The Dallas Cowboys knew their regular season finale could be significant.
They knew they remained in contention for the NFC East title, playoff games in the field and improved seeding in the games.
They played their starters.
Anyway, they flopped in a 26-6 loss against a Washington Commanders team in his first start of rookie quarterback Sam Howell.
All three phases played below expectations. The woes on offense and special teams proved costly.
“We nurse that all week,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said in the postgame locker room at FedEx Field. “And if that doesn’t make you want to get ready to go in 6-7 days, nothing else.
“This was as thorough a slap in the face as we’ve had this year. And we’ll find out if that gets you ready or not. Supposedly.”
The Cowboys finished their season 12-5 for the second year in a row under head coach Mike McCarthy. But when Dallas hired McCarthy to replace Jason Garrett, Jones primarily didn’t hope for a coach who could navigate the regular season.
He wanted McCarthy to lift a team that hadn’t returned to the NFC Championship, much less the Super Bowl, since the 1995 season. In 13 seasons as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy led nine playoff appearances including a Super Bowl title.
Winning the turnover battle and getting into a rhythm in December were two key principles to McCarthy’s success in Green Bay. The Cowboys lead the league in takeaways but are also 17th in fumbles, Prescott’s 15th interception the most of any quarterback in the league despite missing five games.
Dallas hasn’t lost consecutive games this season. But dropping a game that wide receiver CeeDee Lamb even admitted the Cowboys felt “like we knew we were going to win” exposed flaws in the Cowboys’ current structure.
“It’s disappointing, no doubt,” McCarthy said. “Time is not what you are looking for. I recognize this clearly. But it’s like many things in life: When you get kicked in the ass or punched in the mouth, you get a chance to fight back.
“I have great confidence in our football team that we will respond.”
McCarthy’s job security may depend on it. The Cowboys’ ceiling this year was extremely high, offensive explosions that made 40 points look easy and defensive performances with takeaway difficulty that led them to a relatively early acquisition of a postseason berth.
But recently, questions surround Dallas’ neutralized pass rush, the schematic and blocking challenges that stifle the run game and the reliability of a secondary to rise to the occasion despite injuries. Prescott knows he has to play better and change his decision making to advance to the divisional round.
“It’s a fine line and I’ve got to get better at it,” Prescott said. “Simple as that. This will not continue.”
Jones, also the team’s general manager, said he hopes his Cowboys will use the loss as motivation to focus their attention and sharpen their details ahead of Monday’s wild-card game. evening at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We didn’t rest anyone, so everyone got to bite this apple,” he said feeling the sting of loss.
The Buccaneers defeated the Cowboys 19-3 in the Week 1 opener. Since then they have lost nine games.
And yet: The Bucs will maintain home field advantage, in front of a quarterback in Tom Brady who played the Cowboys seven times in his career and won the seventh.
Danger likely awaits the Cowboys – especially if they play as poorly as they did Sunday in Washington.
Jones eventually sprinkled some of his trademark optimism into his otherwise cautionary postgame remarks.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s not just individually[im’hemmxdubjulib[alatimmhuxbissindividwalmentimmab[alaateam, we can come back and take this nightmare, whatever you want to call it, and turn it into an advantage,” Jones said. “I’m so disappointed for our fans. But now I’m half as disappointed as I would be if I were sitting here this time next week.
“We have something to do and we will empty this bucket this week.”
Follow Jori Epstein of Yahoo Sports on Twitter @JoriEpstein