By SCHUYLER DIXON
The Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Texas — Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys had to abandon any realistic hope of defending their NFC East title while losing three straight games without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
A fourth straight defeat when Washington visits tonight would hand the crown to Philadelphia with the Eagles still having five games left.
Even if they find a way to win without last year’s NFL rushing leader, the Cowboys carry faint playoff hopes at best along with the team that shares second place in the division at 5-6 — the Redskins.
“It’s frustrating, it’s shocking,” Prescott said. “You look around and you see the Pro Bowlers and the talent you have, it’s almost a loss for words on why it’s happening. But it just shows you this game is tough.”
Made even tougher without Elliott, who was moving up the rushing list again during a three-game winning streak when he finally ran out of legal options to avoid the six-game suspension for alleged domestic violence.
The Cowboys haven’t had 300 yards in a game since then, the longest such stretch since the last four games in 2002.
“I’m sure it has a little bit to do with it,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “But they’ve had some issues. When you lose a game, you can’t finger-point the offensive side of the ball.”
The absence of 2016 All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee because of a hamstring injury hasn’t helped, with the Cowboys getting outscored 72-6 in the second half on the current losing streak. Lee has been ruled out for the third straight game.
It’s been more about the volume of injuries for Washington, which has 15 players on injured reserve and was eliminated in the division race in Week 12 despite beating the New York Giants.
Three starters have been ruled out against the Cowboys: tight end Jordan Reed (hamstring), center Chase Roullier (hand) and safety Montae Nicholson (concussion).
A key reserve, former Dallas defensive lineman Terrell McClain, will sit with a toe injury.
“You take away all the dust and the smoke and everything else that people really say about this team and you see what type of fighters and guys we get off the street and come in and play and still win games, it’s pretty great,” said cornerback Josh Norman, set for another showdown with struggling Dallas receiver Dez Bryant.
Some things to consider with the Cowboys seeking to make the rival Redskins the first team they’ve beaten 70 times:
∫ O-LINE JUGGLE: Redskins left tackle Trent Williams is questionable with a right knee injury that will require surgery and has kept him out of three of the past five games.
He knows he won’t be playing left guard for the injured Shawn Lauvao because 6-foot-8 backup tackle Ty Nsekhe is moving there. “I can’t remember a time in my career where I looked down and the left guard is towering over me,” the 6-5 Williams said.
∫ SECONDARY SHUFFLE: The Cowboys are making changes among their defensive backs after giving up a season-high 434 yards passing to Philip Rivers of the LA Chargers.
Rookie second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie, hampered most of the season by hamstring injuries, has been running with the first team and is expected to take snaps from second-year man Anthony Brown. Another rookie, Xavier Woods, could see more time at safety.
∫ CROWDER TIME: Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has spread the ball around a lot this season, completing passes to 15 players, but receiver Jamison Crowder is his favorite option.
Crowder is coming off his best game of the season with seven catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. “Sometimes he gets lost in the mix, but now he is becoming a feature-type guy,” Gruden said.
∫ BEHIND MORRIS: Alfred Morris has been the lead back filling in for Elliott, who is out three more games. The Cowboys eliminated any remaining doubt about Rod Smith as the next choice when they released Darren McFadden three days after Smith scored his first career touchdown. Trey Williams came up from the practice squad and could be active against the Redskins.
∫ SIMPLE PLAN: Linebacker Zach Brown said the Redskins have only watched film of Dallas without Elliott because Morris is such a different back. They will follow what Atlanta, Philadelphia and the Chargers did.
“They’re not having (any) more big, explosive run plays,” Brown said. “Now everybody’s forcing them to pass the ball. Now for our game, we’re going to force them to pass the ball, too.”