The Dallas Cowboys got the win they wanted Sunday.
Now, there is a question of whether they got the uplifting, feel-good moral victory they felt they needed to end what has been a disappointing 2017 season.
The 6-0 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in 19-degree temperatures felt like acupuncture at times.
For much of the the game, the Cowboys, who were knocked out of the playoffs a week ago, looked like a listless team with nothing to play for against a playoff-bound Eagles team that opened the game without six defensive starters and one offensive starter in hopes of avoiding injury until the postseason.
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The Eagles (12-4), who had already locked up the NFC East title as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, pulled starting quarterback Nick Foles after the first quarter.
Yet, it took forever for the Cowboys to muster a discernible edge, even with quarterback Dak Prescott, running Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant playing the entire way.
How bad was it?
The 0-0 halftime score was the first in the NFL since 2011 and in 118 matchups between the two teams dating to 1960.
The Cowboys finally broke through after 47 minutes and 39 seconds of scoreless play with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Brice Butler, capping a 99-yard drive in which they had to overcome a third holding penalty of the game.
To sum up the abject play, normally reliable kicker Dan Bailey missed the extra point and later missed a 23-yard field goal with 13 seconds to go. Both kicks were wide left.
But somehow the Cowboys’ defense made it stand up against a collection of Eagles backups led by little-known quarterback Nate Sudfeld. Cowboys rookie Chidobe Awuzie got his first interception of the season.
The Cowboys finished the season with a winning record at 9-7. They avoided their fourth 8-8 finish under coach Jason Garrett. It marked back-to-back winning seasons for the first time under Garrett though it remains a punch in the gut after last year’s 13-3 finish and the hope the team entered the season with.
And for the fourth time since 2007, the Cowboys failed make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
“I don’t want to get into all of that,” Garrett said, when asked if he considers this a disappointing season. “I think today was a good day for our team. Our guys battled and fought. Obviously, we want to be in the playoffs and playing next week. That didn’t happen for us. So that is disappointing.
“We’ll pull back and look at everything. But I think at different times this year, I thought we fought and played well. Other times, we didn’t play well enough. You have to improve and get better in all areas of the football team. Trust me, we will get back to work tomorrow and start on that.”
Garrett said getting a win was important because it showed character and allowed them to finish the season on a high note.
However, they didn’t get the final feel-good performance they hoped would give them momentum going into to an off-season that is ripe with questions and decisions about the team’s future.
Garrett will return in 2018, but the same can’t be said of his coordinators, especially offensive chief Scott Linehan.
The Cowboys’ offense struggled over the past eight games and the return of Elliott over the past two games after missing six with an NFL suspension did not open it up much.
The Cowboys scored under 20 points and passed for less than 200 yards for the fifth time in last eight weeks.
Aside from the 99-yard drive, the best thing the Cowboys did on Sunday was not turn the ball over and give the Eagles collection of backups any momentum. The frigid temperatures were a huge factor. But again, the Cowboys’ offense has struggled for weeks.
Elliott rushed for 103 yards on 27 carries.
But it was Prescott and a floundering passing game that proved again to be the downfall of the attack, which is completely opposite of last season when he passed for 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions and had the finest rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history.
He wants Linehan to return and looked inward for improvement while still trying to come to grips with the season coming to the end and out of the playoffs.
“I have to continue to get better,” said Prescott, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 179 yards, including the 20-yard touchdown to Butler.
“There is not one aspect of my game that I could say, ‘If this improves, then we are going to be the most prolific passing offense there is.’ So I mean it’s just all around. It’s every part of my game: from keeping my feet balanced, better in the drop-back game, more accurate — consistently more accurate, great decisions all the way around.
“It’s still just hard swallowing that this is the last one. It’s just about swallowing it, accepting the fact that we are out of the playoffs and what I have to help this team moving forward next year.”
Elliott finished 23 yards short of a second straight 1,000-yard season, despite missing six games. He is not happy the season is over but he is happy to put the problems of the past year, including his legal fight with the NFL over his suspension for the first weeks, behind him.
He said he is at peace with it all and will not spend time playing the “what if” game.
“I wish it would’ve ended differently,” Elliott said. “I wish we were playing in the playoffs right now. But I’m happy to have everything behind me. I’m happy to move forward. I’m going to use it as fuel for next year.”
And Bryant ended a disappointing season with three catches for 24 yards, including another dropped pass that has typified his play and that of the receiver corps throughout the season.
Bryant said he is happy the team got the win but will use 2017 as motivation for next year — if he’s here. The Cowboys could ask Bryant to take a pay cut from his $12.5 million base salary for 2018 or be cut.
“It’s extremely motivating,” Bryant said. “I’m honest just really ready to get back to work. We just have to look at everything and get back to work. That’s what we are going to do.”
So the Cowboys got the win. But they also cost themselves three spots in the 2018 NFL Draft. They will pick 19th.
Was it worth it?
“It so important to take care of the situation, to come back to work this week and show who we are,” Garrett said. “Today was not perfect by any means, but I thought we fought through and did a good job showing who we are.
“We’ll pull back and look at everything, how we’re doing things and who we’re doing things with and make strides. We’ll get into that quickly in the off-season and get refocused on what we need to do in 2018 to take the next steps.”
Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr
Dal—Butler 20 pass from Prescott (kick failed), 12:19.
Total Net Yards
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Dallas, E.Elliott 27-103, Prescott 2-16, Williams 1-9, Morris 2-1. Philadelphia, Blount 9-37, Sudfeld 1-22, Agholor 1-7, Smallwood 4-6, Foles 1-0, Clement 1-0, Barner 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—Dallas, Prescott 17-30-0-179. Philadelphia, Foles 4-11-1-39, Sudfeld 19-23-0-134.
RECEIVING—Dallas, Switzer 4-32, E.Elliott 3-38, Bryant 3-24, Butler 2-50, Witten 2-17, Williams 2-5, Hanna 1-13. Philadelphia, Hollins 3-25, Smallwood 3-24, M.Johnson 3-23, Celek 3-13, Agholor 3-11, Ertz 2-24, Gibson 2-11, Barner 1-14, Blount 1-11, Burton 1-9, Jeffery 1-8.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Dallas, Bailey 23.