The Cowboys are in a weird spot. With four games and a little less than a month left to play in the regular season, they've locked up a playoff spot with an 11-1 record and appear set to coast to the first seed in the NFC playoffs. They're set to play what is probably the biggest game of their regular season Sunday night in New Jersey against the Giants but, should they lose, everything would still be OK. They'd still be two full games ahead of the Giants in the NFC East with only three to play.
By doing the hard work in the season's first 12 games, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the Cowboys have given themselves the best problem an NFL team can have the second week of September: figuring out how to balance staying competitive with making sure the team is as healthy as possible heading into its first playoff game.
With that in mind, let's look at the challenges and opportunities facing the Cowboys on the way into the clubhouse.
1. What's at stake Sunday? — If the Cowboys win at the Meadowlands Sunday night, they'll clinch their second division title in three years. If the Lions or Seahawks lose Sunday afternoon, they'll clinch a first round bye in the NFC playoffs, too. If both the Lions and Seahawks lose, the Cowboys can wrap up their regular season work with three games to play. Even if the Lions and Seahawks both win on Sunday, they would each have to win each of their remaining games to finish ahead of the Cowboys.
Winning Sunday will hand the Giants their fifth loss, avenge the Cowboys' opening day loss to New York in Arlington and put one of the Cowboys' biggest rivals on playoff life support.
2. Can Dak and Zeke avoid the rookie wall? — Because college seasons are so much shorter than NFL campaigns — colleges play no preseason games and a maximum of 12 regular season games, while NFL teams are guaranteed to play at least four preseason games and 16 regular season games — NFL rookies are at risk of hitting what's known as the "rookie wall" and suffering from decreased performance as the season grinds toward its close.
Over the last three weeks of the season and a likely bye week, Jason Garrett and the rest of the Cowboys coaching staff will have a chance to manage Prescott and Elliott's workloads, making sure they are fresh for their playoff debuts on Jan. 14 or 15. Elliott, especially, could see his workload limited — think 10 to 15 carries a game compared to the 22 he's averaged so far — so if you've ridden him to success in your fantasy football league, you may want to examine your options for the fantasy playoffs.
3. Will the Cowboys' ailing defense get healthy? — With safety Barry Church's return last week against the Vikings, the Cowboys got one key piece of their secondary back, but two important cogs, J.J. Wilcox and Morris Claiborne, remained sidelined. Claiborne, especially, is needed if the Cowboys are to make a deep run in the playoffs. After four disappointing seasons to start his career, Claiborne, drafted sixth overall in 2012, was playing like a Pro Bowler before injuring his pelvis against the Eagles on Oct. 30. He's expected to return in a couple of weeks, and should have a chance to play his way into shape without having to worry too much about results.
The same could be true for defensive end Randy Gregory, who's missed all of 2016 after being suspended by the league for failing multiple drug tests. He'll be eligible to return Dec. 26 against the Lions. It's hard to expect anything from Gregory, who is rumored to be facing yet another suspension for missing a drug test this summer after his initial punishment was handed down, but he is the best pure pass rusher on the Cowboys' roster.
The Cowboys don't need their defense to be great, or even good, to contend for a championship, but a healthy Claiborne would go a long way to making sure that it isn't horrible, which is all the offense needs.
4. What to do with Tony Romo? — Anyone who thought Tony Romo would never play another down for the Cowboys might've jumped the gun. With the way things are lined up, the Cowboys' Jan. 1 season-ender against the Eagles looks like it might be the perfect opportunity for the old gunslinger to trot out onto the field to lead the Cowboys one last time. There is a vanishingly small possibility that the game will mean anything for the Cowboys, and Romo needs to get some reps before the playoffs.
There is precedent for this sort of thing. After missing the entire 1991 season and the first 15 games of the 1992 season, 49ers legend Joe Montana took over for Steve Young during the second half of the 49ers Monday night season finale against the Lions. The 49ers had already clinched the first seed in the NFC playoffs, but the club wanted to showcase Montana to the rest of the league and get him ready for the playoffs. The 49ers didn't need Montana that year, but, thanks to a Troy Aikman concussion, the Cowboys did have to resort to backup Bernie Kosar during the NFC Championship game a year later. One never knows when Romo might be needed for a few important snaps.
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