The mission for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday was simple: Get backup quarterback Tony Romo some playing time and stay healthy.
Never mind the 27-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
With the best record in the NFC, the Cowboys (13-3) had already secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the NFC East title and a first-round bye. It was announced Sunday night that the Cowboys will host a second-round game at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15.
So the only intrigue concerned Romo playing for the first time in 402 days, dating to Thanksgiving 2015, and being as healthy and fresh as possible for the playoffs and a dream run to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season.
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“We had different objectives coming into the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “There were going to be certain players who weren’t going to play in this game because of injury. We held a couple of guys out. We had a plan for a few other guys about how much we wanted them to play.
“But not really a time for reflection. A time to get our eyes forward and get back to work. The only thing that matters is what we do now. We’ve put ourselves in a great position. Time to get back to work.”
Consider it mission accomplished for the Cowboys and a glorious message from the past for the 36-year-old Romo, who proved that he still has some of that old magic, completing 3 of 4 passes, one for a touchdown, in one series of work.
“There was no exact plan, just get some reps,” Romo said. “Prove to your teammates that you’re the same guy. I just feel like I’ve been practicing well, and you just want to go out and prove to yourself, prove to your coaches and teammates that you can go and be the same guy.”
Rookie sensation Dak Prescott got the start, played two series and led the Cowboys to a field goal in the second quarter of the regular-season finale, which felt more like a meaningless preseason final.
There was no exact plan, just get some reps. Prove to your teammates that you’re the same guy.
Cowboys backup quarterback Tony Romo, on his playing time
Prescott went and stood on the sideline with the two of the healthy starters who didn’t even take the field, running back Ezekiel Elliott and linebacker Sean Lee, in hopes of avoiding injury.
Then it was time for the much-anticipated entrance of the team’s all-time leading passer.
Romo, who lost his starting job to Prescott when he suffered a broken bone in his back in the preseason and missed the first nine games of the season, conjured up images of the player who owns all the team’s passing records and led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record during his last healthy season in 2014.
Romo promptly directed the Cowboys on a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive.
The only pass he missed was the first one to wide receiver Terrance Williams. Romo threw the deep ball on the very first play.
He completed his next three passes, including a 3-yard touchdown pass to Williams.
“I felt better than I did last year,” said Romo, who said he’s as healthy as he’s been in two years. “There is no question about that. You just play football. If you’re good enough to play, you’re good enough to play.”
And Romo showed it all.
He zipped a pass to Williams on a third-and-11 play for 15 yards.
He threw a short pass to running back Darren McFadden, who turned it upfield for 11 yards.
Then a deep ball in the end zone to wide receiver Dez Bryant drew a pass interference penalty on Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll.
On first-and-goal from the 3, Romo found Williams in the left corner of the end zone for the 248th touchdown pass of his career.
“All touchdowns feel good,” Romo said. “That part of it felt good throwing a touchdown. Weirdly, you kind of expect it when you go out there, ‘Let’s go out here and throw a touchdown.’ I know that sounds silly, but you expect to go out there and do something well. In that regard, it felt normal.”
“He did a really nice job in the game, a tribute to his preparation,” Garrett said. “He’s comfortable in this offense. He looked comfortable out there.”
Prescott was one of the first players to greet Romo as he reached the sideline after the touchdown, though that entire bench was ecstatic.
Weirdly, you kind of expect [to throw a touchdown] when you go out there, ‘Let’s go out here and throw a touchdown.’ I know that sounds silly, but you expect to go out there and do something well.
“It was fun just to go out there and watch him,” Prescott said. “It was easy for him as it’s been for a lot of the time in his career, to be able to go out there ... just to make it look so easy, was a good moment.”
And with that Romo’s day was done, as was the day for Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.
One series was all Romo would get.
But he showed enough that he will be ready to perform if something happens to Prescott in the playoffs.
Owner Jerry Jones has longed trumpeted the strength of the quarterback position, with Romo behind Prescott as a reason he believes the Cowboys could reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season.
It’s also one reason the Cowboys didn’t keep Romo in the game beyond one series. They didn’t want to risk him to injury.
Romo showed enough to keep his trade value high if the Cowboys move on from him in the off-season for salary cap reasons. There is little chance the Cowboys would bring Romo back in 2017 at his $14 million salary.
Romo has also let it be known that he still wants to play and wants the opportunity to start — and if not here, elsewhere.
Suffice to say, Jones was happy with what he saw Sunday and what it means for the playoffs.
“Positive things happened relative to our playoff,” Jones said. “I don’t think anything better could have happened than to have Tony to get out there and get some really great positive snaps and see everybody excited at his play. None more excited than Dak. And that’s what the beauty of this whole situation is. At the same time, [Romo] recognizes that the best way for this team to win is to take the roll that we’re on with Dak and win with that.”
I don’t think anything better could have happened than to have Tony to get out there and get some really great positive snaps. ... At the same time, [Romo] recognizes that the best way for this team to win is to take the roll that we’re on with Dak and win with that.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones
Romo was replaced by third-team quarterback Mark Sanchez on the Cowboys’ fourth possession of the game.
Sanchez was intercepted on two of his first three possessions, allowing the Eagles to tie the game 10-10 at halftime.
The Cowboys continued their pre-game health plan by resting many of their defensive starters in the second half in what would be their third loss of the season.
Sanchez completed 9 of 17 passes for 85 yards with two interceptions and a passer rating of 27.5.
The loss prevented the Cowboys from earning a franchise-record 14th win. They have won 13 games twice before — in 1992 and 2007.
But the goal of getting Romo reps and staying healthy for the playoffs was most important in a season finale that was nothing more than a glorified practice game.
The Cowboys have a bye this weekend before hosting a divisional playoff game the weekend of Jan. 14-15. Dallas will host the lowest remaining seed from the wild-card playoffs.
Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr
NFL playoff schedule
WILD CARD ROUND
AFC — Raiders (12-4) at Texans (9-7), 3:35 p.m. (ESPN)
NFC — Lions (9-7) at Seahawks (10-5-1), 7:15 p.m. (KXAS/5)
AFC — Dolphins (10-6) at Steelers (11-5), 12:05 p.m. (KTVT/11)
NFC — Giants (11-5) at Packers (10-6), 3:40 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Saturday, January 14
NFC — Highest remaining see at Falcons (11-5), 3:35 p.m. (KDFW/4)
AFC — Lowest remaining seed at Patriots (14-2), 7:15 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Sunday, January 15
AFC — Highest remaining seed at Chiefs (12-4), 12:05 p.m. (KXAS/5)
NFC — Lowest remaining seed at Cowboys (13-3), 3:40 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Divisional round winners
February 5 at Houston