EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Meaningless?
Meaningless, you say?
Well, somehow that message didn't get to the Dallas Cowboys.
In fact, had you asked them to spell "meaningless" heading into Sunday afternoon's game here at MetLife Stadium, the final game of the regular season with the NFC East all wrapped up and their fourth seed in the NFC playoffs solidified, the best they would have done was m-e-a-n-i-n-g …
"This wasn't meaningless to me or meaningless to the other guys who played, or meaningless to the guys who didn't play," said Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
Nope, the Cowboys came here meaning to win, to boost their record to 10-6, or as Dak said of what he was thinking heading into Game 16 as he was hurriedly dressing afterward, "I need to go get that No. 10. That 9 was the lowest I'd ever want to get."
And you know what? So what if Ezekiel Elliott didn't play. So what if Tyron Smith and Zack Martin didn't play. So what if Tyrone Crawford didn't play, and so what if then DeMarcus Lawrence didn't play after halftime, irritating his shoulders.
So what Xavier Su'a-Filo suffered an ankle sprain the second play of the third quarter and never returned. Or that Leighton Vander Esch got leg whipped by friendly fire with 11:26 left in the game and didn't return.
And you know what again? So what if the erstwhile 5-10 Giants, who, too, really had nothing tangible to play for, took a 25-21 lead and then a 32-28 lead and a 35-28 lead, all in the fourth quarter.
You remember my Friday point about those Comeback Cowboys, the ones who Never Said Never this entire 2018 season?
Well, stencil that on your forehead for posterity sake as a reminder in case these Cowboys find themselves in what appears to be impossible situations in Saturday's first-round wild-card playoff game against Seattle, 7:15 p.m. at AT&T Stadium on Fox.
Cowboys 36, Giants 35.
Yep, not only did the Cowboys, with one hand tied behind their backs, drive 70 yards for a Cole Beasley diving touchdown from 32 yards out on fourth-and-15 with Dak scrambling left for his game-life with only 1:12 to play. Not only did head coach Jason Garrett bet the house on the two-point conversion with Dak converting on a throw to Michael Gallup, his fifth option that became the second as the rookie raced across the end zone waving his hand high in the air that he was open.
Why, the Cowboys then had to prevent the Giants from driving into field goal range from their own 48 after the kickoff with 1:05 left to secure this most unlikely victory, causing Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, riding the charter flight with the team back to Dallas, to say passing by, "Now that's a fun way to go into the playoffs."
Who knows if momentum is a real thing, the Cowboys heading into the playoffs on a two-game winning streak and having won seven of their last eight games. Tell you what, though, building confidence is.
Consider some of this since Garrett's desire heading into the final game, with the meaning being debated on an hourly basis this past week, was for his team to improve, for his offense to get back on track come hell or high water.
· Dak threw for a career-high 387 yards despite getting sacked four times and hit another 10 by the blitzing Giants, who had nothing to lose.
· Dak completed a career-high four touchdown passes. No dinking and dunking, either, those covering 13 yards, 19 yards, 39 yards and 32 yards – three on third down and the last on fourth down – to finish with a 120.2 QB rating. Pretty clutch, 'eh.
· Allen Hurns set up one of those fourth-quarter touchdowns with a 49-yard reception.
· Tight end Blake Jarwin did something he had not done all season long, catching a touchdown pass, and then, when he caught two more, the first-year player became the first Cowboys tight end since Billy Joe DuPree in 1973 to catch three touchdown passes in one game. Jarwin now, not Mike Ditka or Jay Novacek or Jason Witten. And when asked if he ever had caught three TD passes in one game, he said, "I think I had four all time in college," while Ezekiel Elliott was running past in the background yelling, "Hat trick! Hat trick!"
· D-Law got the sack he needed to finish with 10.5, becoming just the fourth Cowboys player to record back-to-back double-digit sack seasons since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982.
· Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who quietly has constructed a very good season, finally got his first interception of the year.
· Two troubling aspects of the offensive game were canned, the Cowboys converting 11 of 17 third downs (a season-high 65 percent), matching the most since the stat could be researched, and not only converted three of four red-zone possessions into touchdowns but also went one-for-one in goal-to-go touchdown efficiency.
· The 419 total yards gained were the second most this season.
· And Zeke, without even playing – as didn't Rams running back Todd Gurley while the Cowboys defense limited Giants running back Saquon Barkley to 109 yards rushing – became just the 11th back in NFL history to win two rushing titles in the first three years of his career, moving the Cowboys into second place in the NFL with seven total rushing titles, behind Cleveland's 11.
· Maybe best of all, while Vander Esch (shin bruise) and Su'a-Filo (ankle) departed with injuries, I'm told they both could have come back into the game if absolutely needed.
So somewhat of a win-win for Garrett and the Cowboys, wanting to play all out in this game, but certainly hoping not to sustain any new injuries.
In fact, about the only concession the Cowboys made to "meaningless" came after pulling within 35-34 with 1:12 to play. They decided to go for two to basically end the game instead of risking having to go into overtime, then make the 3-hour, 45-minute flight home while knowing they might be scheduled to play that playoff game on Saturday, which they found out just after 8 p.m. on their way back that they indeed would.
"Just felt like the right thing to do," Garrett said. "Knowing we've got to play a game next week, let's go win it right now."
Win they did, and in the end, this team almost celebrated this win more so than they did when given their NFC East champion hats after beating Tampa Bay the previous Sunday
Maybe it was because the defense, strafed for a four-quarter high 441 yards (Houston had 462 with OT) this season, came up with holding the Giants to just a field goal after coughing the ball up at their own 24-yard line and facing a second-and-1 at their own 9, keeping them within one score late in the fourth quarter, 35-28.
Or maybe it was that final drive, trailing buy seven, with 3:08 left, needing a score, but 70 yards from the end zone.
"We knew what we had to do," said center Joe Looney. "My quarterback is a phenomenal leader. We followed him, followed the leader."
Why, on the confidence-building drive, the Cowboys converted a third-and-4 and then with 1:19 left the fourth-and-15 from the 32-yard line. And on that one, it wasn't pretty, the Giants once again coming with an all-out blitz, forcing Dak out of the pocket to his left.
"I saw them coning, then saw the defender's back to me," he said of firing into the back of the end zone to the cutting Cole Beasley, who made a spectacular diving catch initially called incomplete, with even Beasley thinking he had caught the ball out of the back of the end zone.
"Initially, I thought he caught it," Dak said.
"I just didn't know my knee hit," Beasley said, getting up dejected when seeing the official motioning incomplete, which would have been ballgame.
But for a change, upon further review, it was obvious that Beasley's knee hit in bounds before sliding out of the back of the end zone, and as John Madden taught us long time ago, one knee or elbow equals two feet.
Then the two-point conversion, Dak saying in the back of his mind all along, "I was coming out there to get a win."
And then, when the Cowboys defense stopped the Giants on a four-and-out from the 48-yard line, Anthony Brown breaking up the fourth-down try on a diving deflection, these new Cowboys celebrated but good.
"Just the intensity of the offense (on the sideline) when the Giants had the ball," Dak said of that final defensive possession becoming a possible momentum boost heading into the playoffs.
"Tell you what, the relentless spirit of this team showed up," Garrett said. "Played 60 minutes, handled some success, handled some adversity, kept coming back to win."
And as for meaningless?
"That might be for people outside our building, talking about the meaningful and meaningless nature of the game," Garrett said. "They are all meaning-FUL to us."
Nothing less, that's for dang sure.