NFL teams whose playoff seeding is all but locked up often rest their starters in advance of the postseason. That wasn’t the case for the Cowboys on Saturday night.
Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and most of the rest of the first-string offense remained in the game until early in the fourth quarter. Their last drive ended with Prescott throwing his fifth touchdown pass of the game, which broke Tony Romo’s franchise record for passing touchdowns in a season.
Coach Mike McCarthy said after the game that on top of getting the win, the team wanted all 48 active players to enter the game. But he also said he felt it was important for the team to establish “rhythm and timing going into the playoffs.”
“We talked about it Sunday after last week’s game. We all felt clearly this is the best thing,” McCarthy said. “The players wanted to play. Even the guys who didn’t play wanted to play, so I think it tells you where we are as a football team, and that’s exciting. This was the right thing for us to do, and I’m glad the way it turned out.”
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It wasn’t until 12:44 remained in the game that backup quarterback Cooper Rush entered the game for Dallas. The Cowboys led 37-20 at that point. They wound up winning 51-26.
The Cowboys’ playoff fate was all but certain heading into Saturday. They entered the night as the No. 4 seed in the NFC. In order to advance to the No. 3 seed, they would need the Rams to lose to the 49ers, the Buccaneers to beat the Panthers and the Cardinals to lose to the Seahawks on Sunday. To reach the No. 2 seed, they would need wins by the 49ers, Panthers and Seahawks.
According to FanDuel Sportsbook, the Rams are 3.5-point favorites, the Cardinals are 5.5-point favorites and the Buccaneers are 8.5-point favorites in their respective games.
McCarthy’s decision to leave the starters in was a contrast to Eagles coach Nick Sirianni resting a number of offensive starters, including quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The most notable benefit for the Cowboys was Prescott setting the team record for passing touchdowns in a season with his 37th, surpassing the mark Romo set in 2007. Elliott, meanwhile, got the chance to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the first time since 2019. He did so in the second half.
Prescott finished the game competing 21 of 27 passes for 295 yards, five touchdowns and no turnovers.
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The Cowboys (12-5) lost their previous game, falling to the Cardinals 25-22. The loss snapped a four-game winning streak. Dallas has been the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL this season, but there was concern after the Arizona game that it was in a slump. Prior to that matchup, the Cowboys had scored more than 30 points only twice in their past six games, though one of the games was a 56-14 drubbing of Washington in Week 16.
If the playoff field remains the way it is entering Sunday, Dallas would face the Cardinals again in the wild-card round.