The Dallas Cowboys had nothing to play for Monday night.
Their playoff fate had already been decided.
They had already secured home-field advantage throughout the postseason and the NFC East title.
Sure, they could tie the franchise record for wins, but that was never the goal.
But in testament to the fight that coach Jason Garrett has instilled in them as well as the sheer joy they have been playing with all season, the 42-21 victory against the Detroit Lions might been their finest moment.
The Lions (9-6) would have secured a playoff berth with a win.
The Cowboys (13-2) battled back from a 21-14 second-quarter deficit with 28 consecutive points to blow the doors off AT&T Stadium, while reasserting themselves as the Super Bowl favorites out of the NFC.
The giddy fans were doing the wave in the stands while the players cheered their own trick plays, big hits and end zone celebration in what ended being one their most impressive efforts of the season an opponent with seemingly more to play for.
“There’s just one way to play, one way to practice. You can’t put different meaning on different competition,” Garrett said. “That’s not how we operate. And the key to playing like that is working hard in practice. If you prepare the right way, you are ready and you feel good. These guys love playing football. They play with the right kind of spirit and they enjoy playing the game.”
Enjoyment was had all around by the Cowboys on Monday, while serving as a message to the rest of the NFC that they will be tough to beat at home in the playoffs.
The fun and dominance was typified most by receiver Dez Bryant’s X-filled night. He caught four passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns and also threw the first touchdown pass of his career, a left-handed 10-yarder to tight end Jason Witten on a reverse. It resulted in both players throwing up the Bryant’s trademark “X” in the end zone.
“He told me he was going to do it,” Bryant said of Witten throwing up the X. “That was one of the best feelings, because I look up to Wit. It’s just crazy. I got to complete a pass to him. That’s a Hall of Famer. I just thought it was pretty cool. That’s one of those moments that’s going to forever be with me.”
But nothing could top the seasonlong feel good story of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 212 yards with three touchdowns and a career-high passer rating of 148.3.
Prescott set a franchise record, posting his 11th game with a quarterback rating over 100.0, breaking a tie with former starter Tony Romo.
Most important, in leading the Cowboys to their franchise-record-tying 13th win of the season, Prescott got his 13th as well, tying Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger for the most wins in NFL history by a rookie.
Prescott has a chance to break the record as well as well as help the Cowboys reach a franchise high for wins in the season final against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Of course, the big question will be whether the Cowboys will play to win against the Eagles or rest their starters to avoid injury heading into the playoffs.
And whether Romo will get some playing time to shed some rust in case he is needed in the postseason. Owner Jerry Jones said the only way Romo will play in the final game is if Prescott is injured.
Prescott said he wants to play because he needs all the reps he can get as rookie. He doesn’t worry about getting injured in a meaningless game. And more important, he wants to shoot for the 14th win and pass Roethlisberger.
“I want to play every game,” Prescott said. “I want to keep this momentum going. Any rep I can get is only going to make myself better. I want to take advantage of those.”
Prescott is seemingly playing his best football of the season. He has only thrown nine incompletions in the last two games combined, after going 32 of 36 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last Sunday’s 26-20 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I think the biggest thing is just his understanding of what we’re trying to do, what the defenses are trying to do to him and his decision-making,” Garrett said. “And I think the accuracy follows from that. He doesn’t look indecisive. He doesn’t look unsure. He has a clear understanding of what he wants to do and he executes it. He’s executing, doing what we’re asking him to and playing at a high level.
Prescott completed passes to six receivers in the game. He credited the play-calling for allowing him to be comfortable and doing some of things the Cowboys did earlier in the year.
What they did was have their way with a Lions defense that had not given up 20 points in any of the last six games.
It was the Cowboys defense that struggled early Monday night.
The unit was playing without defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence and defensive tackle Cedric Thornton because of injuries and then lost tackle Terrell McClain and end Ryan Davis to injuries in the game. They also lost cornerback Anthony Brown to a concussion.
The Lions scored on their first three drives to take a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.
But when the Cowboys defense finally settled in, they shut out the Lions in second half.
The Cowboys defense had four sacks, an interception and forced fumble — giving them multiple sacks and multiple turnovers for the third consecutive game after not getting that combination through the first 12 games of the season.
The Lions had just 127 yards in the second half after totaling 192 in the first two quarters.
Once defense settled in, Prescott and Bryant continued their own brand of fun.
Prescott tossed touchdown passes of 21 to receiver Brice Butler on the opening drive and 25 and 19 to Bryant.
The first one to Bryant was a one-handed grab with his left hand in the left corner of the end zone with a defensive back draped over him.
The second one was a back-shoulder fade in the fourth quarter to give the Cowboys their final points.
Bryant also set up 1-yard score by running back Ezekiel Elliott to open the third quarter when he drew a 31-yard pass interference penalty.
Elliott also had a 55-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he thrilled the crowd by copying Bryant’s “X” celebration, as well as celebrations by receivers Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
But the real excitement came in the third quarter when offensive coordinator Scott Linehan opened up the playbook on first-and-goal at the 10.
Prescott pitched the ball to a reversing Bryant rolling left. Bryant then threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open Jason Witten.
Both Bryant and Witten threw up the “X.”
“Everybody wants to everyone to succeed,” Prescott said. “Everybody wants to see them make that play. It’s fun. We are the same type of guys off the field and that allows us to come on the field and feed off each other. It definitely makes it easier when everyone is just out there with the same attitude and just having fun. They are not overthinking things. They are just reacting and playing ball. It makes for a game like to tonight.”
Fun was had all-around in dominating fashion.
But for the Cowboys, the real party doesn’t start until the playoffs.