The Dallas Cowboys knew their regular-season finale could be meaningful.
They knew they remained in contention for the NFC East title, home-field playoff games and seeding improvement in play.
They played their starters.
Still, they flopped in a 26-6 loss to a Washington Commanders team giving rookie quarterback Sam Howell his first start.
All three phases played beneath expectation. Woes on offense and special teams proved especially costly.
“We get to suck on that all week,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said in the postgame locker room at FedEx Field. “And if that doesn’t make you want to get ready to go in six-to-seven days, nothing else will.
“That was as thorough a butt-kicking as we’ve had this year. And we’re going to find out if that will get you ready or not. It should.”
The Cowboys finished their season 12-5 for a second straight year under head coach Mike McCarthy. But when Dallas hired McCarthy to succeed Jason Garrett, Jones didn’t primarily hope for a coach who could navigate the regular season.
He wanted McCarthy to elevate a team that has not returned to the NFC Championship, much less the Super Bowl, since the 1995 season. In 13 seasons as Green Bay Packers head coach, McCarthy guided nine playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl title.
Winning the turnover battle and hitting a rhythm in December were two core tenets of McCarthy’s success in Green Bay. The Cowboys lead the league in takeaways but are also 17th in giveaways, with Prescott’s 15 interceptions the most of any quarterback in the league, despite his missing five games.
Dallas hasn’t lost consecutive games this season. But dropping a game that wide receiver CeeDee Lamb admitted the Cowboys felt “like we knew we were going to win” exposed flaws in the Cowboys’ current structure.
“It’s disappointing, no question,” McCarthy said. “The timing of it is not what you’re looking for. I clearly recognize that. But it’s like a lot of things in life: When you get kicked in the ass or punched in the mouth, you have a chance to respond.
“I have great confidence in our football team that we will respond.”
McCarthy’s job security might depend on it. The Cowboys’ ceiling this year has been extremely high, with offensive explosions making 40 points seem easy and takeaway-frenzied defensive performances leading them to relatively early acquisition of a postseason berth.
But lately, questions assail Dallas’ neutralized pass rush, schematic and blocking challenges stifling the run game and the reliability of a secondary to rise to the occasion despite injuries. Prescott knows he must play better and alter his decision-making 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 won’t continue.”
Jones, also the team’s general manager, said he hopes his Cowboys use the loss as motivation to sharpen their focus and more clearly hone their details ahead of a Monday night wild-card game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We didn’t rest anybody, so everybody got to bite this apple,” he said of feeling the loss’ sting.
The Buccaneers beat the Cowboys 19-3 in the Week 1 opener. They’ve lost nine games since.
And yet: The Bucs will hold home-field advantage, fronting a quarterback in Tom Brady who has played 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 interspersed some of his trademark optimism into his postgame remarks that otherwise held a warning tenor.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that as a team, not just individually but as a team, we can come back and take this nightmare, whatever you want to call it, and turn it into a plus,” he said. “I’m so disappointed for our fans. But now half as disappointed as I would be if I were sitting here this time next week.
“We’ve got something to go for, and we will empty this bucket this week.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein