PHILADELPHIA – By sitting down their starters, the Cowboys made it perfectly clear Sunday that their focus was the big picture.
"Focus on what is happening going forward," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett after the game. "The only thing that matters is what we do now. We have put ourselves in a great position, and it is time to get back to work."
Obviously, there was no way Sunday's game against the Eagles could affect the playoff picture – that was well known. But it's incorrect to say there was nothing at stake, either.
A win in Philadelphia could have secured this Cowboys team the best regular season record in franchise history. It could have lifted Dak Prescott to an NFL-record 14th win as a rookie.
Even though he was unlikely to break Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record, Ezekiel Elliott could have joined Dickerson and LaDanian Tomlinson as just the third rookie in league history to hit 2,000 all-purpose yards. Sitting at 1,996 yards heading into the game, he would have needed just a few touches to do it.
And then there was Jason Witten, who entered the day just 27 yards short of the franchise record for career receiving yards.
All of these milestones sat within easy reach, and the Cowboys opted not to pursue them. Prescott sat down for the day after just two series, and Witten took the bench with just one catch for 10 yards.
Elliott, who has been the engine of the Cowboys' offense all season long, didn't leave the sideline until the final whistle – spending much of the afternoon wearing a sweatshirt.
"We had different objectives coming into the game," Garrett said. "There were going to be certain guys who weren't going to play this game because of injury. We held a couple of guys out, a guy on each side of the ball. And then we had a plan for a few other guys about how much we wanted them to play."
[embeddedad0]It's hard to argue too much with the result. Sure, the Cowboys would have preferred a win. But they appeared to get out of Lincoln Financial Field without any further injuries, and they head into a playoff bye week with a chance to rest their existing injury concerns.
Asked about it after the game, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones explained the logic behind sitting Elliott. Hearing him explain it, the reasoning could have easily applied to any other starter who saw limited action – be it Prescott, Dez Bryant or Sean Lee.
"I think the thought process was, if we were going to do what we were going to do today – which was not really play everybody full bore – then why even take a chance," Jones said. "Obviously, when you're playing running back, there's a target. People are coming to hit you. What good would it be to have him out there for a series when something could happen on that series?"
It's the classic conundrum that confronts successful teams at this time of year. With a week off in the playoffs, the Cowboys run the risk of losing their rhythm – though they have the rare opportunity for rest and recovery.
For his part, Prescott emphasized the importance of looking forward. It seems unlikely anyone will care about missed milestones if the Cowboys achieve their postseason goals.
On the flipside, if they don't achieve those goals, it's doubtful many will take solace in regular season accomplishments.
"It is a whole new season now," Prescott said. "Everything you do from this point on is really how you get looked at the end of the year. So that is important to us, looking forward and playing a long time in this postseason."