You play to win the game. That is a mantra for the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys certainly want to win against the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, and getting on a roll would be a confidence builder for the playoffs. But they are in a bit of an unusual situation. They are almost locked in for a wild card spot, having little to no chance of winning the division and getting a home game, much less the bye awarded the number one seed. Additionally, they are coming off a win that revealed a ton of warts. Injuries are also adding up. They face decisions such as resting some players for the postseason even if that might make winning a game or more harder. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle consider what is the right approach going forward.
David: As an Arizona State alum, I feel compelled to once again echo the words of the now-former Sun Devils head coach, Herm Edwards: YOU PLAY. TO WIN. THE GAME. Hello??? You play to win the game! You don’t play to just play it!
While Edwards certainly should’ve heeded his own advice, that’s a different story for another day. But the Cowboys still need to be playing to win these games. They’re not yet locked into the top Wild Card berth, even if the odds are overwhelmingly pointing to that right now. They could still win the division - the Eagles’ final three games, which could all come without Jalen Hurts playing, all come against teams that are fighting for their playoff lives in the Cowboys, Saints (somehow), and the Giants. And even if all those dominoes fall their way and Dallas wins the NFC East but fails to secure the top seed in the conference, that’s still better than having to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
On the flip side, the Cowboys aren’t guaranteed to be the highest seeded Wild Card team yet either. It would take just as many dominoes falling another way, but Dallas could still drop all the way down to the seventh seed, where they’d likely face the San Francisco 49ers or Minnesota Vikings. If the Cowboys were in a situation of having no chance - and I mean literally a 0.00% chance - to do any better or worse than the five seed, this would be a different conversation. But you play until there’s nothing left to play for, and there is technically still plenty to play for.
Tom: There is no argument that the players on the field are going to be doing everything they can to win. But there are a couple of elements where the coaching staff may need to step back and take a longer view. One is being cautious with players who are fighting injuries or illness. Three names jump out. Micah Parsons has been ill this week, missing the first two practices. Leighton Vander Esch had a stinger against the Jacksonville Jaguars and had to leave the game. And Jake Ferguson is coming back from a concussion. Even though this is the biggest rivalry the Cowboys have, there is a very strong argument for not pushing any of them to play, or at least limiting their participation. Having them closer to full health in January may be more important.
Then there is the problem at cornerback. While Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland are balling, the other corner situation is a mess. Kelvin Joseph was benched and now there is a competition to see who starts. This might be a game where the team really needs to use different players to see who can handle the job, even if it risks giving up more big plays. Taking that risk may be more important in the long run.
David: I think McCarthy has developed a pretty consistent trend of being appropriately cautious with injuries regardless of the stakes in any particular game, which is a great attribute as a coach in a league full of coaches who seem to prioritize winning over player safety. So if McCarthy sends a player out onto the field, I have full confidence that they’re not being forced to play or doing something that would pose a serious risk of re-injury.
Speaking of confidence, though, this Cowboys team can’t be mistaken for having much of it at the moment. They nearly lost to the Houston Texans - the Texans, of all teams - and then squandered a 17-point lead to the Jaguars before literally dropping the ball in overtime. The Eagles aren’t the same kind of threat without Hurts under center, but they’re no chumps without him either. Remember, Gardner Minshew went 6-6 as a starter in Jacksonville - and threw for nearly 3,300 yards and 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions while leading three game-winning drives - before the team decided to tank for Trevor in 2020.
Getting a win over this Eagles team will still mean something. Not only does it improve their odds of winning the division (albeit by a very slim margin) but it’s a chance for this team to bounce back after a tough but avoidable loss. The Cowboys need to restore some confidence in themselves right now, and playing things safe against a bitter rival is not the way to do that.
Tom: But what if the cost of winning is setting up another one and done playoff appearance? Confidence is one thing, but getting the team right is more important. Having Minshew may be a great way to test those corners, and it might also be a time for the suddenly absent pass rush to come back. They have a second opportunity to continue getting things back on track when they play the Tennessee Titans, who are now without their staring quarterback, Ryan Tannehill.
Don’t forget the other issues Dallas has to work on. The running game largely disappeared in the disastrous second half against the Jaguars, the offensive line is still working on some continuity with Tyron Smith now at right tackle, the run defense did not look good at all, and that receiving corps is very much in need of T.Y. Hilton to be a difference maker. The Eagles are a formidable squad even without Hurts, and there are many ways this could go wrong. It is a bad place to be this close to the playoffs, but the team has to work on fixing a long list of problems. That needs to be the real focus for the team. If they win, well and good, but don’t put the postseason at risk to win a game that may have no real impact on seeding. They still have two more games against less loaded rosters to get back to winning.
David: All of the things the Cowboys need to fix are things that only come with live game reps, though. If Dallas is trying to get right and give themselves confidence that they can do anything of substance come playoff time, they have to see it succeed against a quality opponent. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Last year, the Cowboys won five of their final six games, but four of those five wins came against teams with a combined record of 20-33; the only other win was against the Eagles’ backups in Week 18.
They didn’t beat the best down the stretch, and it resulted in getting beat by the best once the playoffs began. The Cowboys have yet to face a team with a winning record since December began this year but they’ll do so for sure this week and likely against both the Titans and Commanders afterwards. This is an opportunity to make up for the way last year’s regular season ended, as well as exorcising the demons that have come to haunt this year’s team as of late.
Regardless of which side of this debate we may fall on, though, it all comes down to one simple thing: Dallas forever, Philly for never. There’s no better way to wake up on Christmas morning than with a Cowboys W.