IRVING, Texas – The sun had set on one of the most widely-celebrated holidays of the year, and there was Jason Witten, talking to reporters at his locker – the usual routine for a Thursday.
This Thursday got off to a later start than normal, on account of it being Christmas. But after taking the morning off, the Cowboys got right back to work – a very typical workload for a very typical Thursday during game week.
"The day should feel the same to the players once they get here, and that's the idea," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "We've got to go to work, it's a Thursday practice, and we gave the players and coaches a little time last night, got out of here a smidge early and then started later today. But the content, the work, that we did yesterday and the work that we do today is critical as far as preparation."
That might sound a little sad, given that Dec. 25 is perhaps the biggest holiday of the year in America – and the Cowboys spent it as one of just a handful of NFL teams with a full workload. Given the hoopla that surrounds a normal Christmas morning, though, Witten said it was nice to put some focus on football.
"It's actually good. Coach was nice enough to let us spend time in the morning with our families, and there's so much excitement for what's going on," he said. "So it actually felt good to come in here and be with your teammates."
That word, focus, should be the Cowboys' mantra for the week. They locked up the NFC East, and therefore a playoff spot, last Sunday. There is a slight chance, though unlikely, that they can secure a bye week – if the game between Detroit and Green Bay ends in a tie, Dallas can still grab the No. 1 seed. If both Arizona and Seattle lose, the Cowboys have a shot at the No. 2 seed.
The much more likely scenarios sees the Cowboys locked into the No. 3 seed, hosting either Detroit or Green Bay next week. That exact line of thinking has given many people reason to label this trip to Washington as 'meaningless' – a word that might Garrett bristle.
"There are no meaningless games," he said.
Witten agreed with his coach, and not just in the interest of playoff positioning. There has been plenty of talk this week of the merits of maintaining momentum. The Cowboys have won three in a row and four of their last five – a hot streak that'd be derailed by a loss to 4-11 Washington.
"For one, there's still stuff out there for us, and then two, you want to be playing well going into the playoffs," Witten said. "You never want to back door your way into it. This team has been playing well, and you want to continue to do that."
Only time will tell whether Garrett has any intention of resting his players, or for how long. Tony Romo returned to practice fully on Thursday after resting Wednesday. DeMarco Murray took the day off, as Garrett said he showed up to work sick.
At this point, with the full team practicing on Christmas, it seems like a safe guess the Cowboys will give their top players a fair shot in Washington. There aren't any do-or-die circumstances, but Witten was asked if it reminded him of his last playoff trip, when the Cowboys downed Philadelphia in Week 17 – before turning around and beating them in the playoffs a week later.
"In '09, we played well to finish the season and then coming back to the playoffs – that momentum, you kind of ride that into the playoffs," he said.
As evidenced by the Christmas schedule, the Cowboys are hopeful they can follow the same plan once again.
"I think that's good, I think that's what this team has been about all year. We've kind of had our head down and gone out and worked," Witten said. "Jason has created that atmosphere here, that culture. I think that will carry into this weekend, too."