They say “every game matters” in the NFL, and that’s generally true. But for several years now, the Dallas Cowboys’ regular season finales haven’t had any meaningful impact on their season. Week 17 of the 2018 season, on the road to face the New York Giants, is no different.
The last time that the Cowboys were playing for something in Week 17 was the 2013 season, when the Eagles came to Dallas for a winner-takes-all division showdown. But with Kyle Orton playing for an injured Tony Romo, the Cowboys didn’t have enough to get the job done.
In fact, before the 2014 season, high stakes were the trend in the finales. As we painfully remember, Dallas had a shot at the playoffs in all of Jason Garrett’s first three full seasons as head coach. But all three years ended with disappointing letdowns and 8-8 records.
But since then, Dallas has either secured or sunk their playoff spot before Week 17. Three of the last five seasons (2014, 2016, 2018), the Cowboys have already clinched the NFC East and couldn’t help or hurt their playoff positioning in the final regular season game.
The other two years, Dallas was eliminated before they could get to Week 17.
This year’s finale was rendered moot thanks to the Cowboys clinching the division last week with their victory over Tampa Bay. They could have accomplished it a week earlier in Indianapolis, but we saw how that went.
Thanks to the current NFC standings, Dallas has nothing to play for this week. They are locked into the fourth seed in the playoffs, being two or more games behind the Chicago Bears and other division winners. A win or loss won’t change next week’s game one bit.
All the Cowboys can do now is wait to see who’s headed to Dallas for the first round of the playoffs. Right now it’s the Seahawks, but a Seattle loss coupled with a win by Minnesota would bring the Vikings to AT&T Stadium.
The Philadelphia Eagles could still make the playoffs, but there’s no scenario that would allow them to be the fifth seed and play Dallas in the first round.
So with the Cowboys unable to affect their playoff position in any way, how will they treat Sunday’s game in New York?
We’ve seen the team handle this situation in different ways depending on the year. In 2014, Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and the gang played to win. Dallas wanted to keep their momentum going into the postseason
The 2016 season saw a bit of both. Dallas played their starters in the first half and then brought in the backups in the second. But that year they also had a first-round bye, so rest wasn’t much of a concern.
There’s a lot to be said right now for giving players rest. Zack Martin, for example, has been battling a knee injury all year and had to miss Week 15 with it. He will almost certainly get the week off to avoid any sort of regression before the postseason.
Tyron Smith also has nagging injuries which have limited his performance lately. A week off could be big for him, too.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott could also use a breather. The Cowboys’ workhorse has looked banged up lately and needs to freshen up for the playoffs. Last week, Dallas called up Darius Jackson from the practice squad so that may indeed be their plan.
With just those three names, you see the potential ripple effect of rest. Even if you weren’t going to rest him, do you want to see Zeke getting banged up behind backup offensive linemen? Or do you want to risk Dak Prescott behind second-string protection?
Other veterans such as Sean Lee and Tavon Austin have only just been cleared to play in the last week or two after long absences. Would another week off help their health, or is this meaningless game a good opportunity to get them some run and hopefully find some rhythm?
That’s what the Cowboys coaches are up against this week; what’s best for individual players and the team as a whole? Momentum is a valuable thing, but so are good health and rest. And in these scenarios, you can almost never work towards both.
But at least it’s not a new quandary. As we discussed, Dallas has been in this spot for Week 17 in each of their last two playoff runs.
Hopefully, those experiences will help make the best choices for this Sunday.