The Dallas Cowboys will cap of their 2018 regular season with a trip to New York to face the last place Giants. It’s become a common thing for the Cowboys to close out the year facing a divisional foe, but even more than that - it’s always seems to involve the division winner. For the 10th-straight season, the Cowboys Week 17 game will involve the NFC East division winner. In seven of those game, Dallas either had the division wrapped up or were playing for the East title. In fact, only three times in the last 14 years have the Cowboys been eliminated entering the final week of the regular season. As unsuccessful as some people make them out to be, the Cowboys sure give their fans something to cheer about year after year.
But on Sunday, there won’t be much to cheer about. The East is locked up and there is nothing Dallas can do to change their playoff seeding. Getting to 10 wins would be nice, but better than that, just playing good football would be satisfying. The Cowboys also want to be healthy, which brings me to the first of five things we’ll be watching for on Sunday.
1. Who’s playing?
It seems like this dilemma resurfaces every time the Cowboys have a postseason berth locked up prior to Week 17. Head coach Jason Garrett will try to sell you the same bill of goods every season where every game matters and everyone healthy enough to play will play. Of course, that’s an ambiguous statement because most players are dealing with some sort of injury so anyone could be subjected to sitting. In 2016, those someones were Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee. Both these players had All-Pro seasons, both leaders of their respective units, and both play a brutal position. Sitting them made perfect sense. And the other star players weren’t too far behind as many of the top starters only saw limited action. Even though the Cowboys had a shot to break the franchise record for wins that season, Garrett had his sights set on a bigger goal and sustaining good health took precedence.
But Garrett took a different approach in 2014. In the season-finale against the Washington Redskins, he went all-in to win the game. Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and all they key starters played almost the entire game. Garrett preached about fight and he proved it wasn’t just lip service as he had his foot on the gas the whole game. He even had Dan Bailey attempt an onside kick (it was successful) early in the second quarter. They were in fight mode from start to finish and that’s how you want the team playing entering the postseason.
So, what will we see on Sunday? It’s tough to figure out what Garrett will do as he’s handled things differently in each of his last two playoff seasons. My guess is that we’ll see most of the starters get plenty of playing time, with some exceptions. Those ailing won’t see the field so it’s safe to say we won’t see Zack Martin, Tyrone Crawford, or Anthony Brown. And there really is no benefit in playing Zeke or Lee either. If he rested them in a Week 17 game where he knew they had a first-round bye, why wouldn’t he sit him when they have to play a Wild Card game the following week?
2. Hot Rod
Backup running back Rod Smith has never had more than 10 carries in a game. That will change on Sunday. Last season, even with Elliott unavailable, Smith took a backseat to Alfred Morris who was the primary backup running back. That role belongs to Smith now. The last time the Cowboys traveled to New York, Smith had the best game of his carrier. He only had six rushing attempts for 47 yards, but he found the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown scamper. But bigger than that, he had 113 yards receiving thanks to a big 81-yard catch and run over the middle of the field.
With Zeke seeing limited to no action on Sunday, this puts Rod in line for a bulk of the work against the Giants. Fan favorite Darius Jackson should get some touches as well, but it should be interesting to see if Smith can have an encore performance in the Big Apple.
Who leads the Cowboys in rushing yards on Sunday?— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 28, 2018
3. Return of Tavon
While Rod Smith was a Giant-killer the last time the team traveled to MetLife stadium, it was Tavon Austin who had the best game the last time these teams faced off. In the Cowboys Week 2 victory of the Giants, the offense struck fast as Dak Prescott hit Austin for a 64-yard touchdown pass on the their third play from scrimmage.
Cowboys put together a solid performance tonight! They came out with all wheels turning, Dak hits Tavon Austin for a 65 yard TD #NFL #Dallas #Cowboys #NewYork #Giants— FanWagon (@FanWagonApp) September 17, 2018
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Austin scored another touchdown the following week against the Seattle Seahawks and fans were excited about how he was bringing a spark to the Cowboys offense. Unfortunately, he disappeared, only catching two passes in his last three games before suffering a groin injury. He’s missed the team’s last nine games.
Austin is set to return on Sunday. How much he’ll play remains to be seen, but one can’t help wonder what the offense will look like with a receiving group of Amari Cooper, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Allen Hurns, and Tavon Austin. It might’ve not started out like we wanted, but that looks like a pretty solid group to enter the playoffs with. And with the exception of Beasley, everyone else is new to the team this season as the Cowboys completely remodeled their WR group.
4. Young edge rushers
The Cowboys slapped the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence this past offseason to buy them more time before determining what to do with him long term. While he isn’t going to match last year’s sack total, he’s proven himself to be a valuable asset to the team. He’s going to get paid this offseason.
Penciling Lawrence in for the long haul is a good start, but who else will accompany him on the end? Randy Gregory is having a great season, but fans will always be holding their breath wondering if the clock will ever strike 12 on his NFL career. Then, there’s the youngsters Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong.
Charlton has been a big disappointment ever since the Cowboys selected him in the first round of last year’s draft. He’s missed five games this year, including being a healthy scratch in Week 13 and 14. He returned last week and played in 46 snaps, the most he’s had since Week 5 against Houston.
The rookie Armstrong has been getting reps sparingly throughout the season, averaging about 17 snaps a game. With Charlton active last week, Armstrong never saw the field, but he should see opportunities on Sunday when the starters hit the bench. It will be interesting to see if either one of these young pass rushers can take advantage.
5. Finish the Fight
Why is Garrett so concerned with a “meaningless” Week 17 game? Could it have something to do with the pattern of the team’s last six playoff appearances? Maybe finishing the season on a winning note is more important than we think.
What will you be watching for on Sunday?