If looks could kill, Tyrone Crawford would have killed me.
I asked the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle if he felt some measure of vindication against those (not me) who predicted his defense would be one of the worst in the history of the NFL.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "it’s just a matter of what degree?"
"I’ll say yes to that - that’s one thing we are happy about. So far we have done what we needed to do," he said. "We just need to continue to do it."
Approximately no one outside of the Dallas Cowboys thought this defense would be anything other than God awful.
"Yeah - I remember," defensive end George Selvie said.
They all do. If they tell you they don’t, they are lying.
They are NFC East champions thanks largely to their offense, but no unit in the NFL and no assistant coach in the league deserves to stick it to the haters as much as the Dallas Cowboys defense and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. There is no greater surprise in this league than this defense. There is no playoff appearance or division title without a defense that was projected to be the worst in the NFL.
On Sunday, they effectively shutout the NFL’s top-scoring offense until garbage time. Yes, the Colts chose to rest some key starters, but the Cowboys made Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and that offense look like a pack of preseason spares when Indy was still trying.
The Cowboys defense will never be confused with the ... well, any great defense but they have done enough to let that offense do what the offense was designed to do. At some point, the defense deserves the credit for this team’s success.
When the Cowboys were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers 28-17 in Week 1, that defense looked the way so many of us expected. Non existent pass rush. The 49ers ran for nearly 130 yards. The 49ers converted 7-of-12 third downs.
"Defensively, we had so many dangling participles," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We had (Anthony) Spencer trying to get out there. We had (Henry) Melton working on his rehab. Frankly, we had a limited (Rolando) McClain. Both (Terrell and Ro) McClains. We had a bunch of what needed to gel for us needing to come together. The San Francisco loss was sobering for me."
With the exception of cornerback Morris Claiborne (lost for season; ACL), they have had the good fortune of good health. They have steadily improved as the season has progressed. It is not dominant, but it is good.
And, yes, that feels good. It always feels good to look at somebody who expected so little to say, "Told ya’ so."
"Yeah, it feels good," defensive tackle Nick Hayden told me. "Obviously, we proved them wrong. Could it get better? Yeah. Have we played our best football yet? Not yet."
I asked Selvie if he could tell the media or fans who thought both he and his defense were going to be terrible just one thing, he took the high road.
"I’m above it," he said as he laughed.
No need. It’s OK to tell ‘em, "Told ya’ so", especially when it feels this good, and it’s this right.
* However the Cowboys enter next Sunday’s game against Washington Redskins, there is no need to shut it down. Don’t quit. Don’t be careful. Don’t rest the starters until the game is long gone.
(DISCLAIMER - If the game in Washington is within a sniff of being over, these rules do not apply to Tony Romo. That Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett once again had his franchise quarterback out there in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 42-7 win against the Colts is nearly a fireable offense).
Just play to win, and don’t worry about the rest, or rest. You rest when you die.
"In my opnion we should play and try to win the game," safety Barry Church told me. "I don’t think it’s good to go into the playoffs, not saying we would lose if we didn’t have our starters in, but I don’t feel like that momentum would be good for us going into the playoffs. I feel like we should keep that momentum, play all of our starters and hopefully get the W."
I can’t believe I am about to type this, but ... the Cowboys enter a regular season finale against a division team with the playoffs a certainty. Think about that - they can’t even blow it this time. What are we going to complain about now?
"It’s awesome. Obviously the past (three) years they had to win the last game to get into the playoffs and we haven’t done it," defensive tackle Nick Hayden told me. "To finish it out next week, to know we are going to the playoffs, it’s great. It’s not over yet. We have a game left and hopefully increases our chances of a higher seed. We are so ecstatic right, but we know there is a bigger prize out there."
The last time the Cowboys entered the regular season finale having wrapped up the NFC East was 2007, and they mailed it in. The magical momentum from that regular season was already long gone by the time they played the Redskins, but that tank job in Washington didn’t help. Two weeks later, the Cowboys were upset at home against the New York Giants.
Playoff teams routinely have to pro-con the value tp rest their best if a postseason appearance is locked up, but in this instance the safer option is to blow it out, and try to blow them out. The way the NFL season has evolved, the best teams in January are the hottest teams in December. For the first time in recent memory the Cowboys are one of the hotter teams in the NFL.
There is no playoff team in the NFL that needs to protect a few of their starters more than the Cowboys. Watching Tony Romo rush three times for 28 yards on Sunday was the scarier than a Jerry Jones-led draft room. Running back DeMarco Murray is close to catching Emmitt Smith’s franchise-best single-season rushing record, and the man is playing with a broken bone in his left hand. Linebacker Rolando McClain looks like he could go at any moment. Right tackle Doug Free has a bad ankle that kept him out of Sunday’s game against the Colts.
And yet if they can go on Sunday, they need to give it a real go.
The Cowboys need momentum and confidence as much as anything else, and the only way to maintain that is to keep winning.
"Some teams rest players but what for? We want to go into the playoffs on a hot streak," Hayden said. "We don’t want any loss over our head."
* DeMarco Murray was once on pace to break Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season rushing record set back in 1984 of more than 2,100 yards, but now he would settle to catch Emmitt Smith. Murray rushing for 2,000 yards is gone, but he still can surpass Smith’s team-record of 1,773 yards.
Smith was at Sunday’s game, on the chance Murray would break his team record. The Colts seemed like the ideal team for Murray to go big, and to get a nice hug from No. 22.
The Colts defense, which entered the game on Sunday in the middle of the NFL, actually held Murray to just 58 yards on 22 carries on Sunday. Murray was playing with a cast on his left hand, which he suffered a broken bone in one week ago.
"It affected me a little bit," Murray said. "It was hurting throughout the game, but I made up my mind a long time ago I was going to play."
Murray was the first notable starter to call it a day on Sunday, and the team could shut him down at Washington on Sunday if there is nothing to be gained.
Murray is sitting on 1,687 yards right now, good enough to lead the NFL, but his finish has not quite been as good as his beginning, and middle.
* The Cowboys also won the AFC South on Sunday as well. The Cowboys swept the AFC South - Colts, Texans, Jaguars and Titans. The only one among the four to come close were the Texans, which lost in three in overtime on Oct. 5. Every other Cowboys’ win against the AFC South was by double digits.
* New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues to slaughter his chances to be the GOP’s next candidate as the President of the United States. After his bridge fiasco scandal in New York City, Christie remains unpopular outside of Cowboys’ nation because of his fierce loyalty to his favorite team. Christie attended yet another Cowboys game on Sunday, sitting with Jerry Jones.
"One thing that ought to be noticed, when he is here we are winning," Jerry said after the game. "So it might not ought to be bad to be sitting with him in a lot of different ways - we might win more."
* Since the Cowboys drafted Notre Dame guard Zack Martin in the first round of the ‘14 NFL Draft, they are 11-4 and in the playoffs. How much of this team’s success is because of the rookie guard?
"Not all because of me," he said.
No, not all of it. Martin played on Sunday with a bum ankle, but his impact on this team should not be overlooked. He has been arguably this team’s best offensive lineman, which is the strongest area of the Cowboys. As a grad of Notre Dame, he is not used to losing. I asked him if there is any difference at all - winning in college or the pros.
"Winning is winning," he said. "You are at the highest level now, so it’s obviously a lot harder to win at this level. Winning is gratifying either way."
TOP 10 RANDOMS
1. Tony Romo out-rushed the Colts 28 to 1.
2. In the last two weeks, the Cowboys have averaged 2.7 yards and 3.2 yards per carry. They have rushed at least 40 times.
3. Against the Eagles last week, the Cowboys had the ball for 41:55. Against the Colts, they had it 35:29.
4. This makes no sense, but the Cowboys evened their home record to 4-4.
5. Wide receiver Terrance Williams, who seemingly was off the team for most of November, caught two touchdowns on Sunday. He had not caught a touchdown since Oct. 19 against the New York Giants.
6. The Cowboys can’t go into next season with Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar as their starting running backs. They are good NFL players, but if DeMarco Murray leaves they need someone more reliable than either of those two.
7. The Colts are more one dimensional with Andrew Luck than they were with Peyton Manning near the end of his run in Indy. Luck needs players, and a defense.
8. The Colts had at least six drops, not any worse than safety Dewey McDonald’s goof of a pass from punter Pat McAfee in the first quarter deep in their territory. On replays, you could clearly see his teammates on the sidelines mouth, "Oh my God" after he dropped a lofty pass that would have resulted in a first down, and a big gain.
The Cowboys scored on the next play - a Romo 19-yard TD pass to Dez Bryant.
9. Right tackle Jermey Pernell wasn’t ... great. The Cowboys need Doug Free to be starting in the playoffs for this running game to do its thing.
10. Tony Romo is ahead of Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Danny White and Don Meredith. Yes, it’s career passing yardage but not bad for an undrafted free agent from FCS Eastern Illinois.
UP NEXT: The Cowboys travel to Washington to close out the regular season against one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NFL, the Redskins. Since the Redskins defeated the Cowboys in overtime on Oct. 27, the team demoted quarterback Robert Griffin III, but now he is the starter again. The Redskins upset the Eagles on Sunday in Maryland, but once again are playing for a spot in next years’ upcoming draft.