I’ve long had this theory that the best NFL games, or at least the most entertaining ones, take place between two bad teams. Mistakes are good for unpredictability, and poor decision-making provides the opportunity for hilarity. It’s part of the reason why college games have such wild finishes. The sloppiness does come with risks for the viewer—when it manifests in penalties and red zone ineptness, you get the first 58 boring minutes of last night’s game—but when it works, you get the last two minutes of the Cowboys’ unsightly 19-16 win in Washington.
The fun started when DeSean Jackson finally convinced Jay Gruden to let him return a punt for the first time all
season game. The game was tied, and there was just 1:47 left on the clock, and Jackson’s single greatest career play remains a punt return, so why the hell not? If he could break some yardage, the previously ineffective Kirk Cousins wouldn’t need to do much to get into field goal range and spare everyone the specter of overtime.
Jackson got what he wanted, and asked the crowd to get into it. What followed was not Jackson’s finest moment.
“Trying to do any and everything to pull out a victory,” Jackson would say after. He took the ball at the 16, made it up to the 23, retreated on a looping end-around way back to his own 1, then coughed up the ball at the 9 when he was hit by four Cowboys at the same time. “I laid an egg; I messed up.”
Jackson had spent much of the late part of the game complaining about a lack of targets, providing his fumble with a little built-in narrative. We can chalk so much of this up to the two-bad-teams theory. Good teams tend not to have publicly disgruntled stars. Good teams have the coaching and coachability not to retreat 22 yards on a punt return, and to protect the ball when the very last thing you can do is fumble. And it’s only bad teams playing bad teams that can shoot themselves in the foot, then count on their opponents to do the same.
With 1:26 left and Washington holding two timeouts, the path to victory was pretty clear for the Cowboys. Just run down the clock, and kick the field goal. All they had to do was not go out of bounds, and not score a touchdown. Darren McFadden did both on consecutive plays. He found the end zone with 1:14 left, on a play where it only looked like Skins defenders let him score. (They should have stepped aside, but didn’t; McFadden should have gone down shy of the goal line. Everyone did everything wrong. It was glorious.)
The Cowboys messed up again by adding a facemask penalty to a long return, giving the Skins a short field of their own with 1:06 and two timeouts. Washington didn’t need nearly that long. A 28-yard-pass to—yes—DeSean Jackson tied the game up again (though not without a terrifying nearly-botched extra point).
And yet, somehow, there was still more time remaining. The last two minutes managed to squeeze in so much more action than the interminable (but in a bad way) 58 that came before them. From the two minute warning on, it took 29 minutes and six seconds to finish the game.
A big Dallas return (again, none of this back-and-forth happens if both sides’ special teams weren’t so sloppy) and a pair of short passes to Dez Bryant (who had also been complaining about touches on the sideline) set up a 54-yarder for Dan Bailey. Bailey is just about the only consistent thing on either team, and thank goodness too: as fun as the ending was, it needed to end for everyone’s sanity.
“We won on will out there tonight,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, “and not on tactical mastery.”
So now we’ve got a crapshow of a three-way tie atop the division, the Skins, Eagles, and Giants all at 5-7 with the Cowboys somehow just a game back. One of these teams is going to make the playoffs, which is bad. But they’re all going to clumsily play each other to get there, and that’s good: the NFC East is the best terrible division going.