It’s a recurring question in the NFL for top-seeded teams. Once you have locked up your playoff position with regular season contests left, how do you handle those games? Do you rest important players to protect them from the risk of injury, or do you keep pressing the pedal to the metal to keep winning as you enter the postseason?
Bill Barnwell at ESPN took a look at this issue last December around this time, using the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots as examples. It was a bit too early for the Pats, as they ended up squandering their top seed in the AFC over the last two games, and then had to go on the road to Denver for the AFC Championship where they lost. In Dallas, that’s not a question. With two games to go, the Cowboys have locked up their post-season position.
What, then, are the factors to consider going into these last two games? Barnwell saw two issues — staying “hot” and injury maintenance or prevention. Let’s add a third issue — shaking the rust off.
Do the Cowboys Need to Stay Hot?
On this question, Barnwell said he looked at it in 2012, and found it wasn’t critical to postseason success.
It's never good to use one team as your anecdotal argument to pursue or not pursue a strategy, and when you look at the bigger picture, there's scant evidence that teams who get hot in December actually do better than teams with similar records that step off the accelerator around Christmas. I studied the idea of "peaking at the right time" in 2012 and found that teams who got hot just before the playoffs weren't able to carry that success over to the postseason.
Things haven't changed since then, either. The 2012 Ravens started 9-2 and lost four of their last five games before Joe Flacco caught fire and won the Super Bowl. The 2013 Seahawks started 11-1 and failed on their first two attempts to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before winning in Week 17 and running the postseason table. And last year, in Week 17, the Patriots sat six of their starters (including Rob Gronkowski) and left Tom Brady in the locker room at halftime against the Bills, losing 17-9. They weren't exactly rusty in the postseason.
Whether Barnwell believes it is of little consequence in Dallas. The issue is what Jason Garrett believes. The evidence suggests that Garrett has been influenced by the disappointing finish to the 2007 Cowboys’ season, when they were the #1 seed and lost in the divisional round to the Giants, whom they had beaten twice that year. Dallas lost two of its final three games after starting 12-1, including a blowout loss in Washington in week 17. Garrett was offensive coordinator that season.
With that lesson in mind, Garrett played his starters the last week of 2014 with their playoff seeding locked up.
“We played the next week. They wanted to play, they played well. It was a big win for our football team,” Garrett said reflecting on the Week 17 win over Washington in 2014. “We played the next week against Detroit. We won our first playoff game before losing to Green Bay a couple weeks later. But we just felt like it was the right thing for our team. Our players embraced it and did a really good job in that particular game.”
Given his commitment to process and winning each moment, it’s very likely that Garrett will want to keep the Cowboys’ sharp these last two games by playing his regulars and seeking to win each game.
How Will the Cowboys Handle Their Banged Up Players?
There is a fairly long injury list this week. Five Cowboys didn’t practice on Thursday, including Tyron Smith, Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Cedric Thornton, and Justin Durant, while Mo Claiborne is not even on the report. J.J. Wilcox has also been out, and Orlando Scandrick has been on reduced snaps. Jack Crawford and Sean Lee were on limited practice Thursday.
It’s not as clear how Coach Garrett will handle these players. My expectation is that the Cowboys will rest the guys who need it to be 100% by the first playoff game, but not the players whose absence might put other players at risk.
What do I mean by that? That means that Tyron Smith is likely to keep playing, but the defensive linemen who are banged up are either going to sit out these last two games, or get limited snaps. Smith is needed to protect Dak Prescott or any other quarterback who plays, especially with Chaz Green on injured reserve, as no one else has played left tackle this year.
Randy Gregory’s return this week is very timely, as the Cowboys now risk nothing by giving him a crash course at defensive end, and he can take many of the snaps Lawrence and T. Crawford would have played. However, even with Gregory active, if they also sit Thornton, the Cowboys will only have seven guys in a rotation that has been eight strong all year. Do they keep the just-activated Zach Moore, and cut someone else to activate Gregory? Do they use Kyle Wilber some, since he’s always active as a special team ace? Or do they just roll with seven defensive linemen?
Does Anyone Need the Rust Knocked Off?
This potentially applies to several players. We’ve already mentioned Randy Gregory, who serves the dual purpose of helping Dallas rest dinged up defensive ends and seeing if his speed can be utilized to improve the Dallas pass rush.
Mo Claiborne is another important case. Since he’s been out so long and wants some game action before the playoffs, one can expect him to get it if he’s healthy enough. J.J. Wilcox has been practicing and is likely to get game action.
What about Darren McFadden? Playing him a fair amount and resting Zeke more will definitely make it harder for Zeke to chase down Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record, but it might make Dallas more explosive in the playoffs.
The question likely to get the most ink over the next two weeks will be whether to play Tony Romo at any point in these last two games. There is not time to address that question in full here. Let’s just say for now that it’s unlikely, for three reasons. First, because Dak is a rookie, Coach Garrett will want him to get all the reps he can in preparation for the playoffs. Second, because Dak is durable and young, the health risk of playing him is minimal. Third, playing Romo at this point is liable to stir up a hornet’s nest that Garrett would likely want to avoid to keep the Cowboys focused.
By starting the season 12-2, the Cowboys have the luxury of knowing they have a bye in three weeks, and can plan accordingly for a home playoff game in January. Don’t expect them to ease up on anyone between now and then.