Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates his touchdown with head coach Jason Garrett during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Lipski)
Richard Lipski
December 29, 2014

IRVING, Texas (AP) Tony Romo took all but one snap for a regular-season finale that had little chance of meaning anything for the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys.

DeMarco Murray got his 20th carry late in the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, not long after Dez Bryant made his final catch of the day.

Sure enough, a 44-17 win over Washington didn't change Dallas' postseason position. Not that coach Jason Garrett cares.

''We have been playing well as a football team the last few weeks and that's certainly an important part of it,'' Garrett said. ''But I think as much as anything else is to take advantage of an opportunity to get better as a football team. Guys embraced the opportunity to play. I think we saw that in the spirit and demeanor we played with.''

The team that couldn't win big games in December went 4-0 this time, zooming past Philadelphia to win the NFC East and earning a first-round home game against Detroit (11-5) on Sunday.

Now the question is whether keeping to the routine over resting Romo's surgically repaired back will make a difference against the Lions, or if matters that Murray missed a chance to ease up at the end of by far the NFL rushing leader's busiest season as a pro.

Two things have already broken the Cowboys' way.

They got a Sunday playoff slot - and extra day for Romo after even he admitted that the much shorter Thanksgiving week was a problem. And Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who figured to be the most important player in trying to control Murray, will not play against the Cowboys after he was suspended for stepping on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' leg Sunday.

Needless to say, players were on board with Garrett's plan to play to win.

''I think everybody was serious and just to hear that come out of his mouth, it motivated us even more,'' Bryant said. ''We know what we have to do and we did exactly what we wanted to do. We just have to keep fighting, have to keep playing together.''

Here are some tangible things that Sunday's dominating win did for Dallas:

The Cowboys are one of five teams that tied for the best record in the NFL at 12-4. They averaged more than 40 points per game in their December victories and won four straight by double digits. Dallas last did that in the first four games of 2007, finishing the season as the top seed in the NFC.

''This game's about momentum and how you go into the playoffs,'' tight end Jason Witten said. ''We didn't want to come in here and get beat and then try to go into the playoffs and turn it on.''

Dallas' last two trips to the playoffs offer glimpses of each approach. Seven years ago, they pulled the starters in an uninspiring loss at Washington to finish the regular season, then had the bye before losing to the New York Giants in the divisional round.

Two years later, the Cowboys had to beat the Eagles in the finale to win the NFC East and secure a home game, then turned around and beat them again in the first round. That's the only playoff win for Dallas since 1997.

''I don't think '07 really was (a comparison), just because we had the bye and worked hard to get to that position,'' Witten said. ''I know in '09 we played well, finished the season and then come back in the playoffs and kind of that momentum, you kind of ride that into the playoffs. I think that's good.''

If nothing else, the Cowboys get ready for the Lions feeling like they're playing as well as any team in the NFL.

''I just think we're gelling,'' said Murray, who finished with 1,845 yards rushing, broke all-time NFL leader Emmitt Smith's franchise record from 19 years ago and tied for the league lead in touchdowns rushing with 13. ''We're executing the pass game and running it well. I think we're playing good, situational football. Our defense is playing good, our specials teams is playing well.''

Garrett simply didn't want any of that to change.

NOTES: Garrett essentially ruled out DT Henry Melton against Detroit because of a right knee injury sustained against Washington. Garrett said it was not a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Melton tore the ACL in his left knee last year in Chicago, ending his season after three games.

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

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