FRISCO, Texas – Playoffs?
Somehow former Saints coach Jim Mora's one-word exasperation still sticks in my mind.
But even though the Cowboys are 7-7, yes, they are tied for first place in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, and playoffs seemed to be all the talk in the locker room on Wednesday as the Cowboys began preparation for Sunday's game at Philadelphia.
Now, the Cowboys weren't being presumptive, as if they think they are going to the playoffs. No, they realize the importance of beating the Eagles on Sunday has playoff-like implications. Win and you move on. Lose and you just might go home.
Yep, the Cowboys win, and they assure themselves of a spot in the playoffs by clinching the NFC East title. Lose to the equally 7-7 Eagles, and their only chance to win the division would be for the Eagles to lose the final game of the season to the Giants and the Cowboys beat Washington, then the Cowboys would break the 8-8 tie with a better division record (5-1 to 4-2).
"No one has to tell anyone in this room how important this game is," Cowboys newly-minted Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott said.
He was quick to point out, "It's a championship game."
Zack Martin seconded that motion, saying, "This is a playoff game for us. It's going to matter how we come out and execute on Sunday."
And as if the importance of Game 15 is not storyline enough, more have come piling on to create shots galore.
- Of All Things: Not as if this 3:25 p.m. Sunday game at The Linc needs even more intrigue, but of all things, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott misses the first practice of his four-year career on Wednesday, head coach Jason Garrett unusually forthcoming starting off his Wednesday press conference with the surprising news of Dak going to be limited in practice with a sore shoulder that Dr. Zeke announces is a sprained A.C. joint. Word is, he was extremely limited, Cooper Rush, who arrived in 2017 as the team's backup quarterback, actually took the first-team reps in practice on a Wednesday for the first time. That meant practice squad quarterback Clayton Thorson, who normally plays a little wide receiver and defensive back on the scout team with Cooper playing quarterback, actually ran the scout team on Wednesday. And contrary to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saying the win over the Rams was "just what the doctor ordered," this situation is "not what the doctored ordered" at this time of the season. There seems to be a level of optimism Dak will be able to play Sunday. As Martin said, "Knowing Dak, you'd have to kill him to keep him off the field." But how well he can play might be another issue.
- Speaking Of Dak: Funny what a couple of losses late in the season will do to perception. At one point this season, folks were promoting Dak as a potential league MVP. But now, he wasn't even selected to the Pro Bowl. The NFC Pro Bowl QBs are Drew Brees, of course, Russell Wilson the start and Aaron Rodgers. Why Rodgers over Dak? When it comes to stats, Dak is third in completions (340) and Rodgers is tied for 11th (300). Dak is second in passing yards (4,334). Rodgers is 11th (3,463). Dak is fifth in average yards per attempt(8.35). Rodgers is 15th (7.31). Dak is tied for fourth in touchdown passes (26). Rodgers is ninth (24). And in QB rating, Dak is 12th (99.3). Rodgers is 10th (100.4). So how come Rodgers instead of Dak? The Packers are 11-3 and in the playoffs. The Cowboys are 7-7 and still scrambling to qualify.
- Red Alert: Guarantee you the Eagles have been paying attention to this stat: In six of the Cowboys last seven games, tight ends and running backs (including fullbacks) have caught 72 passes for 621 yards. And guess who the Eagles primarily throw to these days with two of their top wide receivers on IR (DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery) and Nelson Agholor having missed three of the past four games with a knee injury? In the 37-27 win Sunday over Washington – the last seven points scored on a last-second fumble return for a touchdown – the Eagles completed 10 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown to tight ends Zack Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Then, now-starting running back Miles Sanders added six catches for 50 yards and a touchdown. Linebackers and safeties beware.
- Home Grown: In fact, in that game against the Redskins, the only Eagles wide receiver to catch a pass was first-year wideout Greg Ward. Name sound familiar? Ward went to high school at Tyler (Texas) John Tyler and played quarterback at the University of Houston. Caught seven passes for 61 yards and the game-winner with 26 seconds left against the 'Skins, his first NFL touchdown. The converted quarterback entered the league undrafted in 2017 with the Eagles, had been cut three times and picked up by the Eagles this year after playing for San Antonio in the now-defunct AAF football league. Just this season the Eagles signed him off the practice squad twice. And how about this? In high school, Ward quarterbacked John Tyler to a 45-38 victory over Whitehouse and none other than quarterback Patrick Mahomes for the 2012 district championship. Mahomes Tweeted out after Ward's big catch Sunday, "That's my guy man! Congrats! But im still mad he beat me for the district championship in high school."
- Day In History: On this day, Dec. 18, 31 years ago, the Cowboys lost the final game of the season in 1988 to Philadelphia, 23-7, finishing 3-13. That turned out to be the final game in Tom Landry's 29-year coaching career. The loss also solidified the No. 1 draft spot in 1989 over the Green Bay Packers, who won their final two games to finish 4-12. That loss earned the Cowboys the opportunity to draft quarterback Troy Aikman. There was not another quarterback selected in the first round that year, and it wasn't until the fourth pick in the second round that Kansas City took the next one, Tim Elkins.
- Pseudo Playoff Shots: While Cowboys recently-named Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith missed practice on Wednesday with a right eye swollen shut – the Cowboys think it's some sort of sty – Eagles starting right tackle Lane Johnson, some think was a Pro Bowl-snub, missed the Washington game with a high ankle sprain and did not practice on Wednesday, with his status for Sunday's game uncertain … Three of the Cowboys' top four linebackers did not practice Wednesday: Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee and Joe Thomas. LVE still will be out with the neck issue. Lee likely is on the same plan as last week, just get him to the game. Thomas has a knee contusion. All the reason why the Cowboys signed Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith, who has played for Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco and two games this year with Jacksonville. Am told he got some first-team snaps, too … Trivia: Smith is one of 10 defensive players named Super Bowl MVP. Four of those are Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley, defensive linemen Randy White and Harvey Martin as co-MVPs and Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown.
This likely is not a coincidence. Eight of the top-10 teams in turnover differential have already clinched playoff spots, with the other two being Minnesota at 10-4, currently the sixth seed in the NFC, and Tennessee at 8-6, seventh right now in the AFC. The Cowboys at minus-1 rank 16th and Philly at minus-6 tied for 22nd. Indeed, no wonder they are hanging on by a thread in the NFC East at 7-7.