Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tony Gutierrez/AP/Shutterstock (13488843z) Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott looks downfield during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, in Arlington, Texas Lions Cowboys Football, Arlington, United States – 23 Oct 2022
Game preview: Dallas Cowboys vs. Houston Texans
Dallas Cowboys (9-3) vs. Houston Texans (1-10-1)
Game time: Sunday, noon CST
TV/radio: FOX/Cowboys: SiriusXM 226, 105.3 The Fan, KVMK 107.5 La Grande, Texans: SiriusXM 381, KILT-AM 610, KILT-FM 100.3, KLOL 101.1FM (Spanish)
What’s at stake for the Cowboys: A win and the Cowboys continue to stay within striking distance of the NFC East title and a home playoff game. So, what could be a “trap game” against a team with just one victory in 12 games should be far from that with all the Cowboys have on the line with just five weeks to go in the regular season. A loss could all but eliminate them from winning a divisional crown and put them on the road come the postseason.
What’s at stake for the Texans: Pride and the Texas Governor’s Cup (well, in theory anyway, the cup itself is missing, according to a report from the Dallas Morning News). An upset victory over the Cowboys would actually give the Texans something to be proud of in what has turned into another lost season for Houston.
The Houston Texans are in full evaluation and teaching mode, with the league’s worst record, and are in line for the top overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
When the Cowboys have the ball: It should be more of the same for an offense that has returned to its high-scoring form of 2021 since the return of quarterback Dak Prescott from injury in Week 7. In the six games since the Cowboys are averaging 37.2 points per game while scoring over 40 points in half those contests. With the return of wide receiver James Washington, and possibly Tyron Smith, who returned to practice this week, the Cowboys are one player (guard/center Matt Farniok) away from being completely healthy on the two-deep. That should cause all kinds of problems for a 26th-ranked Texans defense, that is currently dead last against the run. That should set up perfectly for what the Cowboys like to do, run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to set up Prescott and the passing game.
When the Texans have the ball: Davis Mills reclaims his role as the Texans starting quarterback, and he gets perhaps the worst possible situation in which to return. The Texans will be without their top two wide receivers, as Brandin Cooks (calf) and Nico Collins (foot) will not play. Chris Moore and Phillip Dorsett are expected to start at wide receiver for the Texans.
They will try to lean on the run game with rookie Dameon Pierce. Pierce is tied for eighth in the NFL in rushing yards with 861. That figure leads all rookies this season. Down their top two receivers, Houston could look to throw the ball to Pierce and Dare Ogunbowale more, as well as to their tight ends, especially Jordan Akins.
The Cowboys boast the league’s fifth-best defense, while the Texans’ offense is ranked dead last. Houston will need to find a way to protect Davis Mills, as the Cowboys lead the league in sacks with 48, and the Texans have often struggled with protection, especially in the interior of their offensive line. The Texans’ 33 sacks allowed is the eighth most in the NFL.
Key Cowboys to watch:
QB Dak Prescott – Since coming back into the lineup in Week 7 against Detroit, Prescott has been aggressive, yet surgical, which has had mostly positive results. In the six games, he has completed 130 of 183 passes, which is a 71% completion rate and good enough for second in the NFL this season, behind only Geno Smith. Prescott has thrown for 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns. Where his aggressiveness has gotten him in trouble is with the six interceptions he has tossed. Regardless, Prescott’s play is ticking up, and the coaches are asking for him to continue to be his aggressive self.
DB Trevon Diggs – Diggs, the leader of the Cowboys cornerbacks coming into the season, was not one to follow specific receivers around. However, things may change as the Cowboys begin the rest of the season without Diggs’ running mate Anthony Brown, who was injured last week. Diggs, who is sixth on the team in tackles with 43 and tied for first in interceptions with three, has knocked down 13 passes, the only player in double figures in that category on the Dallas defense.
S Donovan Wilson – Without Wilson, the Cowboys’ defense would be middle of the pack in the NFL. He leads the team in tackles with 79, has four of the teams league-leading 48 sacks, has eight more quarterback hits, another five tackles for loss, two passes knocked down, a forced fumble, and one interception while playing 703 of a possible 806 plays this season. He has done it all, and with another decent running game awaiting in the Houston Texans, he will be called upon to be a difference-maker on Sunday. Wilson has 49 of his tackles on running plays, the best on the team.
WR James Washington – The NFL veteran will make his season and Cowboys debut on Sunday after he was deemed ready to go by head coach Mike McCarthy on Friday. Washington, who spent the first four seasons of his career in Pittsburgh, gives the Cowboys another weapon on the outside for Prescott to throw to. Washington, whose career high is 111 yards against Cleveland in 2019, comes into Sunday with 114 career receptions for 1,629 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has faced the Texans just once, where he had five catches for 36 yards in Week 3 of 2020.
Key Texans to Watch:
QB Davis Mills: Mills compared his benching this year and subsequent return to his situation from last season, when he was forced to play early due to injury, was later benched, and then came back to start the final five games of the season and showed dramatic improvement. Unfortunately for Mills, he has regressed tremendously this season. He said he hopes to have a similar success pattern following his benching this year as he did last season. He will have to show that improvement without his top two wideouts and likely under heavy pressure from the league’s best pass rush. How he handles that will likely be one of the biggest factors in determining whether the Texans can keep this game close or get boatraced.
OG Kenyon Green: Green has struggled mightily over the last six weeks, specifically in pass protection. While the Texans have gotten Pro Bowl-quality play from their starting tackles, their offensive guards have not played well against the pass. Green was a first-round pick this season, expected to be a plug-and-play caliber player. It hasn’t worked out that way. Green will get another trial by fire against the NFL’s best pass rush, and the Cowboys will target and test him. Backup guard Justin McCray is questionable to play with a new injury that popped up on Friday’s injury report, so Green may be playing without much of a safety net behind him.
TE Jordan Akins: Akins is the Texans’ best pass catching tight end and will likely be at least their second-best receiving option on the field Sunday. Houston needs to find ways to get him the ball, especially on the run, where he can make plays and gain a bunch of YAC. The Texans have been hit and miss in involving their tight ends in the game flow, but they need to utilize Akins, who will have a tough matchup against a defense that is fifth-best in the NFL at defending tight ends.
RB Dameon Pierce: Pierce has been facing heavily stacked boxes for over a month, and his production has fallen as the Texans’ offensive line has struggled to open any running lanes. Texans coaches discussed last week how teams have been forcing them into one-on-one blocks in the run game, making it imperative they win all those blocks to open holes. The Texans fought hard last week against a Browns team led by a quarterback covered in rust, and Pierce had his best game in three weeks with 18 carries for 73 yards. Pierce will have to break lots of tackles to gain yardage Sunday in Dallas. The team also needs to get him the ball more in the passing game when they are behind. Overall, he is their best offensive weapon, and he cannot become an afterthought when the team is trailing. With the team playing out the string, there’s no reason not to work Pierce into the passing game more, as that was considered the most underdeveloped part of his game coming out of Florida.
The bottom line: The Cowboys are far and away the better team in this matchup, but this is the NFL, and the old adage is definitely true – anybody can beat anybody on any given Sunday. Dallas has one of the top-scoring offenses in the league behind the quarterback play of Dak Prescott, and a defense that ranks near the top in every meaningful category. There are no matchups in this game that the Texans win. They don’t even have a matchup that will be close. Dallas’ offense has been reinvigorated since the return of quarterback Dak Prescott. They are healthy and clicking. The Cowboys’ run game alone can and should dominate the Texans’ defense. Coming off any kind of play action, Prescott should have no issue picking apart the Texans’ soft Tampa 2 zone. A loss at home by Dallas to a team with issues all over the field would be a definite setback in the standings this late in the season. But this Cowboys team seems to have a different mindset, so a letdown this late in the season would be a surprise.