LANDOVER, Md. — Mike McCarthy guaranteed a win.
He didn’t guarantee it would be pretty.
And so, as the Cowboys began a stretch of four division games in five weeks, they embraced what became a chippy, nearly blown contest against a severely injured Washington team.
“Winning close games is so important,” McCarthy said of the 27-20 decision. “Let’s be honest: If you want to be a playoff team, you want to win in the playoffs and you want to get to your ultimate goals, you have to win those games.
“That’s what division games and playoffs come down to.”
The caliber of play, particularly on offense, far from resembled postseason football. But the defensive splash plays, and even more so the heightened emotions, reminded the NFC East’s top two teams: Bragging rights were on the line.
This was evident on Thursday when McCarthy said he was “confident” that “we’re going to win.” It was evident Friday when owner Jerry Jones doubled down on McCarthy’s proclamation, and Saturday when warming and cooling sideline benches bearing the Cowboys logos were delivered to the sidelines of FedEx Field.
And the stakes were evident Sunday when players and fans alike engaged in skirmishes.
“It is what it is,” said Washington linebacker Chase Holcomb, whose pick-six of Dak Prescott brought the game within one score in the fourth quarter. “It’s Dallas. We hate them. They hate us. They can do what they want.
“I really don’t give a [expletive].”
At times, perhaps, the Cowboys’ feisty energy went too far. Take their second possession of the fourth quarter, when Prescott caught the snap with 10:40 remaining and began weaving through oncoming pressure. He scrambled right while aiming to swat away defensive end Will Bradley-King. Prescott then ran toward the sideline, flinging a throw 10 yards downfield to Amari Cooper before each fell out of bounds.
Bradley-King, already in full-speed pursuit, pushed Prescott on his way toward the sideline. The push was not noticeably rough, later than reasonable in live speed nor toward an off-limits area like Prescott’s head. But the Cowboys sideline was ready to pounce.
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Running back Ezekiel Elliott, whom McCarthy rested all but five carries of the second half as Elliott continues to recover from a knee injury, shoved Bradley-King back on field. From the end’s other side, right tackle La’el Collins engaged. Elliott and Collins continued to exchange shoves, Elliott’s helmet knocked off in the skirmish just as Collins swung a hook at Bradley-King.
Collins was ejected.
“I’m just here to protect my quarterback at all costs, and that’s the bottom line,” Collins said after the game. “You don’t take cheap shots on guys. We don’t play that type of game. We just line it up and go out there and play ball. We don’t play dirty, we don’t do none of that.
“At the end of the day, we’re not going to take no [expletive].”
Collins’ teammates embraced the fighting spirit, Prescott thanking Collins during and after the game. The instincts reflected teammates’ willingness to protect and stand up for their “brother,” Prescott said. McCarthy initially endorsed the emotion before learning a punch was thrown, which he clarified didn’t demonstrate the discipline the team needs.
But while Prescott viewed Collins’ and Elliott’s sideline behavior as an indication of brotherhood and loyalty, he understood his offense didn’t offer that same reliability on the field. For a second consecutive game, Prescott said “credit the defense” for this win. He praised how they nabbed an interception after Prescott’s initial swiped pass in the first quarter, giving him a chance to engineer the Cowboys’ lone touchdown drive a mere three snaps after he coughed it up.
And Prescott appreciated how his defense forced and recovered its third fumble of the day after he not only gifted Holcomb with the pick-six but also failed to gain a first down right after, Washington lining up trailing 27-20 with just over 3 minutes to play. On a day when the offense failed to emerge from its slump, the defense again bailed them out to the tune of four takeaways, a touchdown, five sacks and eight total quarterback hits.
“Even when I throw the terrible interception and they run it back, there’s no flinch in this team (that) we’re going to come out with a win,” Prescott said. “I think that just shows our resiliency and who we are in the midst of a tough division game when we didn’t necessarily put the nail in the coffin when we had the chances.
“When the offense turns the ball over, for them to go back out and get turnovers, says the belief they have in the(m)selves and that they’ve instilled in this team. … They’re playing lights-out.”
The Cowboys offense will look to play lights-out next week at the Giants before hosting Washington for the flip of the division round-robin schedule the following game. Prescott’s eager to channel his frustration into improved decision-making and fundamentals, saying Sunday the shortcomings — Dallas’ passing game, run game and protection all demonstrated clear deficiencies — will be easier to work through in the wake of a win.
McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl in Green Bay, has said he views 10 wins as the threshold for seriously considering and discussing playoff hopes. The Cowboys could reach that bar next week if they top the 4-9 Giants. Their playoff chances already surpass 99%, per stats cruncher FiveThirtyEight, the Cowboys’ three-game lead in the division giving them a 95% chance to win the NFC East per FiveThirtyEight’s model.
But simply making the playoffs is not the goal for a team that began 2021 at 6-1 after awarding Prescott a $160 million contract in March. The Cowboys saw what their high-octane offense was capable of earlier this year, Prescott’s 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio before the team’s bye a far cry from his 4:5 stint the last four games.
The Cowboys’ overperforming defense features the league’s leader in interceptions (Trevon Diggs, nine) while now boasting three dangerous pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons. McCarthy and Prescott led the charge of players who insisted their determination to rediscover offensive rhythm has not muted their confidence.
That’s why McCarthy insisted ahead of time his team would win at Washington. The Cowboys believe their winning trend will continue, warts and all.
“We’re a confident bunch,” Prescott said. “I’m confident. I know this defense is confident, this offense is confident and obviously our coach is confident. That’s why he said that.
“I guarantee you we care a whole lot more than the outside world about what we’re doing. I know I do. I know the guys on the field and coaches do. All of this we can get better and learn from, and it’s much better to do that in a winning setting.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.