With Home-Field Advantage Secure, Cowboys Might Rest Starters

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

The Washington Redskins didn't finish off the Minnesota Vikings until roughly 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, but their first victory of the day had already happened eight hours earlier.

When the Green Bay Packers were throttled by the Bears in Chicago, the Packers lost any chance of catching Dallas for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The Cowboys will travel to Washington next weekend with nothing to play for, and with quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens nursing injuries, Dallas's high-powered offense is likely to be missing a few key parts.

Will this help Washington's chances? Recent history offers an emphatic "yes."

The previous three NFC champions -- the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004, Seattle Seahawks in 2005 and Chicago Bears last year -- all clinched home-field advantage before their season finales. Each team rested many of its starters for at least part of their final game, and each team lost those games.

Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid chose to sit many of the Eagles' starters for their final two games in 2004, a move that was widely questioned after Philadelphia lost badly in both games. Quarterback Donovan McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, defensive end Jevon Kearse, safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Lito Sheppard were among the starters who were held out of the finale, a 38-10 home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but Reid insisted he wasn't worried about losing momentum.

"I expect them to come out and get right back on it and play," he said after the loss, "or I wouldn't have gone in this direction."

The next year, the Seahawks started most of their stars against the Green Bay Packers in another meaningless finale, and attention was focused on running back Shaun Alexander's pursuit of the single-season record for touchdowns. Alexander got the record in the first half and then sat out the entire second half, along with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, as Seattle's 11-game winning streak came to an end.

"It would have been nice to have some more plays and score some more points," Hasselbeck told reporters after the game, "but at the end of the day, I think we accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish. We've got some games coming up that are much more important."

The Bears embraced a similar philosophy in their season finale last year, which also came against the Packers and had no playoff seeding implications for either team. Quarterback Rex Grossman started but fared poorly and did not play in the second half, and the Bears were blown out.

"Obviously, a bad performance," Grossman said after the game. "I wish we could have ended on a high note going into the postseason. It is what it is."

None of those cases, however, should be cause for alarm in Dallas. Those Eagles, Seahawks and Bears teams each recovered from their season-ending losses to advance to the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, the 2005 Indianapolis Colts chose to rest their stars for most of their final two regular-season games. Quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, running back Edgerrin James, linebacker Cato June and safety Bob Sanders were among the Colts who sat out large chunks of those games, which Indianapolis split. After the Colts bowed out of the playoffs against Pittsburgh in their first postseason game, Dungy's strategy was criticized, although some of his peers defended the approach.

"You fight for that bye to rest your players," then-Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said at the time. "I'd have done the same thing."

As for the Cowboys' philosophy this week, Coach Wade Phillips has yet to tip his hand, but the injured Owens (high ankle sprain) and Romo (thumb) seem certain to get at least some rest, which could give Dallas backup quarterback Brad Johnson a chance to beat his former team.

"What we have accomplished to this point is the result of a great effort by our players and coaches," Phillips said yesterday. "They've earned everything that they have achieved this year. We still have a lot of work to do. Securing the home field is important, but our guys understand that we have to continue to take care of business one week at a time."

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