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Science Lab: Cowboys Playing Chess With Eagles


Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, TX — The more I found myself combating takes that suggested the Dallas Cowboys should rest their starters as early as Week 16 against the Philadelphia Eagles and, subsequently, in final two regular season games leading into their coming matchup against the Washington Commanders, the more I accidentally became a doppelganger of former NFL head coach Herm Edwards.

"You play to win the games — hello?! You don't just play it to play!"

I mean, seriously, let's truly think about this for a moment.

Yes, the Cowboys wasted a top-shelf opportunity in awarding the Jacksonville Jaguars an overtime win in Week 15 (yes, awarded, seeing as it continues to be proven that the only team who can truly defeat Dallas in 2022-23 is the one with a Star on its helmet).

And, yes, that virtually eliminated their chances of stealing away the NFC East throne and a higher playoff seeding in the process, but you know what it did not do?

It didn't ACTUALLY eliminate their chances.

It became a long shot, but the shot was still theirs for the taking, so holstering the guns and allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to comfortably take the division and No. 1 seed in the NFC — on Christmas Eve at AT&T Stadium, no less — should've never been a thought that crossed anyone's mind, anywhere on the football-loving planet; yet there were actually those who were totally fine with letting things unfold in that manner.

You hate to see it.

Thankfully, the Cowboys and head coach Mike McCarthy know a little something about how to play chess, of which NFL football morphs into in the final weeks of the regular season, but allow me to explain what I mean by that.

Once it was discovered Jalen Hurts, a frontrunner for NFL MVP season, suffered an injured throwing shoulder that would require rest and, as such, thrust Gardner Minshew under center, the Cowboys' odds of taking the division suddenly increased despite what happened in Jacksonville. All the Cowboys had to do was defeat Minshew to keep the race alive for at least one more week, and so they did, with a 40-34 victory on Santa's travel day.

Then came the Tennessee Titans, a team whose 2022 fate rests solely on their Week 18 battle with the aforementioned Jaguars — resting starters like Derrick Henry in the process to ensure they'd be as close to fully loaded as is possible in the wake of losing Ryan Tannehill for the season due to injury.

Defeat the Titans on Thursday and the Eagles would feel pressure to make a decision on Hurts, and they considered it, but felt it more prudent to ask Minshew to do what they pay him to do (you know, like what Cooper Rush actually did in the wake of losing Dak Prescott?) and to clinch the division and top seat in the NFC in his mulligan attempt.

He and the Eagles failed miserably in that venture, being quieted fairly easily by Andy Dalton and the Saints defensive unit in a 20-10 loss — in Philadelphia.

Just like that, McCarthy's use of The Sicilian Defense paid off.

Bobby Fischer would be proud.

Now, Philly is facing the same decision as last week regarding Hurts but without the luxury of being able to lean on a Week 19 should things go awry in their third attempt at securing the top seat(s), which makes it a surprise to absolutely no one that Hurts is expected to take the field in the finale against the New York Giants. If the Eagles had it their way, Hurts would have received nearly a full month of rest before seeing game action again.

Instead, thanks to the Cowboys "not taking any weight off of the gas", as linebacker Leighton Vander Esch put it on Monday, Hurts may have to adjust how he approaches and plays the game for the remainder of the season to protect his shoulder.

For a usually aggressive mobile quarterback who has the second-highest rushing yards tally on his team, this matters in a big way because taking off and running with the ball puts him in danger of taking a hit that could ruin the Eagles postseason.

And as far as throwing the ball goes, well, let's just say it won't feel great if he has to throw it 40+ times to win a game, combined with the fact he may feel extra anxious about pressure in the pocket, be it real or perceived, knowing all it might take is one sack to put Minshew back on the field.

Sidebar: In no way, shape or form is any of this to be misconstrued as hope for injury, but simply an assessment of the reality of the situation the Cowboys have now placed Hurts and the Eagles in.

He's not healthy, and head coach Nick Sirianni "believes" he'll be "healthy enough" to play against the Giants, words that are quite telling of how uncomfortable and anxious the Eagles are heading into a fight against New York wherein Brian Daboll has already declared no starters will be rested despite having clinched the sixth seed in the NFC with their defeat of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

"No," said Daboll when asked if he's considering waving the white flag against the Eagles.

It must also be said that Daboll has plenty of reason to try and punch the Eagles in the proverbial mouth, because Philly humiliated him on his own field with a 48-22 throttling in Week 14 and there's vengeance to be had at Lincoln Financial Field this week.

Let's add another layer to this conversation though, as it pertains to Daboll understanding the long game for a Giants team that's registered four losses and a tie over their last eight games (translation: they haven't done anything to deserve rest but instead need one more high-caliber test to tune up for the playoffs).

It's the fact the Giants have to understand what most don't: defeating the Eagles prevents them from having home field advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Giants lay down on Sunday, it gifts that to the Eagles and greatly increases their chances of hoisting a second Lombardi trophy.

This isn't checkers, folks.

In the end, the Giants don't have seeding to play for but they do have revenge and foresight on their minds, and it's the Cowboys who are giving them a chance to help themselves and the Cowboys by defeating the Eagles on Sunday afternoon. Of course, it goes without saying that Daboll could change his mind, but doing so flies in the face of every reason he has to not —as noted above. And should the Giants reverse course and heighten the odds of the Eagles winning, it doesn't change the pressure that's been applied to the Eagles by the Cowboys.

It all began with McCarthy refusing to let the pedal up a single inch from the floor, in a season that's also seen Dallas not suffer a single two-game losing streak.

They enter the finale in Washington on a two-game win streak fueled by their understanding of all of the variables, and making it a three-game streak of victories would, at worst, give them all the momentum they'll absolutely need and are seeking heading into the playoffs.

At best, well, checkmate.

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