As of now, the Cowboys say they plan to play all their starters in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Giants at MetLife Stadium, though that may be more talk than truth.
The Cowboys have already clinched the NFC East title and a No. 4 seed in the playoffs. A win or loss against the Giants means nothing to their standing. Accordingly, after owner Jerry Jones promised the Cowboys were going to play “all out” on Sunday, head coach Jason Garrett made no promises.
“In general we want to practice well and go play well and get ready for the following week,” he said during a conference call Wednesday afternoon.
It’s more likely the Cowboys (9-6) will treat this like a final preseason game, pulling key players early on to protect them from injury and/or rest them for next week’s much more important wild-card playoff round.
One thing for certain is the Giants (5-10) will be all in for Sunday’s game regardless of what the Cowboys do. The entire narrative of the offseason could hinge on it.
“He may hold his cards all the way to the end,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said of Garrett, “but I expect them to come in and try to win a football game. That’s what I expect. We’re going to try to do the same; try to beat them at their best and finish on a good note.”
Here’s the thing: The Giants should rest players, too. They are not in contention for a playoff berth. They aren’t playing for a winning season. The head coach and general manager were just hired last year, so they’re safe for another season, and the planning for next year has already begun.
Why even consider playing Odell Beckham Jr., who has missed three straight games with a bruised quad, or Alex Ogletree, who sat out last week’s game with a concussion? Why expose Saquon Barkley, who already has 1,198 yards rushing this year, but can’t catch Cowboys back Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the league with 1,434 yards? Why not give rookie Kyle Lauletta extended playing time at quarterback?
“We’re trying to win a game and Eli is our quarterback,” Shurmur reasoned.
Not only will Shurmur play to win the game, but he also feels it’s important to set a positive tone for the offseason and validate the “incremental improvements” he says his team has made.
“If you believe experience matters that’s why everything carries over,” he said. “I think it’s all connected.”
The Giants are determined to carry something positive into the offseason. They insist they’re a team that has improved since the midseason bye and is “close” to matching up their preparation during the week with their performances Sunday.
They’ve been close in most of their games, including a 28-27 loss at Indianapolis last Sunday, the Giants’ seventh loss of the season by seven or fewer points. The offense is operating with more efficiency behind Manning, who has thrown 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions since the bye week.
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Instead of focusing on their overall record, the Giants point to a 4-3 mark since the bye week. That said, a 5-3 finish sounds so much better than 4-4 with three straight losses.
“We want to just go into the next season with a little bit of momentum and I feel like wins at the end of the season help with that,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said.
This isn’t like the final days of the 2017 season, when the Giants beat Washington, 18-10, to end a five-game losing streak and finish at a franchise worst 3-13. That win really meant nothing. You knew interim coach Steve Spagnuolo was going to be replaced and new general manager Dave Gettleman, hired during the week before last season’s finale, was going to build a new support staff and roster. The Giants needed more finality than carry over.
Under Shurmur and Gettleman, the Giants at least feel they’ve got a foundation set after showing late-season improvement. But much of that narrative is ruined with a bad showing against what figures to be a Dallas team with little motivation.