Playing the final game of the NFL regular season offers the Dallas Cowboys the unique perspective to watch how their playoff chances unfold.
When the Cowboys finally host the St. Louis Rams at Texas Stadium, they’ll know whether or not a win will get them into the postseason.
Several different scenarios exist for Dallas to earn a wild-card spot, but things would be easiest for the Cowboys if either Carolina or Washington loses Sunday. Dallas would claim a playoff berth with a win and a loss by either of those teams.
The Cowboys can also sneak into the playoffs with a tie and loss by Washington or with a win and a loss by Tampa Bay.
The game could also be rendered meaningless for the Cowboys if Washington, Carolina and Tampa Bay all win, which would eliminate Dallas from contention.
“Not making the playoffs would be a disappointment to me,” said Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who will have his second winning season in three years with the Cowboys. “Last year, a couple of teams got in with eight, but this year, we’re not that fortunate.”
Dallas remained in the playoff chase with a 24-20 victory Christmas Eve over Carolina, a big win for the Cowboys after a 35-7 defeat at Washington the week before.
Julius Jones rushed for a season-high 194 yards and two touchdowns, and the Cowboys took advantage of a roughing the kicker penalty to beat the Panthers on a 2-yard touchdown reception by Terry Glenn with 24 seconds to play.
“I think this team has a little spunk to it, I really do,” Parcells said. “I know we’ve had some ups and downs, but I like them. I do.”
Parcells released kicker Billy Cundiff after he was 1-for-3 on field goals the last two weeks, and re-signed Sean Suisham, who appeared in Weeks 8 and 10. In all, the Cowboys have made four kicking changes this season.
“When you start thinking about going for it on fourth down and stuff like that … you can’t live with that’s going on right now, the way it was,” Parcells said.
Parcells has denied reports he is thinking about retirement, even coming to work at 2 a.m. Christmas morning.
“I’m not talking about any of that,” Parcells said Monday when asked about his coaching future. “When you’re 64 years old, they can say anything they want. They’re probably going to be pretty close to being right, some day.”
St. Louis continued its downward plummet with a 24-20 loss to the 49ers last week, its fourth straight defeat. The Rams assured themselves their first 10-loss season since going 4-12 in 1998 and first losing home record since that season.
“I feel like we embarrassed the city of St. Louis,” wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. “Today wasn’t a good day for us.”
Jamie Martin earned another start at quarterback after throwing for a career-high 354 yards. Martin replaced rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick, who, after a spectacular debut Nov. 27 against the Texans, struggled in his three starts.
“He had the two interceptions which we just can’t have, but Jamie all day long gave us a chance to win the game,” Rams interim coach Joe Vitt said. “At one point we’re up 20-7 and he’s rocking and rolling.”
The Rams’ defense, third-worst in the NFL, gave up 217 rushing yards in the loss.
On Monday, Vitt blamed himself for the team’s late-season collapse. Head coach Mike Martz went out with a heart ailment in late October, and Vitt is 3-7 as his replacement.
“If I had done a better job of preparing our team, we may be better right now,” Vitt said. “It’s on me. This is my fault.”
This may be the final game in a Rams uniform for Marshall Faulk. The running back was part of the 1999 Super Bowl champions and won the NFL MVP in 2000, but has taken a lesser role this season.
Faulk has a career-low 267 yards as the Rams decided to make Steven Jackson the starter this season.
“You have to understand that although it’s a game and it’s my career and it’s my life and it provides a living for me and my family, it’s a business to the people who own it,” Faulk said. “And they have to run it.
“There comes a time when they have to make decisions, business decisions.”