 142.9, second in the league behind Kirk Cousins. When he hasn’t been blitzed, that drops number to 90.4.
Heinicke actually appears more decisive when blitzed: Over the last four weeks on third down, he’s getting the ball out in an average of 2.63 seconds when blitzed compared to 3.45 seconds when not blitzed. Here’s an example of him getting the ball out early for a score against, you guessed it, the blitz:
And here’s an example earlier in the season in which Buffalo generates pressure without blitzing and Heinicke holds the ball before getting intercepted.
The Cowboys have generated pressure on over 28 percent of opponents’ dropbacks when not blitzing this season, good for ninth in the NFL. Their ability to do so Sunday will be a major factor in this game.
When Dallas has the ball …
Can Washington generate any pressure on Dak Prescott? This season, Prescott has thrived when not pressured.
Dak Prescott This Season When Not Pressured
Completions of 20+ yards
This could be an issue for Washington, who lost Chase Young for the season four weeks ago and will be without Montez Sweat, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is unvaccinated. While Washington has improved in many areas during its four-game winning streak, pressuring the opposing quarterback is not one of them: The team’s 28% pressure rate over the last four weeks ranks 20th in the NFL, and its 3.7% sack rate is 25th.
A second trend that has emerged since Washington’s bye is its switch to almost exclusively zone coverage. Over the last month, Washington has run zone on an astounding 86% of opponent dropbacks, the highest rate in the league. Even if Prescott’s jersey remains clean most of the afternoon, that zone defense could be tough to solve based on his performance this year.
Dak Prescott This Season
vs Zone Coverage
vs Man Coverage
Prescott could look to attack Washington’s zone in the middle of the field. This season, the Dallas QB has averaged 10.8 yards per attempt on between-the-hashes throws against zone, his highest of any area. Meanwhile, Washington is allowing 9.9 yards per attempt on those exact throws, 24th in the NFL.
Take Prescott’s perfect throw to Amari Cooper last week against the Saints:
This year, Prescott has a 114.8 passer rating when targeting Cooper against zone coverage, the second-best of any of his teammates behind Dalton Schultz. With Cooper another week removed from his battle with COVID-19, he could be in line for a big day.
After an impressive win over Cincinnati last week, the Chargers can’t afford a letdown against the Giants. Meanwhile, the Broncos are coming off a disappointing prime-time loss to the Chiefs and facing a Lions team that just earned its first win. If Denver wants to get its playoff hopes back on track, it needs a victory.
Here’s how both AFC playoff contenders can take care of business.
ChargersLet Justin Herbert be Justin Herbert. Against the Bengals, Herbert’s average throw went 10.7 yards downfield, his highest mark this season. He had five completions at least 20 yards downfield, the most in his career. The Giants rank 27th in pressure rate this year and have allowed 19 completions of at least 20 yards downfield this season, above the league average. If he has time to throw — and he should — Herbert can be aggressive downfield in a game his team will be heavily favored to win.
BroncosIt’s past time to figure out those red zone woes. The Broncos have scored a touchdown on just 53% of their red zone drives this season, 27th in the NFL The Lions’ defense, however, is even worse at defending in the red zone, allowing a touchdown on 71% of opponents’ trips — 29th in the NFL. The Denver defense shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the Detroit offense, but if Teddy Bridgewater and Co. settle for field goals, things could get dicey in the Mile High City.