Two days after Christmas last year, the Cowboys started Kellen Moore at quarterback in a 16–6 loss at Buffalo that dropped them to 4–11.
Quite a bit has changed since then.
Now, the Cowboys boast a 12–2 record and have locked up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They host a desperate Detroit team on Monday night, but first face a question without a real correct answer: Should they rest their key players ahead of the playoffs?
“It’s an age-old question and certainly deserves to be a question,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said this week, via the Star-Telegram. “How much do you want to be playing well? How much edge do you want to have? I know that in our season here with Wade Phillips, we had a great season ... and rested pretty good the last ballgame. And we ended up losing the first playoff game that we had with home-field bye all the way through. That’s going to bear heavily, our experience there with Wade in ’07 will weigh heavily on any thoughts I have about who plays.”
That 2007 Cowboys team, like this one, earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. So, counting a purposely lackadaisical Week 17, it went about three weeks between meaningful games—Week 17 to the playoff opener, which Dallas promptly lost to the Giants.
The absolute earliest Jones’s team could start its postseason run this year is Jan. 14, still a decent way off from Monday night in football terms. For what it’s worth, Dallas coach Jason Garrett said throughout the week that the Cowboys would not make any changes simply to keep the players fresh. But did a brutal NFL weekend, with significant injuries to the likes of Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota, change his mind?
If nothing else, the Cowboys ought to be more inclined to get any banged-up players a few extra days off. Their injury report reflects that line of thinking. Cedric Thornton, Demarcus Lawrence, Justin Durant and Morris Claiborne—all important defensive pieces—were ruled out of Monday’s contest. DE Tyrone Crawford (doubtful, foot) is likely to join them, as could a handful of players with “questionable” designations, like Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith.
Assuming Smith and Bryant suit up, though, at least the Cowboys’ offense will be at full strength. And that’s bad news for the Lions, who can clinch a playoff berth with a win Monday night. (Their NFC North hopes rest on a Week 17 showdown with Green Bay).
Detroit expects to be down No. 1 cornerback Darius Slay (hamstring) and with slot corner Quandre Diggs (pectoral) already done for the year, Bryant and his fellow Cowboys wide receivers should enjoy mismatches throughout the night. Reliable slot man Cole Beasley could draw Asa Jackson, just added off the Ravens’ practice squad earlier this month; Jackson struggled badly in a loss to the Giants last week.
Detroit also allowed 114 yards rushing to New York, although its run defense has allowed just six TDs this season and ranks 12th in yards. Few teams have had much luck slowing down Ezekiel Elliott, though. He is 49 yards shy of 1,600 for the year and has averaged 114 yards per game in Dallas’s nationally-televised outings.
For the Lions to pull this off, as is the case most weeks, QB Matthew Stafford will have to deliver a gem. The Cowboys are second in the NFL in time of possession, but the Lions actually lead in time per drive at 3:09. They have managed that ball control without any semblance of a run game (leading rusher Theo Riddick has 357 yards and likely won’t play Monday due to a wrist injury).
Stafford has been excellent distributing the ball to his receivers and tight ends, often doing so off quick passes to the flat or short crossing routes. The Lions are a yards-after-the-catch offense, not one that threatens over the top much.
Their best hope Monday is that Stafford takes advantage of a thinned-out Dallas defense to unleash a handful of long, time-killing drives.
This is a tough one to pick, because it’s so hard to weigh motivation. The Cowboys have nothing on the table Monday, aside from staying sharp and putting on a good show for Monday Night Football—their fourth-straight prime-time game. The Lions have Week 17’s most important game looming, and they would prefer not to hang their playoff fate in the balance until then.
Clearly, Detroit needs this game more.
Stafford gives them what they need to pull it off, too. If the Cowboys’ pass rush cannot disrupt his timing, Stafford will be able to move the ball, and do so with patience. He (and his team) also wouldn’t mind a little payback for their controversial 2014 playoff loss in Big D.
All that said, the Cowboys are 12–0 against teams other than the Giants this season. They have earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed via their dynamic Dak Prescott/Elliott backfield and a defense that allowing fewer than 19 points per game. Detroit also is just 3–4 away from home this year.
Monday should go to the wire. Will the Cowboys care enough to wrap it up late?
Key player: Randy Gregory, DE, Cowboys. Remember him? Suspended for the Cowboys’ first 14 games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, Gregory will make his 2016 debut Monday night. Those injuries to Tyrone Crawford and Lawrence open the door for Gregory to take a heavy workload, as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli loves to rotate his defensive linemen.
Gregory’s rookie season was a bust and his second year has been a waste thus far, as well, but he is someone Detroit has to account for off the edge. Fresh legs in Week 16 might matter.
Bold prediction: The Lions score a rushing touchdown. They have just five on the year, and the Cowboys boast the league’s top-ranked run defense, but neither will stop the Lions from trying to establish their ground game. And the way that Marinelli banks on a bend-don’t-break defense approach could make for tough sledding for Stafford inside the red zone. Zach Zenner or Dwayne Washington will get a chance or two, if the Lions can make it inside the Dallas’ 10.