New names, faces and one strange goal put twist on classic Dallas-Washington rivalry game

There may come a time when a better draft position is all you have, but that time in the NFC East isn’t now.

The late Lamar Hunt used to complain loudly (well, as loud as he was ever going to get) about the Cowboys’ built-in advantage that came with hosting games every Thanksgiving. No one squawks about it any more.

The Cowboys host Washington for the 10th time on the holiday game — adding a bizarre new page to the storied rivalry which we will get to momentarily — and their record on these special Thursday affairs is 31-20-1. That’s sound enough, although when you realize they started out 14-3-1, you can at least see where the former Kansas City owner’s complaints were formulated.

I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but ever since 1986 — the year David Moore and I became Cowboys beat writers and the launching pad for our seminal coverage of these events — the home team’s record is 17-17. Point fingers if you must, but I prefer to engage recency bias and say only that Jason Garrett was 4-6 as head coach on Thanksgiving.

Regardless, there’s no real home-field advantage in a COVID world, anyway. NFC teams are 40-39-1 and, believe it or not, NFC North home teams have a worse record than NFC East home teams although both sport losing marks. Washington completely dismantled Dallas a month ago, 25-3, knocking Andy Dalton out of the game on a dirty hit from linebacker Jon Bostic that was not deemed suspension-worthy by the league probably because the quarterback helped from the field didn’t generate a big enough headline.

The Cowboys seek revenge at 3:30 p.m. Thursday for that loss, that hit or simply because (gulp) a glimpse of first place is at stake for a pair of 3-7 teams that are especially thankful for the softness of their division. Put it this way. Of the 12 NFC teams not in the East, 11 of them would be in first place. And the 3-7 Atlanta Falcons would find themselves in the same position as Dallas, Washington and New York, reaching up toward the perch of those 3-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles for the rights to a home playoff game.

I know some of you don’t even want the Cowboys to win this game. There might be something more hopelessly cynical than the desire to tank for draft positions at the first sign of trouble in all sports these days, but nothing comes to mind. When you consider that the 0-10 New York Jets are all in on winning the Trevor Lawrence Derby and that there are 16 teams with records of 4-6 or worse around the league, trying to position your team for a brighter future through repeated losing efforts in 2020 is a specious pursuit to begin with. There might come a time where it’s all you have, but that time in the East isn’t now.

There’s a prize out there for some lucky NFC East team, and Dallas and Washington figure it might as well be theirs. As Mike McCarthy and Ron Rivera meet for the first time in this Thanksgiving game — the first time Dallas and Washington have ushered in new head coaches the same season since Norv Turner and Barry Switzer in 1994 — maybe it’s fitting that this feels like the start of a long climb back toward the kind of warfare these two franchises produced a generation ago.

You’re all too familiar with the details, no matter which side of this rivalry is yours. The two teams won eight of the first 30 Super Bowls and represented the conference in 13 of them. Good grief, that’s just short of half. And yet, barring the miracle of all miracles, this season will mark 25 years since the Cowboys’ last visit to an NFC title game, 29 years for Washington.

With the Old West imagery gone from this battle as the Washington Football Team brings its generic moniker to town, it only makes sense that this new McCarthy-Rivera rivalry must start from the ground up. As McCarthy said recently, he used to talk about playoffs when Green Bay got to 10 wins. Now it’s a race to be the first to four in the NFC East and, as silly as that sounds, it’s the only battle these teams have to wage.

NFL teams start every season with the goal of winning their division. Maybe the Brady/Belichick Patriots aimed slightly higher but, for 31 other teams, with the wild-card route representing a more dangerous means of postseason travel, that division title is the thing.

No one had Alex Smith or Andy Dalton leading their teams to division glory in their preseason predictions for 2020. It has been one strange year. Be thankful we have any games to watch at all and enjoy whatever the Cowboys and the FT can give us on this holiday.


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