Once more into the regular season breach, our friends. The Dallas Cowboys wind up things this year at the Washington Commanders. The two teams are in very different places. Dallas is assured of a playoff spot with no worse than the five seed in the NFC. Washington has been eliminated in surprising fashion, at least as far as head coach Ron Rivera is concerned. That leaves the Commanders with nothing to play for, a reality that is reflected in the decision to give untested Sam Howell his first start at quarterback.
While a wild card game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the most likely outcome for the Cowboys, there is still about a 10% probability that a win at FedEx Field could get them the NFC East Crown, the number two seed, and a home playoff game. There is even a tiny chance that could lead to the one seed and the bye. But their fate is not in their own hands, as any improvement in their playoff positioning depends on the New York Giants defeating the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles will want to keep their own hopes for the bye alive by winning, while the Giants are locked into the six seed and may be wise to rest most of their starters in week 18.
So what does this all mean for Dallas’ game? David Howman and Tom Ryle dig into the matter.
David: This is a difficult position to be in for Dallas. The odds are extremely likely that both the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers win this week, rendering the Cowboys’ season finale truly meaningless. But the schedule makers have ensured that the Cowboys won’t know that, since all three games will kickoff at the same time. The coaches can peek at the scoreboard during the game and adjust accordingly, but that still doesn’t allow for fully resting players in this game.
I’m of the opinion that Mike McCarthy absolutely has to treat this as a must win. According to the playoff prediction odds at FiveThirtyEight, the Cowboys currently have a 12% chance of winning the Super Bowl. That’s not bad, considering those are the fourth best odds in the NFL right now. But if Dallas manages to climb up to the second seed and secure a playoff game at home, those odds jump to 19%. Furthermore, if the Cowboys get the first seed their odds improve to 27%, which is more than any other team currently has at the moment. From a mere probability standpoint, the Cowboys stand to gain a whole lot if either of those games goes their way, but an Eagles or 49ers loss won’t matter if they don’t beat the Commanders first.
Tom: I get that. The numbers say that the team needs to win to have a chance at moving up in the seedings. But I am concerned about a factor that the numbers can’t predict. Nothing is more random in the NFL than injuries. Those injuries can do far more damage to playoff hopes than having to “settle” for a road wild card game. Personally, the thought of Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons, or other key players going down terrifies me.
No matter how much they want to win the game, the coaches must make protecting health the highest priority. Even though they almost have to play the starters to win, there is a part of me that wishes they would treat this the way they often would the so-called “dress rehearsal” back when the league still played four preseason games. Put the starters in and play them for the first half or so, but in the second half send Cooper Rush and other backups in to get those more valuable assets safely on the sidelines.
This may be easier to do with the way Washington is handling the quarterback situation and their long injury report. The Dallas starters should be able to build a lead. If they can, the backups should be able to hold on. The Cowboys won the first matchup with Rush behind center. And if the Commanders draw closer in the second half while a look at the scoreboard shows the Giants-Philadelphia matchup is still competitive, Dallas can still put the starters back in to close things out.
That is all contingent on how the game actually goes, but this needs to be something they keep in mind. Health is paramount for the playoffs.
David: In an ideal world, your plan is easily the best one out there. But this is far from an ideal world, and we’ve already seen several games this year where Dallas entered with a sort of “build a lead so we can pull our starters early and get ready for the real games” mentality. That resulted in a narrow contest against the Indianapolis Colts until a wild fourth quarter unfolded, needing a 98-yard touchdown drive to beat the Houston Texans, and holding a four-point halftime lead over the Tennessee Titans backups. Then you remember the games against the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, both of which were too close for comfort by halftime, and it becomes apparent that this team just doesn’t start fast.
Not only is there a concern with the inability to build a comfortable lead early on, but we’ve also seen two of the Cowboys’ four losses this year come after blowing two touchdown (or more) leads. What happens if the Cowboys get up big, pull their starters, and then the Commanders get within striking distance? Do you put your starters back in and expose them to further risk of injury, or keep them sidelined and send the message to the players that the game no longer matters even though you (meaning McCarthy) spent all week telling them it did?
Tom: Therein lies the rub, as someone once said. It all may depend on what is happening in Philadelphia. But I think the players are able to understand the importance of staying healthy for the playoffs, which is what really matters.
This is certainly a situation with many pitfalls to avoid. They need a win, but not more than they need to be in the best position possible to face whoever their first postseason opponent is. I do not envy the coaches as they try to find the right balance between aggression and caution. If things don’t go right, the criticism is going to be loud and likely angry. All we can really do is wish them well and hope for the best.
David: The correct answer, as you just hinted at, is that no matter what happens on Sunday there will be a large swath of people who think Dallas messed up and is a sure bet to be one-and-done in the playoffs. That kind of negativity is unavoidable, but winning always makes things just a little bit better.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of wanting to make sure your players are fresh for the playoffs, but the reality is that the chance of someone getting injured in Week 18 is identical to the chance of getting injured come playoff time. Even so much as stepping out onto the field creates a risk of injury. McCarthy has proven time and again that he is smart and cautious with injuries, but he shouldn’t be scared in his decision-making. The Cowboys’ only shot at improving their Super Bowl odds this week is by beating the Commanders. They need to take it seriously and play to win.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what either of us says here. McCarthy has known how he’ll handle this game for some time now, and he’s certainly done this longer than either of us, and with quite a bit of success too. Here’s hoping his experience proves to be correct in guiding the team through this Week 18 conundrum.