In 2007, the Dallas Cowboys went 11-1 and were dominating the league. Then they throttled back and started resting people. Finishing 13-3, they had a first round bye in the playoffs, but were defeated 21-17 by the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl. There is a belief, held by the Dallas coaching staff according to the pregame show on 105.3 The Fan, that the team lost its edge because it played so long without the games meaning anything. In 2014, that was not going to happen again.
The game against Washington did not really mean a lot as far as standings go. Dallas has the NFC East sewn up and needs an improbable combination of circumstances to move up from the third seed. But if there was any thought the Cowboys would mail this one in and take it easy going into the playoffs, it was snuffed by the way they played the first half, especially on one play. With a 20-7 lead, the Dallas offense was cooking and the defense seemed to have gotten over an early glitch that let DeSean Jackson get loose on a 68-yard screen play for a touchdown. And Jason Garrett, the coach who in the past was seen as being to conservative, as playing not to lose rather than to win, called an onside kick with 11:30 left in the second quarter. Dallas recovered, drove down the field with help from some Washington penalties, and DeMarco Murray ended the drive with a nine-yard run where none of the defenders seemed particularly interested in actually tackling him.
It was not a perfect game for Dallas, as the offense went strangely quiet from the last drive of the first half, not getting a single first down in the third quarter. But the 27-10 lead they build in the first half was itself probably too much for Washington to overcome, with the final score of 44-17 a result mainly of a Terrell McClain strip sack/Anthony Spencer recovery for a touchdown and Joseph Randle breaking free for 65 yards inside the two minute warning after the starters were finally pulled and Washington went to sleep defensively.
Jason Garrett came into this game wanting to make a statement. He was willing to play his starters because, as he has said often, players play. And he wanted the winning attitude that the Dallas players have developed this month to continue unabated into the postseason. But with the fall off in performance by the offense, the starters were still on the field in the fourth quarter, and Tony Romo had his first interception in December deep in their own end of the field. It gave Washington the ball on the 16-yard line, but Bruce Carter came up with his second pick of the game (off an Orlando Scandrick tip) to snuff that threat out..
The defense was the best part of the second half. While the Cowboys offense seemed to lose their touch after being completely on fire (scoring on the first five possessions of the game), the defense remained tough throughout, allowing some big plays, but not giving up points until the 6:45 point of the fourth quarter when Robert Griffin III scored a touchdown escaping the pass rush. Prior to that, he was under a good amount of pressure.
There were some injury concerns, most notably Anthony Hitchens and Tyrone Crawford, but Crawford returned and the hope is that Hitchen's ankle injury not severe enough to keep him out of the first playoff game.
There were also the record setting performances by several of the Cowboys. DeMarco Murray became the all time team leader for rushing yards, 100 yard games, and total yards from scrimmage in a season. Passing Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame member Emmitt Smith. Dez Bryant first tied and then passed Terrell Owens for the single season touchdown reception record. And Tony Romo passed a couple of legendary quarterbacks, including Y.A. Tittle, on the all time yardage list in the NFL. This is after he passed Troy Aikman for the team record last week. The announcers were talking about the new triplets - for good reason.
It was a game that showed clear domination by the Cowboys early, then gave the coaching staff plenty of things to work on late. It saw Carter and Anthony Spencer both continuing their upward trend late in the season. It saw the defense repeatedly frustrate Washington. It showed that Garrett was determined not to pull his starters until this one was in the books. A sideline report late in the game remarked that none of the starters wanted to come out of this game. They all knew exactly what the head coach was trying to do. And they are totally bought into his plan. As a result, the Cowboys have been dominant in December. This with a starting quarterback who had led them to a 12-17 record in December prior to this year.
It showed a team that is fully committed to winning this season. It doesn't matter the situation, this team is not going to just accept a loss. It should serve them well into January.
Playing some Cowboys football in January. Isn't that a wonderful thought to have?