The dust hadn’t even settled from the loss to the Arizona Cardinals when Mike McCarthy, during his post-game press conference, was asked about the possibility of resting his starters in Week 18. The head coach wanted none of it; he was adamant that his team would play to win.
The discourse all throughout the week leading up to the game was spent debating whether or not the Cowboys should rest their starters; I was publicly on the side of resting them, especially after several key players landed on the COVID-19 list.
The argument was simple: so many things had to go right for the Cowboys in order to make such a move worth it. First things first, Dallas needed to beat the Eagles on the road while not losing any players to injury. That in and of itself is hard to guarantee. Then they needed the 49ers to beat the favored Rams and the Seahawks to beat the favored Cardinals. All of that just to move up to the three seed, while a Buccaneers loss on top of the other two would move them up to number two. It all seemed too improbable to risk players’ health.
But, as we’ve been reminded several times throughout this season, McCarthy has the job he has for a reason and he knows better than us. This isn’t some first-time head coach learning on the job, either. McCarthy coached for 13 seasons in Green Bay and went to the playoffs in nine of them. He won at least one playoff game in six of those nine playoff appearances, too.
McCarthy knows how to get to the playoffs and, more importantly, how to win once you get there. Obviously, he didn’t know that the Cardinals would drop their fourth game in five weeks or that the Rams would blow a 17-0 lead to a fringe playoff team starting a quarterback with an injured thumb.
All McCarthy knew was that in order for anything that happened on Sunday to mean anything to Dallas, they had to win on Saturday. And they did just that. McCarthy took a gamble, and it worked out in a big way. Now, instead of hosting the Cardinals, the Cowboys draw a San Francisco team that barely made the postseason. More importantly, the Cowboys are assured of avoiding the Packers in Lambeau Field should Dallas advance to the Divisional Round.
In a way, this decision to play the starters was an embodiment of McCarthy’s entire demeanor. We’ve often talked about his “Pittsburgh style,” a workmanlike approach to the game that emphasizes winning at all costs. “Just keep your head down, focus on winning, and the rest will figure itself is out.” That’s the approach McCarthy had in Green Bay, and it’s something he’s translated to Dallas.
More than that, though, is McCarthy’s willingness to be aggressive. That’s in stark contrast to his predecessor, of course. Whether it’s having your quarterback throw the ball 58 times in his first game since a gruesome injury while playing against the defense that shut down Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, or trying to block a punt near the endzone, or even going for it on fourth down when conventional wisdom says to punt, McCarthy is a risk-taker.
Sometimes it doesn’t always work out. Saturday night could have gone very poorly, but it didn’t. Trevon Diggs sometimes gets beaten for big gains because he goes for the interception. And failures on fourth-down attempts can hurt your team, as it did against Denver earlier in the year. But McCarthy knows that when those gambles do work out, it provides a huge boost for his team, and he’s built his philosophy around trying to maximize those opportunities as much as possible.
It worked out one last time this year, at least for the regular season, and Dallas now has the third seed. They’re preparing to take on the 49ers at home instead of hosting the team that just handed them their only loss since December. That doesn’t guarantee a win by any means, but it does help their chances. With McCarthy’s approach to the game, the Cowboys have created their own luck heading into the big dance.
All that’s left to do now is dance.