Jerry Jones warns Cowboys about playoff after ‘thorough loss’

The Dallas Cowboys knew their regular season finale could make sense.

They knew they remained in contention for the NFC East title, home playoff games and improved seeding in the game.

They played their starters.

However, they lost 26-6 to the Washington Commanders, giving rookie Sam Howell his first start.

All three phases were played below expectations. Problems on offense and special teams proved especially costly.

“We have to suck it up all week,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said in the locker room after the game at FedEx Field. “And if that doesn’t make you want to get ready to go in 6-7 days, nothing else will.

“It was as thorough a shootout as we’ve had this year. And we will find out whether you will be ready for it or not. It should.”

The Cowboys finished their season 12-5 for the second straight year under head coach Mike McCarthy. But when Dallas hired McCarthy to succeed Jason Garrett, Jones wasn’t primarily hoping for a coach who could handle the regular season.

He wanted McCarthy to elevate 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 fundamental principles of McCarthy’s success in Green Bay. The Cowboys lead the league in sacks but are also 17th in passing yards, Prescott’s 15 interceptions the most of any quarterback in the league despite missing five games.

Jerry Jones was candid about the Cowboys' loss to Washington.  (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Jerry Jones was candid about the Cowboys’ loss to Washington. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Dallas hasn’t lost a game this season. But dropping a game he even admitted the Cowboys felt “like we knew we were going to win” exposed the flaws in the Cowboys’ current structure.

“It’s disappointing, no question about it,” McCarthy said. “The time for that is not what you’re looking for. I clearly recognize that. But it’s like many things in life: when you get kicked in the ass or punched in the mouth, you have 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 was extremely high this year, offensive explosions that made 40 points seem easy and frantic takeaway defensive performances that led them to a relatively early postseason berth.

But recently, questions have beset Dallas’ neutralized pass rush, scheme and blocking challenges stifling the run game and the reliability of the secondary to rise to the occasion despite injuries. Prescott knows he has to play better and change his decisions 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 sharpen their focus and sharpen their details ahead of Monday night’s wild card game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“We didn’t rest anyone, so everyone had to bite into this apple,” he said, feeling the sting of loss.

The Buccaneers beat the Cowboys 19-3 in the Week 1 opener. They have lost nine games since then.

And yet: the Bucs will have the advantage of the home field, in front of the quarterback in Tom Brady, who played against the Cowboys seven times in his career and won all seven.

Danger likely awaits the Cowboys — especially if they play as poorly as they did Sunday in Washington.

Jones eventually injected some of his signature optimism into his otherwise cautionary postgame remarks.

“There is no doubt that as a team, not only individually, but also as a group team, we can come back and take this nightmare, whatever you want to call it, and turn it into a plus,” Jones said. “I’m so disappointed for our fans. But I’m half as disappointed now as I would be if I were sitting here this time next week.

“We’ve got something to go for and we’re going to empty this bucket this week.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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