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Cowboys can’t overthink Week 18 with injuries, seeding and strategy

With their win against Detroit and the Eagles’ loss to Arizona, the Cowboys are back in the driver’s seat and have the checkered flag in sight. As current holders of the No. 2 seed, they need just one more win to secure the NFC East crown and homefield advantage through at least two rounds of the postseason.

All they have to do is beat one of the worst teams in football in Week 18 and they will have put themselves in prime position to make a deep postseason run this winter. Entering the final game of an otherwise dream situation, the biggest obstacle that stands in their way could be their own overthinking.

The Cowboys have to fight the urge to overcomplicate things in their regular season finale against Washington. Popular opinion around the league sees the upcoming showdown against Washington as a gimmie, of sorts.  Washington is the second-worst team in the NFC while the Cowboys are the second best. Washington has nothing to gain with a win while the Cowboys have everything to gain. Washington is bad and the Cowboys are good.

This line of thinking can be dangerous for a team like Dallas. The Cowboys need one more win this season and history has shown this is a team who can’t afford to count their chickens before they hatch.

They must manage injuries, rest, risk and overall game-planning. It won’t be easy to keep the intensity dialed up with the playoffs inevitably on their minds. Resting players, deepening rotations and dialing up conversative/basic gameplans will all be temptations they must avoid.

But is a more cautious approach the smarter approach? Washington is essentially playing for a draft pick, but more than likely that will be in the hands of a new regime, so laying down is not an option for them. Do the Cowboys need “all hands on deck” to dispatch their final opponent?

Washington isn’t tanking

Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Just to clear something up: teams don’t tank games like many people like to think they do. While the owner and general manager may have long-term draft pick goals in mind, players and coaches don’t have that luxury. They play on a more week-to-week basis and can’t afford to put bad film out there.

Ron Rivera, the Commanders head coach, isn’t expected to return next season. He has very little reason to tank for the good of the team and every reason to end his Washington career with a statement win.

It’s eerily similar to Lovie Smith’s final game in Houston last season. In 2022 the Texans had the No. 1 pick all but locked up by Week 18. All they had to do was keep doing what they did all year long – lose. But since players inherently play to win and coaches inherently coach to win, the Texans won, much to the dismay of the franchise and many of their fans.

If they’re ready, they’re ready

(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The other item to consider is the actual readiness of Tyler Smith and Johnathan Hankins. If both players are truly healthy and ready to go, there’s really no debate as to whether or not they should return. They need to play. But rarely is a return to the field that black and white. Oftentimes, judgement is needed.

A returning player may be healthy enough to play, but how healthy is that? Do they have an increased risk of re-injury by coming back at less than 100 percent or is a ramp-up return game actually a good thing for their long-term performance?

Dallas has to trust the medical staff here.

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Don’t overthink it

Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As the Cowboys navigate workloads in Week 18 and jockey for final playoff positioning, the temptation is there to overthink the rotation and strategy. Resting healthy players when one more win is still needed, isn’t an advisable strategy. Neither is purposely losing the No. 2 seed in search of a better postseason matchup.

Employing a run-heavy gameplan to protect Dak Prescott in the pocket isn’t a great idea given the running game’s struggles as of late. And taking a coach lightly who’s likely to be on his way out is dangerous behavior as well.

The Cowboys have to play this game like any other game. If they jump out to a big lead they can reassess, but they have to play this game honestly.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire