You’ve heard the term “meaningless games” a lot since the Dallas Cowboys clinched the top seed in the NFC. The broad view of that term is correct; Dallas has nothing to gain or lose in tonight’s game with with the Detroit Lions or next week’s finale with the Philadelphia Eagles.
That does not apply to every individual, however. Specific players and even coaches can have their own goals and potential fallout from these games, even if the organization as a whole isn’t impacted.
Here is a rundown of some thing to watch out for tonight:
Ezekiel Elliott & Rookie Rushing Record
Elliott needs 258 yards over the final two weeks to break Eric Dickerson’s 1808-yard record for a rookie season. Zeke would need to average 129 yards over the last two games, which would be up from his current average of 110.8 yards.
This year, Detroit’s defense has average just below 100 yards-per-game in allowed rushing yards. Obviously, the Cowboys’ rushing attack is better than most.
It’s not hard to see Elliott getting at least 129 yards tonight, if not a good bit more. Dallas will be playing conservatively, perhaps giving him carries on 3rd-and-long that would normally be passes. If Dallas lets Zeke chase history, he should get all the opportunities he needs to put up big numbers.
The real concern will be how many touches that Elliott actually gets. Dallas obviously wants him fresh and ready for the postseason. Zeke had better put in work early, because Dallas might pull him in the second half along with other key players.
Randy Gregory Returns
As was expected the last few weeks and made official today, Gregory will return to active duty tonight. The second-year defensive end hasn’t played or practiced much in the last twelve months but is reportedly in great physical shape. He has spent the last few months working with the team’s training staff.
You can check out our story from earlier today for more details on Gregory’s return. Suffice to say, it will be nice to a #94 back on the field in a Cowboys jersey. If Gregory can help bolster the Cowboys’ pass rush, which is already starting to find some momentum over the last few weeks, it could be a huge plus heading into January.
Jason Garrett & Cowboys History
If the Cowboys get win #13 tonight, Garrett will be tied with Jimmy Johnson (1992) and Wade Phillips (2007) for the most wins in a single season for a Dallas head coach. Tom Landry has the best winning percentage in a single year, having gone 12-2 two different times back when the NFL only had 14-game seasons.
Obviously, Garrett has to get the win tonight to have a shot at the all-time mark next week. A 14-2 record would be higher than anything Landry, Johnson, or any other Cowboys coach has ever achieved in the regular season.
Garrett is the last guy who would admit to having any interest in these records. If any part of his programming does allow Jason to be a little selfish, I’m sure he’s not ignorant of these potential achievements. However, they won’t affect his decision making in any way.
Dak Prescott Wins
The head coach isn’t the only one who gets wins and losses counted. Dak Prescott’s 12 wins as a rookie quarterback is second all-time; Ben Roethlisberger had 13 wins in his rookie year. Prescott can tie Big Ben tonight and then claim the top spot with a win in Philadelphia next week.
The nature of how QB wins are tracked could complicate things. Even if Prescott has the team ahead and goes out, backups could change things and cost him the victory. Like with Garrett’s record, this is something that I don’t expect to affect playing-time decisions. It’s just another fun little point of intrigue for the rest of us.
Resting O-Line Starters vs. Protecting QBs
Dallas will have to find a balance between resting some starters and playing others. This is no more critical than at the offensive line, where the blockers have a direct link to the safety of your quarterbacks.
Tyron Smith is a great example of the conundrum. He has battled back issues all year and Dallas would love to get him some rest. However, do you really want to bench your left tackle with Dak Prescott or even Tony Romo on the field?
The backup to Smith is Emmett Cleary, who had never taken a snap in a regular-season game. As much as Dallas might want to rest Tyron, they may have play him for as long as Prescott or Romo are under center. Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansahhas had a bad year but is still a talent who could wreak havoc on an inexperienced player.
David Irving‘s Rising Star
The 6’7″ specimen has a potential breakout game last week against Tampa Bay. Irving posted 1.5 to go along with some pass deflections and other disruptive plays that helped Dallas ice the game in the second half.
Breakout games only stay that way if the production is sustained, though. Irving needs to follow up with some more highlights to earn true notoriety. With several defensive linemen sitting out tonight, he should get plenty of playing time to work with.
What’s more, Detroit has been shuffling their offensive line lately. Their starting center is out with a concussion and one of the starting guards has slid over to replace him. Opportunities should be there for Irving, especially if he gets some snaps from the inside.
Dan Bailey’s All-Time Status
Last week, Dan Bailey slipped out of the top spot in all-time field goal accuracy for the NFL. Missing two of his six field goals, Bailey’s career percentage dropped to 89.4% after the game against Tampa Bay. He is now behind the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who is currently at 89.8% after going 4-for-4 against the Steelers yesterday.
Bailey has enjoyed the top spot for a few years now and would still have it if not some failed 55-yard attempts this year. He and Tucker will likely be battling and forth for a while over the top spot. Going forward, it adds a little extra intrigue to every Bailey kick.