Watching the Dallas Cowboys‘ performance in their regular-season finale was tough. Some have mollified their angst with the fact that the loss to the Washington Commanders had no impact on Dallas’ playoff positioning, but that only goes so far in soothing the pain. It’s especially difficult to swallow that pill after seeing what the Detroit Lions did later that night.
Yes, there was a certain meaningless quality for the Cowboys in Week 18. The only way they could have benefitted from beating Washington is if the Eagles lost their game to the Giants, which would have opened the door for Dallas to win the NFC East. A loss by the 49ers to the Cardinals would have also put the number-one seed in the conference in play, but neither of those outcomes seemed likely going into the weekend.
With all three games kicking off at the same time last Sunday, dreams were still alive when Dallas took the field. But you wouldn’t have known from how they played; the Cowboys looked as unfocused and unmotivated as if they were already looking past the Commanders to their first-round matchup with Tampa Bay. Was it forgivable given the circumstances? Maybe. Slightly. But the grossness of Dallas’ dysfunction and seeming disinterest in Washington was not indicative of a team working on its playoff mentality.
Where’s the mental toughness?
Not long after the Commanders made the Cowboys a laughing stock, the Lions and Packers kicked off their showdown in Green Bay. Thanks to the Seahawks’ victory earlier in the day, Detroit had been officially eliminated from playoff contention. The game had become truly meaningless for them. In fact, a victory would actually cost them about 4-5 spots in the upcoming draft.
But the Lions didn’t let that change their focus or effort. They went into Lambeau Field and knocked the Packers out of the playoffs for nothing more than pure pride, respect, and a longtime rivalry. Detroit played for the present, to finish the season with a winning 9-8 record instead of a losing one. They played for their fans and for their coach, to preserve the integrity of the attitude that had gotten them so close to an unexpected postseason berth.
Now to be fair, it wasn’t like Washington was vying for a playoff spot last Sunday. They put QB Sam Howell out there to see what he was made of and rested several other starters. And unlike all these years that the Lions have been prey for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Dallas hardly has reason to be that hostile towards the red-headed stepchildren of the NFC East.
But even if the Commanders offered no motivating factors themselves, what about the Cowboys’ personal pride? What about ending the season on a high note and taking momentum into the playoffs? What about doing it for your own coaches, teammates, and fans?
It didn’t have to be this way
That’s what’s disturbing about Sunday’s game. If Dallas had decided to play it safe and concede then go all the way with it. Sit Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons, and anyone else of value or with lingering health concerns. They should’ve handed the keys to Cooper Rush, or Will Grier for that matter, and gotten a jump on resting and preparing for the Buccaneers next Monday night.
But no, instead they put on a farcical display that served zero value. They didn’t even pull players once the Eagles and 49ers games were clearly decided, instead continuing the charade and really making you wonder what the decision-makers were doing.
Of course, it will be quickly forgotten if the Cowboys perform well in the postseason. But if this team flops again in the playoffs, what they did on Sunday will be pointed to as a sign of how unprepared Mike McCarthy and his crew had them for the tournament. It’s not just about X’s and O’s and how to stop Tom Brady, but many games come down to heart and the fortitude that keeps players going after a long season and when facing adversity.
I wish they’d shown the heart of the Lions last week. I’d be feeling a lot better about what’s to come if they had. But instead, both from that game and a general decline over the last several weeks of the season, it feels like the Cowboys are heading in the wrong direction as they enter the tournament.