FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Jason Witten had to figure the questions were coming after the Dallas Cowboys wrapped up the NFC East and home-field advantage in the playoffs with two games remaining.
The last time Dallas had the top seed secured before the end of the regular season, Witten was a fifth-year tight end in 2007. The Cowboys promptly lost their first playoff game to the New York Giants and watched their division rival upset undefeated New England in the Super Bowl.
So now the question is how the Cowboys (12-2) keep their edge with two games that won’t change their spot in the playoff bracket — starting Monday night at home against Detroit (9-5) — along with a bye before their postseason opener. The Lions are trying to secure a playoff berth.
“I don’t think it’s entered anybody’s minds,” Witten said Friday, a day after the Cowboys clinched thanks to the Giants’ 24-19 loss to Philadelphia . “I think we’re all aware of where it’s at. It’s a long time away, to think that you would rest or anything like that. Our job is to go play and coaches will handle those situations.”
For instance, will backup Tony Romo — the architect of that 13-3 season nine years ago — get playing time so that Dallas can protect Dak Prescott, the rookie who took the 10-year starter’s job with an 11-game winning streak?
What about left tackle Tyron Smith and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence with their bad backs? Should Darren McFadden, last year’s leading rusher for Dallas, get more carries in relief of rookie NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott because the nine-year veteran just returned from an offseason elbow injury?
Sorry. Coach Jason Garrett isn’t interested in discussing such things .
“We don’t really think about that,” Garrett said. “We’re focused on practicing and playing as well as we can in this game on Monday night against Detroit.”
Elliott needs 258 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s 33-year-old rookie record of 1,808 yards, and he acknowledged that it would be special. But the fourth overall pick, whose career took off with a dominant stretch when Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff two years ago, was surprisingly candid when asked what he preferred.
“I think there is a shot to get that rookie rushing record, but it’s not worth risking what we have the opportunity to do as a team,” said Elliott, who has 1,551 yards. “And I wouldn’t want to risk getting it for something (when) we have the opportunity to go and play for a Super Bowl. Whatever they think is best for our team, then that’s what’s going to happen.”
Romo made his infamous trip to Cabo San Lucas with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson during the bye week in 2007, fuel for criticism after the Cowboys’ 21-17 loss to New York. Barring an injury to Prescott, Romo won’t have to answer questions about that episode in the Cowboys’ return to the top spot in the NFC.
When the bye week arrives, Witten most likely will. But the answers probably won’t be much different than they are now.
“I believe you want to build on the way you play in December and go into the playoffs,” Witten said. “I think that’s how good teams handle this situation. As I said before, that’s for people to talk about at the barber shop. Our focus is just on what’s going to allow us to win.”
Nine years ago, Garrett was the offensive coordinator under coach Wade Phillips. In the regular-season finale at Washington, Romo sat after the first series of the third quarter. Witten recalls getting pulled in the second quarter — but never being told what the plan was.
And if there is a plan to start resting players as early as Monday night, the coaches aren’t saying. Dallas finishes the regular season at Philadelphia.
“I think you’ve got to do exactly what we’re doing,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “When you put the pads on, you’re going out there to win the football game. It doesn’t matter what the implications are. We approach it the same way regardless.”
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