It was a strange locker room Sunday after the Dallas Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 6-0, at Lincoln Financial Field.
There were pats on the backs. And laughs. And jokes. And everything that comes with winning a difficult road game in the NFL against a division foe.
But mixed in the answers was the reality the Cowboys’ season ended Sunday with a 9-7 record, good enough for second in the NFC East but not good enough to get them into next weekend’s playoffs.
“As far as what we did [winning the game], it doesn’t mean anything, but as far as what guys showed this game, it definitely carries into next season,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “We see what guys got [inside] and that’s what I’m definitely going to demand out of the guys and expect guys to demand it out of each other in the offseason.”
That’s the smaller picture. In the bigger picture, there are myriad reasons as to why the Cowboys have failed to make the playoffs in back-to-back years dating back to the 2006 and ’07 seasons, with the most obvious being Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension.
But that ignores other realities of a team that simply wasn’t good enough.
The Cowboys became just the second team to lose back-to-back home games despite scoring 30 or more points since the 2012 Detroit Lions in defeats to the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers.
They became the first team in franchise history to fail to score at least 10 points in three straight games, which coincided with the start of Elliott’s six-game suspension.
They fought back into playoff contention with three straight wins but failed to score a touchdown in a 21-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16 and were eliminated.
Despite that, the Cowboys approached Sunday’s game trying to win. A couple of draft spots didn’t matter. Players want to win. Coaches might have needed to win.
Having already clinched home-field advantage, the Eagles played their starters for a quarter but had six defenders inactive for the game. The case study for the Cowboys is the Eagles. They won a meaningless season finale in 2016 against a 13-win Cowboys team that had wrapped up home-field advantage to finish 7-9, improved their roster in the offseason in free agency and trades and ended up as the NFC’s top seed in 2017.
Quarterback Carson Wentz’s knee injury likely dooms the Eagles’ chances of making it to the Super Bowl, especially with how Nick Foles performed in his final five quarters, but that’s Philadelphia’s problem.
The Cowboys don’t believe they are that far off from contending again.
“Ultimately you find ways to win,” tight end Jason Witten said. “I did a study looking at some stuff and eight teams will be in the playoffs this year that didn’t have a winning record last year. That’s a strong fact. I mean 12 teams are going to the playoffs and eight out of the 12 didn’t have winning records. So this league switches. That margin, I’ve mentioned it to you guys before, but it’s tight and it’s small and that’s why it’s even more important.
“We’ll get back. It burns today and it should burn for all of us. But I’m proud that we fought and were able to get a win, but collectively we didn’t do enough [during the season] when we had opportunities.”
The Cowboys recorded their first shutout since the 2009 season finale against the Eagles. That team finished 11-5 and made the playoffs, winning in the wild-card round. These Cowboys knew they would be home for the playoffs.
The victory allowed Jason Garrett to avoid his fourth 8-8 record in seven seasons. Had the Cowboys lost Sunday, only Jeff Fisher would have more 8-8 records (five) than Garrett.
Garrett did not want to get into whether he considered 2017 a disappointing season.
“Today was indicative of the kind of guys and character we have on our team,” Garrett said. “Just to battle, scrap, claw, fight and find a win to win this ballgame was important to us. I’m proud to be with our guys.”
The difference between 9-7 and 13-3 records are not as wide as they might appear.