For about a half-hour Sunday afternoon, it looked like the Cowboys were going to be playing three huge games to close out the 2018 regular season. Less than 15 minutes of game time later, however, those contests in Indianapolis, Arlington and New Jersey had been rendered effectively meaningless, setting up one of the strangest run-ins in team history.
Thanks to Amari Cooper's three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Cowboys' showdown with the Eagles and the Giants' win over the floundering Redskins on Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys have a greater than 99 percent chance to win the NFC East, according to The New York Times' handy NFL playoff machine.
If they win any of their remaining three games, the Cowboys win the division. Same goes for if the Cowboys lose their games against the Colts, Buccaneers and Giants, as long as the Eagles and Redskins lose at least one more game each. As loath as the Observer is to put a cart driven by Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett before the horse, the Cowboys, all but dead the Monday before Election Day, might have essentially clinched a playoff spot two weeks before Christmas. Five wins in five weeks against the best the NFC has to offer will do that for you.
Obviously, the big thing about the Cowboys' situation is that they are going to be playing in a playoff game on Jan. 5 or 6. January football is fun, and the Cowboys have played too little of it since the end of the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith/Michael Irvin era. There's going to be plenty of time to evaluate the Cowboys' matchup in the game and their chances of playing past the postseason tournament's first weekend between now and New Year's.
There's a downside, or at least a tricky side, to taking care of business so early. Generally, when a team clinches a playoff spot in early December, they have something left to play for over the rest of the regular season, whether it's a first-round bye, home-field advantage or a division championship. Thanks to going 3-5 over the first half of their season — and the rest of NFC East being a dumpster fire — the Cowboys don't have any of those incentives.
Their wild-card weekend game is going to be at home, and it's probably going to be against the Seahawks or Vikings. The Cowboys' reward, should they knock off Seattle or Minnesota, will be a trip to New Orleans or Los Angeles to take on the Saints or Rams. Nothing the team does over the next three weeks is going to change any of that.
Garrett's team is locked-in, leaving the head coach with a classic NFL conundrum — play your starters and keep them sharp, or let them rest and get healthy ahead of the games that really matter. The Cowboys' recent playoff history points to keeping players sharp as being the best course. None of the Cowboys' stars played significant snaps in the team's 2016 finale against the Eagles, and Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott & Co. came out flat against the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, before seeing their furious second-half rally come up short.
This year, however, the sit-or-play decision is even more complicated than usual.
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Of all the players on the Cowboys roster, the two who would most benefit from a month off are offensive linemen Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. Martin and Smith, both former first-team All-Pros, have been good this season, not great, thanks to a number of nagging injuries. In a vacuum, they would sit this week, next week and the one after, before getting back to work the first week in January.
Nothing in the NFL happens in a vacuum.
If Martin and Smith aren't playing, both Prescott and Elliott would be at higher injury risk during any part of the Cowboys' remaining regular-season games in which they participate. The cascade of "ifs" continues from there, too. If Prescott isn't playing, why risk the rest of the Cowboys' starting offense in what will essentially be a noncompetitive environment, and if the first-team offense isn't playing, why not rest the first-team defense, too?
Garrett and the rest of his coaching staff are going to have to figure out how to keep everything balanced over what's going to be an antsy slog to the finish, but that, with where the Cowboys have come from this season, it sounds like one of those good problems.