Dez Bryant wasn’t throwing up his trademark “X” on Thursday night after the New York Giants lost, giving the Dallas Cowboys the NFC East crown and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“Really nothing to celebrate yet,” the Cowboys’ wide receiver said. “Of course, you’re extremely excited for it, but there’s a lot more football. The playoffs is totally different from the season. You one and done. You’ve got to get your mind right and get back to business. That’s what the mindset is.
“We have to keep that edge.”
Yes, the Cowboys are all too familiar with postseason shortcomings in recent years.
The last time they were in this position, in 2007, a couple of high-profile players bolted for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, over the bye week and saw their season come to an abrupt end in the divisional round against the eventual Super Bowl-winning Giants.
Owner Jerry Jones said the Cowboys will lean on what they learned in 2007 with how they approach it this time. The coach at the time, Wade Phillips, pulled his healthy starters in the third quarter in the regular-season finale and then gave them part of the bye week off.
Signs are pointing to playing healthy starters the next two games to keep their edge, rather than resting them to prevent unnecessary injuries.
“Our experience there with Wade in ’07 will weigh heavily on any thoughts I have about who plays,” Jones said on KRLD/105.3 FM The Fan.
Coach Jason Garrett made it clear that he intends to get his team ready to play and win the final two ballgames. Looking too far ahead breaks his daily message of focusing on the task at hand.
The players certainly have bought into it.
“Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice,” Bryant said. “That’s the only way you can get better. That’s the only way you can improve. For the most part, I know that’s exactly what we’re going to go out there and do. Go ahead and set the record straight, we going out here trying to win this ballgame.
“We’re going to treat it like any other week. We went hard today just like any other day of practice.”
That means rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are expected to see similar workloads down the stretch. The bigger question, though, might be what to do with veteran quarterback Tony Romo in the finale.
If Garrett opts to pull his starters in the second half on New Year’s Day at Philadelphia, the backups would play. Romo is the backup quarterback.
On the other hand, Romo has been knocked out with an injury in three of the past five games he’s played, including the third preseason game at Seattle this year with a compression fracture in his lower back. He hasn’t played in the regular season in more than a year, but it would seem foolish to have him playing with a backup offensive line.
Jones said the Cowboys don’t need to see Romo to feel comfortable about his ability to step in a playoff situation should something happen to Prescott.
Garrett remained elusive on that subject.
“We’re focused on practicing as well as we can practice and playing the best game we can play on Monday night,” Garrett said. “The preparation leading up to that is critical for us and we anticipate everyone being in the same roles they’ve been in.”
However, the obvious benefit of clinching a bye this early is injured players won’t be pressured to rush back and will possibly have a three-week break to heal.
That gives players such as defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence (back) and Tyrone Crawford (shoulder, hamstring), as well as left tackle Tyron Smith (back), the option of sitting out a game if they aren’t fully healthy.
But Crawford didn’t buy that and said that he would like to play if possible.
“Winning the division and being in this position is nice, and big kudos to everybody, but I feel like no matter what game it is I’m going to rush back to get there,” said Crawford, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks.
That’s the mindset of the entire team. There is unfinished business left. Nobody wants to repeat the ’07 debacle.
The ’07 and 1979 teams were top-seeded Cowboys’ teams to lose in the divisional round. The other three won Super Bowls (1977, 1993, 1995), which is the category the 2016 team hopes to join.
The players were given division championship hats and T-shirts at the end of the day Friday, but Garrett reused a phrase from the 2014 season — wear it today and then give it to somebody you love. That’s not our goal.
“It’s a fine accomplishment to be able to win the division and make this thing have an opportunity to go through Dallas with the No. 1 seed,” tight end Jason Witten said. “It’s simply that. It’s a fine accomplishment for our football team. You recognize that and you got to move forward. It’s great for our organization, for our city, for our fans. And certainly Mr. Jones.
“But I think we all understand we have to move forward and realize what is in front of us.”
Cowboys vs. Lions
7:30 p.m. Monday, WFAA/8, ESPN