At 12-2 and already masters of their NFC domain, the Dallas Cowboys, frankly, could have mailed this one in.
Too much Christmas. Too close — three weeks — to the playoffs.
Hey, a guy could have gotten hurt out there. Some Cowboys even did.
But listless nights lead to listless habits. And it was going to be hard to imagine Jason Garrett, himself the son of a coach, going through the motions against the playoff contending Detroit Lions on a Monday night on national TV.
So Dak and Zeke both played. And Dez threw a touchdown pass to Witten.
And instead of going quietly into the night in Game 15, clearing the bench and maybe dusting off Tony Romo for a cameo, Garrett and the Cowboys kept the pedal firmly pressed to the floor and rolled over the Lions 42-21.
Romo never left the bench. The Lions never touched the end zone in the second half.
Garrett, in other words, couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
“There’s just one way to play, one way to practice,” Garrett said after the game. “You can’t put a different meaning on different competition, all of a sudden saying one game is more important than the other.
“That’s not how we operate.”
As Garrett knows, however, football is rife with collisions and angry men. Bones get broken and knee ligaments get strained.
But with a first-round bye, the top-seeded Cowboys won’t play another personally meaningful game until the weekend of Jan. 14-15. To put rookie stars Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott in a virtual three-week drydock would have invited an element of risk all its own.
Elliott was prudently removed from the action late in the third quarter, after carrying the football 12 times for 80 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Darren McFadden, who has rust to shed, filled in and rushed 10 times in the final quarter.
Prescott, however, played the entire game at quarterback, even after the Cowboys took a 21-point lead with 12 minutes to play. He threw one pass in those final minutes and otherwise safely handed the football to McFadden to kill the clock.
Romo remained on the sideline, even as a scattering of fans chanted his name.
“Dak was going to play this game,” Garrett said, simply, when asked about Romo.
It’s complicated, you see. Romo is the highest-paid bench-sitter in the NFL. Because of injuries — and because of Prescott — he also hasn’t played a regular season game in 13 months.
Play him, or forget him? The answer isn’t so simple.
My best guess is that Romo will start next week’s quasi-meaningless game in Philadelphia and play two quarters with the No. 1 offensive line blocking for him.
Garrett quickly changed the subject, though, when Monday’s postgame questioning turned to Romo.
His key players emerged intact, but Garrett acknowledged key injuries to Terrell McClain and others on defense.
“One thing that needs to be noted is we had seven defensive linemen and two go down, so we were down to four or five guys,” he said. “But I thought they did a good job digging deep and fighting.”
They played it straight, mostly because Garrett coached it straight. He knew you don’t start taking a knee in the NFL on the day after Christmas.
The Lions remain playoff contenders. Their game against Green Bay on Sunday night will determine the NFC North title.
The Cowboys, however, gave the Lions no belated Christmas gifts Monday.
It was a work day, same as the previous 14.