Head coach Jason Garrett had a fine line to walk in this, the last game of the 2014 regular season. Keep the momentum rolling by playing his starters? Or avoid any risk of injury by benching those who would be key to the team's success in the postseason?
There was never really any doubt, as it was business as usual for the Cowboys, who flattened the rival Redskins early on their way to a convincing 44-17 victory. The win marked Dallas' 12th of the season and also gave it an undefeated 8-0 mark on the road, the first team in the NFL to win all its road games since the 2007 Patriots.
Garrett pretty much got exactly what he wanted as the offense, behind the big three of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant shined. Romo finished the afternoon with 299 yards passing with two touchdowns and an interception, both of those scoring tosses connecting with Bryant, who totaled 99 receiving yards on the day. For his part, Murray racked up 100 yards, the 12th time this season he has hit the century mark for rushing.
As a team, Dallas totaled 457 yards of offense, including an impressive 174 on the ground, also narrowly taking the time of possession, 30:24.
In addition to the outstanding team play, however, there was a pair of individual accomplishments achieved in the game. Murray came into the game needing only 29 yards to surpass Emmitt Smith's team record for most rushing yards in a season (1,773). And on his seventh carry of the day, Murray went off the left end, bolting 32 yards to claim the Cowboys' rushing crown.
That was followed on the very next play by Bryant joining him in the record books. He caught a 23-yard pass from Romo on the left side of the end zone, a play that was originally ruled out of bounds, but after being challenged,
showed that Bryant had indeed kept his feet in, his second score of the day and his 16th of the season. That broke the mark of 15 set by Terrell Owens during the 2007 campaign.
As the Cowboys defense has done all year, they gave up yards, but few points, creating pressure and four turnovers, the first two coming with Washington in the red zone. Bruce Carter had two interceptions on the day while Anthony Spencer and J.J. Wilcox both recovered fumbles. The Redskins finished the game with 413 yards of offense, but Dallas held its opponent to no more than 20 points for the seventh time this season.
The Cowboys came out of the gate firing on all cylinders as they scored on each of their first five possessions, the first after the opening kickoff on a nine-play, 55-yard drive that resulted in a 36-yard field goal by Dan Bailey.
From there, Romo and Bryant really got clicking. On the team's next series, the quarterback saw his receiver in single coverage, fired a quit out to Bryant, who then sprinted down the left sideline, stiff-arming his way into the end zone for a 65-yard score.
Showing his speed on that play, Bryant then offered up some deft footwork on their next possession, one that saw the two team records fall. On third-and-1 at the Dallas 45-yard line, Murray scampered to the Washington 23 to surpass Smith in the Cowboys' record books. It was then that Romo found Bryant on the left side of the end zone, his tiptoe catch giving Dallas a 17-7 lead.
The second quarter was more of the same as Romo continued to pick apart the Redskins, finishing the first half with 225 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-20 passing. Of course, he was getting plenty of help in this well-balanced attack.
After Baily chipped in a 32-yard field goal, Garrett surprised everyone by calling an on-side kick and the Cowboys executed it to perfection, Barry Church falling on Bailey's bouncing boot. Set up at the Washington 49-yard line, that eventually led to Murray running over several would-be tacklers to cross the goal line for the Cowboys' next score. The rushing touchdown was his league-leading 13th of the season.
With Dallas ahead 27-10 at the half – the Redskins getting a 69-yard touchdown catch from DeSean Jackson and a 25-yad field goal – really the only question remaining as the third quarter got underway was whether or not the starting skill players would remain in the game for the Cowboys.
Not surprisingly, Garrett kept to his mantra that football players play football, and brought his starters back out for the third quarter.
Perhaps he should have kept them on the bench. The first-stringers were unable to do much of anything for most of the second half, often looking out of sync, with Romo even getting picked off early in the fourth quarter.
Fortunately, that interception by Washington, which gave the home side the ball at the Dallas 16, was promptly turned back over to the Cowboys. On third-and-10, Orlando Scandrick was able to tip a pass intended for Redskins receiver Andre Roberts, the bouncing ball landing in the hands of the linebacker Carter, his second pick on the day and his first career multi-interception game.
But another three-and-out by Dallas was followed by Washington finally getting back on the board, Griffin scrambling around the left end from 2 yards out to narrow the score to 27-17. The end of that play saw Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon put a blindside block on Kyle Wilber, which resulted in a scrum of pushing and shoving.
Despite the game seemingly getting more chippy, though, the starters came back out for the Cowboys' next possession and finally found their rhythm again. Romo provided the big blow with a 51-yard completion to Terrance Williams down the left side to the Washington 5-yard line. That led to Bailey's third field goal of the game, the Cowboys comfortably ahead, 30-17.
But that didn't keep Dallas from tacking on another 14 points in the final four minutes. First Terrell McClain knocked the ball loose from Griffin, with Spencer scooping up the prize and sprinting untouched 5 yards to the end zone for a 37-17 lead. Then when Washington fumbled again, this time Wilcox landing on the ball, Randle took off on the Cowboys' next snap, rumbling 65 yards right up the middle to provide the final points, 44-17.
With the victory, the Cowboys finished 12-4 on the season, their best record since the team's 13-3 campaign of 2007. They loaded the plane and headed back to Dallas still not knowing when and against whom they would play in the first round, the results of Sunday's late afternoon games to decide their next opponent.