Sean Lee vividly remembers the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff game in 2014. The Cowboys linebacker spent a cold, miserable day on the sideline as his teammates lost to the Packers in Green Bay in the divisional round.
That only added insult to injury.
“It was probably one of the toughest games, from an injury standpoint, that I dealt with,” Lee said. “Anytime you play Green Bay in the playoffs, that’s a game you want to be a part of, and that’s probably, looking back at the games I missed, it’s one of the biggest games I regret not playing in.”
Lee missed 36 of a possible 96 games his first six seasons, including the entire 2014 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Owner Jerry Jones still insists Lee would have made a difference as the Packers ran out the final 4:06 by converting two third downs after Dez Bryant’s overturned catch.
“I really wanted to just wait it out and wait it out on putting him on IR with the hopes that maybe he could get back in time to play in that game against Green Bay,” Jones said. “He might have been able to make it, but we all know how that works on those injuries. You’ve got rehab, and everybody thought it was best for him just to concentrate on rehabbing.
“I remember watching [Aaron] Rodgers take it down the field against us and wishing we had Sean Lee out there, and I knew he was sitting over there pretty healthy. Now, I don’t know if he was ready to defend Rodgers, but it would have been probably good to have him in the game. He’s a difference-maker. …It’s really an enhancement to our chances here in the playoffs to have a healthy Sean Lee out there.”
In a season of several firsts, Lee’s postseason debut ranks at the top of his list of accomplishments. Lee, 30, feels like a rookie as he readies for the first playoff game of his career.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to be a part of,” Lee said. “You work back from injuries. During a lot of injuries I’ve had, I said, ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity ahead of me to play on this great team with these great teammates.’ So that was really what motivated me in times I was injured.”
Lee stayed healthy this entire season and would have played all 16 games for the first time if not for sitting out the meaningless regular-season finale as a precaution. Lee did not leave the field the first 14 games, playing every defensive snap.
He played more than 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season, hitting an incentive that will increase his 2017 base salary from $7 million to $9 million.
Lee finished the season with a team-leading 174 tackles, including 120 solos, 12 tackles for loss, four quarterback pressures and two pass breakups. He was rewarded with All-Pro honors for the first time.
“He’s been such a good player for us since he’s come into the league, and he dealt with some injury issues early on in his career,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “but his approach to the game is really like none other. He’s just a unique guy in terms of his preparation, his love for the game and how his work follows that love and passion.
“He shows up every day wanting to get better, wanting our team to get better, and it’s great to see him stay healthy and be such a contributor through the year. He’s been one of the best defensive players in the NFL all year long.”
Saturday, Jan. 14
NFC — Seahawks (10-5-1) at Falcons (11-5), 3:35 p.m., KDFW/4
AFC — Texans (9-7) at Patriots (14-2), 7:15 p.m., KTVT/11
Sunday, Jan. 15
AFC — Steelers (11-5) at Chiefs (12-4), 12:05 p.m., KXAS/5
NFC — Packers (11-6) at Cowboys (13-3), 3:40 p.m., KDFW/4