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Cowboys vs. Washington 2015, 'Monday Night Football' preview: NFC East rivalry gets primetime spotlight

Washington is trying to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.

As the temperatures fall across the Northeast and the calendar turns to December, the race to the finish line in the league's most up-for-grabs division is heating up. Every NFC East club entered Week 13 with a losing record, yet each team was within two games of first place.

A Monday Night Football rivalry matchup between Washington and the Dallas Cowboys could bring some clarity to the muddled mess of mediocre teams vying for the division title ... or it could just make things even cloudier.

Washington is 5-6 and yet somehow atop the standings through 12 weeks after beating the New York Giants last Sunday. The NFC East leaders now control their own destiny in a division that nobody seems to want to win, and their soft remaining schedule only helps their chances of making the postseason. Their opponents have a combined win percentage of .364 entering this weekend, the easiest slate among NFC contenders. Although they close with three of four games on the road, they don't play another team that currently has a winning record.

Washington also has momentum on its side, at least relative to the general ineptitude of its rivals. Kirk Cousins and Co. are 3-2 in their last five games, with the only losses coming against the Patriots and Panthers. Their closest competitors -- the Giants and Eagles -- have both stumbled through the middle stretch of the season, paving the way for Washington to emerge as the unlikely favorite in the NFL's worst division.

Dallas sits just behind those teams at 3-8, its worst record through 11 games since 2001. The Cowboys are in sole possession of last place in the division, and although they are still mathematically alive for a playoff spot, the prospect of them storming back to win the division is extremely small.

Their season theoretically came to a close when Tony Romo re-injured his collarbone last Thursday against the Panthers. Considering they are 0-7 this season in games not started by their franchise quarterback, this latest setback effectively extinguished Dallas' already-dim playoff hopes. In fact, per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys now have a better chance to land the No. 1 pick (6.1 percent) than make the postseason (2.2).

Digits

Washington hardly fits the profile of a first-place team: it has more losses than wins and has been outscored by 26 points in its 11 games. Plus, the team hasn't won two games in a row and is winless on the road. Jay Gruden and his players can check off two of those boxes -- reach the magical .500 mark and put together their first win streak of the season -- on Monday night if they play true to form at home against the Cowboys.

Washington is 5-1 at FedExField this season and has won five straight at home since losing to the Dolphins in Week 1. Its home/road splits are truly remarkable. At the friendly confines, this is a top-10 team in both points scored and points allowed. On the road, it has the league's 28th-ranked scoring offense and the 31st-ranked scoring defense.

The good news for Washington and its fans is that this game is being played in our nation's capital. The bad news is that it is being played under the lights. Washington has been miserable on the national stage recently, going just 1-8 in primetime games since 2013, the worst record among teams that have played at least five such contests over the last three seasons.

The Cowboys would love to take advantage of this opportunity to ruin their rival's playoff hopes. However, they have to start someone not named Tony Romo under center in this game, and that's been a poor trend for them dating back nearly five years. Dallas has lost nine straight games that Romo hasn't been the starting quarterback. The last Cowboys backup to start and win a game was Stephen McGee in Week 17 of the 2010 season.

It's tough to think that Matt Cassel is going to break that streak, either. His body of work since his first NFL start in 2008 is hardly inspiring. Among the 33 active quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts in that span, Cassel ranks 28th in passer rating, 28th in yards per game, 29th in completion rate and 29th in yards per attempt. This season he is 0-4 as the Cowboys' starter and has tossed as many touchdowns as interceptions (five).

Who to Watch

After missing the first half of the season with a bad hamstring, DeSean Jackson is back and healthy and finally starting to have impact on Washington's offense. First and foremost, he adds a much-needed dynamic, vertical element to the passing attack. By stretching the defense, his presence alone opens up underneath routes and holes in the run game, too.

Jackson totaled just five catches for 59 yards in his first two games back from injury, but has nearly tripled that output in his last two games with seven catches for 153 yards. That includes two touchdowns of 55-plus yards in back-to-back contests. The Cowboys don't have a strong outside corner option to counter Jackson, either. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are both subpar in coverage, ranking 55th and 95th (out of 114 cornerbacks) in Pro Football Focus' grading system.

How to Watch

When: 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: FedEx Field, Landover, Md.

Network: ESPN

Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

OnlineWatchESPN

Odds

Washington is 4.5-point favorites and the over/under is 42, according to OddsShark.com.

Preliminary Judgment

Washington is a near unanimous pick to win on Monday night. All of the experts at ESPN and CBS Sports are taking the home team. There are two brave guys at SB Nation headquarters going with the Cowboys in the upset -- David Fucillo and Stephen White.

Further Reading

For more on the Cowboys, head over to Blogging the Boys. To read everything about Washington, check out Hogs Haven.

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SB Nation presents: Best and worst of Week 13, from Brandon Marshall to Robbie Gould