FRISCO, Texas – You know how they say, especially when those of us start to age a little, er, a lot, how time flies? Well, this 2022 NFL season seems to have been in a jet stream.
Why, already it's Week 18. Game 17. Last game of the regular season when it seems we were just pulling up stakes in Oxnard, Calif., like a week ago. That I was talking to some guy my size after that practice against the Chargers in Costa Mesa, Calif., about just how did he think he was going to make it in the NFL at 5-foot-7, but 158 pounds when still having to double-check how to spell his first name. Was it Kav, or wait, Ka capital V? Then only to discover there was something about "Turpin Time." And now five months later it's KaVontae Turpin, NFC Pro Bowl kick returner.
And yet, even after 16 games, even after the Cowboys have won 12 games in back-to-back seasons, lost four. Even after they have clinched an NFC Wild-Card playoff berth, assured of at least playing at Tampa Bay in the first round thanks to this season's second-half streak of winning five of their last six games, they still have something to play for at 3:25 p.m. Sunday against the reminted Washingtons at FedEx Field.
Isn't that right, CeeDee? All those playoff scenarios still in play?
"Yeah, but those damn things stress me out," the Cowboys third-year receiver CeeDee Lamb says. "So I'm going to be honest. I don't pay too much attention about the scenarios because if it's meant for us, it will be for us."
No sense worrying about minutia. The way the 23-year-old receiver who is nine catches short of tying Michael Irvin's single season franchise record of 111 receptions set in 1995 sees it, he's got a game to play on Sunday. A game to win on Sunday. A game for his team to continue to improve and build momentum toward the playoffs.
When you are 23 years old, there is no resting in football.
And that is exactly the proper mindset for a team far from perfect that is 12-4 and having to play a beaten up 7-8-1 Washington team already eliminated from playoff contention and starting a rookie quarterback taking his first regular-season game snaps since last running for 812 yards and 11 touchdowns at North Carolina in 2021.
Welcome to the NFL, Sam Howell. Meet a Cowboys defense having already bagged 51 sacks, their most in a season since 2008, the 59 under Mr. Fix It head coach Wade Phillips, and the second-most sacks since the 53-sack season of 1986, if you can believe that.
So those scenarios, CeeDee, is why there is something to play for, as if plain ol' winning is not enough.
Very simple. No stress. Cowboys win, Giants beat Eagles a second time this year, Cowboys win the NFC East in back-to-back seasons for the first time since five straight from 1992-96, thus then earning a first-round home playoff game against the NFC TBD seventh seed.
Also, CeeDee, and it's really not that complicated, Cowboys win, Eagles lose and somehow San Francisco loses to the 4-12 Cardinals, Cowboys earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. That comes with a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
So play on. Rest? Look, the Cowboys last played the previous Thursday. This final game of the regular season will be their first in 10 days.
"We've just got to control what we can control," says the veteran wise one, Zack Martin. "We've got to go out there and take care of business on Sunday. Then whatever happens up north, then it happens. Really, we have to control what we can control, and what we can control is go out there and play a good football game on Sunday."
Plus, this team has issues to sort out. Take the offensive line. No starting center Tyler Biadasz. High ankle sprain. Out this game, and who knows, while hopeful, still could miss that first-round playoff game too. Oh, think a first-round bye, as logically improbable of all those chips falling the Cowboys way is, wouldn't it be nice for Biadasz to have another week to recoup?
As it is, and as the Cowboys finished the Tennessee game compensating for his loss, the left side of the offensive line stepped to the right, left guard Connor McGovern to center, tackle Tyler Smith to guard and inserting 40-year-old Jason Peters to left tackle, meaning Pro Bowl right guard Martin and salty veteran Tyron Smith at right tackle stay as is. Wouldn't you want that starting five to get a bunch of snaps together in case that's how the Cowboys must go into a first-round game?
Having said all that, so now who is the backup center? And the Cowboys do have an open roster spot after releasing James Washington.
Also, how about newcomer T.Y. Hilton's snaps increasing from 12 to 22 to say 30-something Sunday in his third game with the Cowboys, the 11th-year veteran taking on a bigger role as the third receiver?
And this defense? Don't think the Cowboys are totally cool sorting out that third cornerback spot over these past four games after losing starter Anthony Brown (Achilles). Kelvin Joseph had the first shot. Then a combination of DaRon Bland and Mackensie Alexander. Then Bland and Nahshon Wright. And they still haven't given veteran Trayvon Mullen or Kendall Sheffield a shot yet. We'll see.
And also, this issue of dwindling sacks. Why, the Cowboys had 48 in the first 12 games. That's an average of four a game. But in the last four? Just three, and in two of those nil.
"Teams are bringing extra blockers, six- or seven-man fronts more," defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. says of the downturn. "Also getting the ball out fast," something teams began copying what the Giants and Indianapolis began doing with a lot of screens, rollout passes, smoke screens and misdirection plays.
"And teams are running on us on third down. But we still have some of the highest pressure rates."
Most of all, teams have begun to neutralize sack leader Micah Parsons. The guy with 12 sacks over the first 11 games, now has one over the past five, although to Fowler's point, Micah has 27 pressures over those five games. But that's what happens when teams are double- and triple-teaming out of self-preservation.
Look for adjustments there too.
Pro Football Hall of Fame hopeful DeMarcus Ware and Cowboys all-time sack leader since 1982 with 117, says, while demonstrating to me after Thursday's press conference out here joined by Hall of Fame hopeful Darren Woodson as well, "They need to start blitzing the cornerback off his side." Not only have teams been lining up the running back chipping to Parsons' side, especially on passing third downs, but also offsetting the tight end just wide of the tackle so to counter Parsons taking an outside path to the quarterback.
Don't think Ware, with 138.5 career sacks, doesn't understand the physical punishment the undersized Parsons has been going through of late rushing from defensive end.
So see, this team has plenty to work on in this final game, and more than just dealing with CeeDee's stress-building playoff scenarios. Nothing wrong with a little playoff prep, dealing with, as head coach Mike McCarthy calls, "being stressed" on certain parts of the game.
"We've got to win, that's our focus. First and foremost is win," Dak Prescott says, and usually when Dak talks, teammates follow in line. "Play well, yes, and build momentum, and if we win the division title, that's not necessarily up to us at this point. We've just got to go in and take care of business." And as for the rest, "Yeah, that would be great."
OK, Dak, great. But if you happen to see the Eagles pounding a Giants team with playoff positioning already guaranteed, you into pulling back some of the more prominent personnel if there is nothing more to gain?
"But you don't play the game checking up on every quarter to see what that other score is. You've got to play," Dak says. "As I always say, be where your feet are, and being focused and making sure we're, as I said, stacking good things. Clean up things from last week and be better this week, and make sure we're hitting this thing in stride."
Dak means the playoffs.