FRISCO, Texas – It’s never my intention, but I always wind up trying to offer perspective at the start of this column.
I’m going to offer some opinions about this Week 17 matchup against the Eagles in a minute. There’s guy who should sit and guys who should play, and everyone’s got an opinion about whether Tony Romo should play on Sunday.
That’s all important, and I’ll get to it. But before that, I’m going to stop and appreciate how crazy at is that these are the talking points for the week.
The Cowboys have been so good in 2016 that there’s literally nothing else to play for. They could lose to the Eagles, 34-0, and fall to 3-3 in the NFC East – and they’d still be the division champions and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
It’s been a decade since we’ve seen this happen. Even the 2014 Cowboys, positioned at third in the NFC, had an outside shot at winning a bye week heading into Week 17. Last year’s team was so putrid that it was playing for draft positioning.
And then of course, you can’t forget 2011, 2012 or 2013 – when the Cowboys entered the final game of the season not knowing whether they’d be celebrating a playoff berth or mourning a wasted season. That’s the position Detroit, Green Bay and Washington find themselves in this week – and it sounds incredibly stressful.
Instead, these Cowboys are guaranteed a week off and a home playoff games. They’re two wins from the Super Bowl, which isn’t something they’ve been able to say many times in the last 20 years.
Of course, there’s stuff worth worrying about. Anxiety goes up as the stakes do.
But when you’re fretting about playing time and substitution battles for a game that equates to nothing, just stop and think about what all you’ve seen this season. It’s more fun to enjoy the ride than worry about the destination.
1. Having said all of that, let’s talk about how the crazy the Cowboys would have to be to play Tony Romo against the Eagles.
What exactly is the point?
The most common argument I’ve heard is that Romo needs reps if he’s going to be ready to contribute in the playoffs, in the event that Dak Prescott is injured. He hasn’t played a regular season game since Thanksgiving Day, 2015, and he’s played in just four games since the 2014 season.
Of course, live reps can’t hurt. But let’s look at it this way: the Cowboys average about 64 snaps per game. Let’s assume you’re going to treat this like a preseason game and give Dak Prescott one half of work. That leaves about 34 snaps for Romo to work with after halftime.
Is it worthwhile to expose Romo to the risk of injury over 34 snaps – against a 6-9 Eagles team that has nothing to play for? I say no.
Tony Romo’s main value to the Cowboys right now is as a fantastic insurance policy in the event of an injury. It’s not a worthwhile risk to jeopardize that insurance policy over half of a meaningless game.
2. Now comes your rebuttal: “Well, if he’s that susceptible to injury, he shouldn’t even be the backup.”
Of course, it’s not far from anyone’s mind that Romo has gotten hurt in three of the last four games he’s played. There’s bound to be some uncertainty about his ability to take a hit – not to mention his aptitude after almost two years off.
But this is just silly. If Romo were to enter this game, he’d be playing with Emmett Cleary as his left tackle. He’d undoubtedly be giving the ball to second-and-third stringers, as guys like Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott eventually take a seat on the bench.
I honestly think, despite all of this, Romo could get through a half of football injury-free – but again, why risk it? He’s a 14-year veteran and a 10-year starter. Obviously, reps are a benefit, but 34 game reps aren’t going to make the difference between getting him ready and not. I’d much rather guarantee he’s healthy in case this team needs him – and it certainly seems like management agrees with me.
3. “What about his trade value,” is the next question to come up – and it’s a good one.
I’ve been saying for several months that you need to play Tony Romo, because you need to find out what he can do and what he might be worth going forward. It seems unlikely another team is going to pony up for Romo’s massive contract without some assurance he can stay healthy and play at a high level.
Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. If that’s something the Cowboys wanted to do, it needed to be done back in November. They opted not to, and it has worked out well for them. Since Romo returned to action, back on Nov. 20, the Cowboys are 5-1. So it’s hard to second-guess the decision to ride with Dak.
Having said that, 34 meaningless snaps – or even a full meaningless game – isn’t enough to do much for his market. Not in my opinion, at least. At this late point in the season, the Cowboys have effectively decided to shelve Romo. Whatever that means for his future is just something we’re going to have to wait and see about.
4. I made a joke during the Lions game that Detroit running back Zach Zenner looked like Barry Sanders, given the way he was cutting through the Dallas defense.
Obviously, I was kidding. Sanders is arguably the greatest running back to ever put on cleats, while Zenner has 325 career yards.
But it was still alarming to see how easily Zenner picked up yards in the first half. After one possession, he had 31 yards, and he was sitting on 64 yards at halftime.
Then, a funny thing happened. The Cowboys picked off Matthew Stafford to open the second half, and they broke a 21-21 tie. They never looked back, and Detroit rushed just eight times for 25 yards the rest of the way. The Lions went to halftime with 65 rushing yards and finished the game with just 90.
5. By this point in the season, you don’t need me to tell you that this is how the Cowboys win. They build a lead, they don’t turn it over and they force opponents to become one-dimensional.
Check out these numbers:
In the first half of Cowboys wins, their opponents are rushing the ball an average of 11 times for 48 yards. After halftime, that average drops to nine rushes for 30 yards.
Now, that doesn’t seem like a big discrepancy – but remember, it’s an average. On top of shutting down Detroit in the second half, this defense limited Tampa to 21 yards on nine runs in the second half. They gave up just two yards on seven carries in the second half at Pittsburgh.
Maybe the most interesting one of all: Baltimore ran 13 times for 86 yards and a touchdown in the first half of Week 11. In the second half, they put together a measly 15 yards on three carries.
Contrast that with the two losses to New York. In the second half of the Dec. 11 game, the Giants ran the ball a whopping 23 times for 63 yards, finishing with 90 on the night. In the second half of the season opener, they ran the ball 18 times for 75 yards.
Those numbers aren’t that impressive in the grand scheme, but it certainly makes a difference when you can pound the ball, run the clock and wear the opposing defense down. That hasn’t happened to the Cowboys many times this year, and it’s reflected in their record.
6. Outside of the quarterback issue, I’m not going to spend a ton of time worrying about this Eagles game. Regardless of what the Cowboys say, it doesn’t matter. And I also think most of the important players will be sitting by the fourth quarter, anyway.
What I am worried about is the games that directly impact the playoff picture. We still don’t know who will snag the No. 2 seed and the other bye week, and both the NFC North and the second wildcard are still up for grabs.
Personally, here’s how I think it plays out: I refuse to bet against Aaron Rodgers in a do-or-die game, and I feel confident Washington, playing at home, can beat a Giants team with nothing to play for.
Even with their recent struggles, I think the Seahawks will beat San Francisco. I don’t feel great about it, but I think Atlanta can beat New Orleans with a bye week on the line.
So my best guess is that Dallas and Atlanta head into the playoffs with bye weeks. Seattle will be No. 3, and Green Bay will round out the division winners at No. 4. The Packers will host New York at Lambeau Field, and the Seahawks will host Washington.
I don’t like the Redskins’ chances of winning a wildcard game at CenturyLink Field, so you know what that means.
In a scenario where the No. 6 seed doesn’t win, the Cowboys are certain to face either the No. 4 or No. 5 team. What I’m trying to say is I expect either Green Bay or New York to be the divisional round opponent when the Cowboys start their playoff run in two weeks.
7. That’s what I think will happen, but it’s certainly not what I think would be best for the Cowboys.
Ideally, how amazing would it be if Detroit beat Green Bay this weekend, while Washington beat New York? I’m all in favor of any scenario that has Green Bay falling out of the playoffs – because I’m sorry, but I don’t think the Cowboys want any part of Aaron Rodgers in a rematch at AT&T Stadium.
Of all the teams Dallas could host in two weeks, I think the Lions are the most favorable matchup of all. But, with apologies to Detroit, I just don’t have any faith it’ll work out that way.
8. It’s hilarious to think that back in the summer, I had every confidence the Cowboys would return to the playoffs. It made too much sense, given the addition of Ezekiel Elliott and the return of Tony Romo from injury.
After Romo broke his back, I backed off those predictions considerably. I just looked back at my playoff predictions, and I called for the Giants to win the NFC East – with Arizona and Detroit serving as the wildcards.
Honestly, I feel pretty good about my playoff picks. I correctly picked seven of 12 participants, and I might get an eighth if Detroit finds a way in. I whiffed pretty horribly on my Cincinnati and Carolina picks, but c’est la vie.
I really don’t even feel bad about not picking the Cowboys. Who could have predicted a team quarterbacked by a fourth-round rookie would be sitting at 13-2? If you predicted that, hats off to you. What a season it’s been.
9. One last time this regular season, here are my mediocre picks:
Baltimore over CINCINNATI
Houston over TENNESSEE
Carolina over TAMPA BAY
INDIANAPOLIS over Jacksonville
New England over MIAMI
MINNESOTA over Chicago
Buffalo over NEW YORK JETS
PITTSBURGH over Cleveland
ATLANTA over New Orleans
WASHINGTON over New York
Arizona over LOS ANGELES
DENVER over Oakland
Kansas City over San Diego
Seattle over SAN FRANCISCO
Green Bay over DETROIT
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