EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This was supposed to be a meaningless game.
So much for that being the case.
The Dallas Cowboys’ regular season ended with a 36-35 win against the New York Giants on Sunday to give them a 10-6 record.
Dak Prescott hit Cole Beasley with a 32-yard touchdown pass with 1:12 to play and Prescott hit Michael Gallup with the subsequent two-point play as the Cowboys overcame a late seven-point deficit to go into next week’s playoffs with momentum.
Good thing. The Cowboys have not won a playoff game with a loss in their final regular-season matchup since 1996.
“I don’t believe you could have drawn that up for our fans or for the players and created a better way to step into the playoffs,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “We got a lot of work ... A lot of people say, ‘My goodness, your starting quarterback playing every snap all the way,’ was a go, but the work he got in there going to all the receivers, having the game he had inspired everybody concerned and we’re a better team, I think, then when we got here this morning. That’s the way you would like to, if you could draw it up, go to the playoffs.”
The Cowboys enter the postseason as one of the NFL’s hottest teams, having won seven of their last eight games. For the first time in franchise history, the Cowboys made the playoffs after starting the season 3-5. They beat the top seed in the NFC, the New Orleans Saints, with a dominating defensive effort. They swept the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Are they true contenders?
“Once you get in the show, it’s just who plays well,” Beasley said Friday while sitting at his locker at The Star. “It can go to anybody. Everybody can make the predictions, but in the NFL you can’t predict nothing really.”
Sunday’s result was supposed to be a mere footnote on the season. The outcome could not change the Cowboys’ playoff standing. They were locked in as the fourth seed after last week’s division-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears’ victory against the San Francisco 49ers.
The best thing that happened for the Cowboys was nobody appeared to suffer a serious injury, although left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo injured his left ankle on the opening drive of the third quarter.
The Cowboys made sure nothing could happen to Ezekiel Elliott by making the NFL’s rushing champion inactive. Pro Bowl offensive lineman Tyron Smith and Zack Martin did not play either, but both will be available for the playoffs. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford did not make the trip to New Jersey because of a neck injury, but he should be available for the playoffs as well.
Curiously, Prescott played the entire game. He played well, too, throwing a career-high four touchdown passes, with three to tight end Blake Jarwin, and completing 27-of-44 passes for 387 yards. But he was also sacked four times, ending his season with 56 sacks.
“I mean I wasn’t coming out today saying I needed to prove people something,” Prescott said. “I was coming out there to try to get a win. Simple as that and get a win for our teammates and keep this momentum going. If anything, just show the guys how much winning means to me no matter the circumstances, meaningless or not. So I mean that’s the only thing that was important to me.”
Prescott became just the second Cowboys quarterback to have three straight seasons of 20 or more touchdown passes, joining Tony Romo. Romo had a three-season streak from 2007 to '09 and a four-season streak from 2011 to '14.
Elliott won the NFL’s rushing title for the second time in three seasons, despite not playing in the finale, just as he did in 2016. He finished with 1,434 yards on 304 carries. He also led the Cowboys with 77 receptions.
The offense even converted three of four red zone drives into touchdowns.
Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had a first-quarter sack/fumble that was recovered by Antwaun Woods that gave him 10.5 on the season. He became the first Cowboy with back-to-back double-digit sack seasons since DeMarcus Ware in 2011-12.
It wasn’t all pretty, especially defensively after getting two takeaways on the Giants’ first two drives.
The Cowboys allowed more than 30 points in a game for the first time this season and the first time since Nov. 19, 2017. Saquon Barkley had 109 yards rushing, but 68 came on one rush. Eli Manning had more than 300 passing yards.
Offensively, Amari Cooper was held in check for the third straight game and he lost a fumble that led to the Giants’ final points.
But the Cowboys won, most improbably, and will find out if their momentum can carry over into the playoffs.
“It feels a ton better than losing,” Beasley said. “If we would’ve lost this game the feeling in the locker room would be lot different than it is now. The way we won, too, those are the type of games that you love to play in when it’s back and forth and you never know who’s going to win. But this team always fights back and that’s what we did today. It was good to win when you had to fight back like that.”