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FRISCO, Texas — Jason Garrett can only be wrong this weekend.

If he doesn’t play most of his regulars in the Dallas Cowboys’ Week 17 regular-season finale against the New York Giants and a slow start dooms the Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs, it will be Garrett’s fault.

If he plays most of his regulars against the Giants and a player like Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott or DeMarcus Lawrence gets hurt and dooms the Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs, it will be Garrett’s fault.

“The overarching theme is really anyone who is healthy is going to play in the ballgame,” Garrett said. “Again, we’re going to prepare the right way and go try to play the right way in New York on Sunday.”

The unsaid was “how much.” Speaking on KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Wednesday, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin will not play because of a knee injury, which is a benefit of clinching a postseason spot with one week to go.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will play Sunday, but for how long? Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports
The Cowboys (9-6) are locked in as the fourth seed in the NFC, so a win would not better their standing. A win would allow the Cowboys to finish the second half of the season with a 7-1 record, making them one of the hottest teams going into the postseason.

“This idea that you have a whole other team, we’re not going to play the starters, we’re going to play the backups, logistically, you can’t do that,” Garrett said. “The numbers don’t allow you to do that. We’re going to play our football team. Anybody who is healthy is going to play in this ballgame and play to the best of their ability. Our focus is on preparing the right way and then go play the right way and hopefully that will give us the best opportunity the following week in the first round of the playoffs.”

Sensing a trend in Garrett’s thought process yet?

Immediately after Sunday’s victory against the Buccaneers, Elliott, Prescott and other veterans said they wanted to play in the finale against the Giants. Three days later, that had not changed.

Elliott has 1,434 rushing yards, which gives him a 183-yard lead over Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams in his bid to win a second NFL rushing title in three seasons. Gurley did not play in Week 16 because of a knee injury and might not play Sunday. Elliott’s next-closest competitor is Saquon Barkley of the Giants at 1,198 yards.

“I don’t think I need to go to them and say that [he wants to play],” Elliott said. “I think we’re all on the same page.”

In addition to his 304 carries, Elliott leads the Cowboys with 77 receptions. In the Dec. 9 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, he had 40 touches (28 carries, 12 catches). Would he be OK with that kind of workload?

“Whatever it takes,” he said.

The only time Amari Cooper made it to the playoffs in his career before this season was in 2016 with the Oakland Raiders. Derek Carr suffered a broken fibula in Week 16 and missed the postseason. The Raiders were still fighting for home-field advantage or a potential first-round bye when Carr got hurt.

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The Raiders lost their season finale and then fell to the Houston Texans in the wild-card round.

“It was kind of bleak after he got hurt,” Cooper said.

So wouldn’t it be wise for the Cowboys to sit Prescott or at least not overexpose him?

“I mean, it’s football. Injuries, you have a 99 percent chance of getting hurt any time you go out there on the field,” Cooper said. “It’s just a question of when are you going to get hurt. So, me going out there worried about getting hurt, that’s usually when you go out there and get hurt because you play kind of timid.”

In 2014, the Cowboys had an outside shot to claim either home-field advantage or a first-round bye with a victory in the regular-season finale. Tony Romo played all but one snap. The rest of the regulars played a normal game in a 44-17 win against the Washington Redskins.

The Cowboys claimed their only playoff win of the Garrett era, beating the Detroit Lions in the wild-card round the following weekend.

Entering the 2016 regular-season finale at Philadelphia, the Cowboys had home-field advantage wrapped up and Prescott played 16 snaps, but starting offensive linemen Doug Free, Travis Frederick and Martin played all 56 snaps. Tyron Smith was inactive. Left guard Ronald Leary was active and did not play. Elliott was active and did not play a snap. On defense, Sean Lee was active but did not play.

The Cowboys lost to the Eagles that day and two weeks later lost in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers.

Elliott did not think the layoff affected that team.

“But I also think this is a different team. We are built a little bit different,” Elliott said. “We definitely rely more on our intensity and how hard we play and be in a groove. This is the right thing to do.”

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NEW ORLEANS — The Superdome is known for its noise level, and New Orleans Saints fans are known for their passion.

But the vibe — and the sheer volume — on Sunday was something this place hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

“I felt like, man, this was top-three loudest atmospheres,” quarterback Drew Brees said after the Saints’ 23-13, playoff-clinching victory over the Atlanta Falcons. “[The fans] deserved this one. This was all about them. They willed this to happen. So this was phenomenal.”

I’m not going to nitpick with Brees’ ranking or accuse him of hyperbole (even though I can think of at least two playoff wins and one Superdome reopener that should rank higher), because I can’t blame him if he forgot just how loud this place can get when the good times are really rolling.
The Superdome fans really got into the action Sunday, especially after Mark Ingram scored a touchdown to help the Saints pull away. Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports
This was definitely the most raucous atmosphere I can remember since at least 2011 — which was the last season when New Orleans won the NFC South and hosted a playoff game.

And now that everybody is back in sync again, it sure looks like the Saints (11-4) are primed to host another playoff game in two weeks. To do that, they’ll have to either win at Tampa Bay next Sunday or have the Carolina Panthers (11-4) lose at Atlanta.

“That was probably as loud as you’re gonna get here. I think maybe one time I’ve heard it louder than this — maybe,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was a rookie in 2011 and who fed off that noise with two sacks on Sunday. “When you talk about the energy, we were able to feed off each other, feed off the fans. That’s a hell of a win.”

Credit Sunday’s opponent, first and foremost. The hated Falcons bring out the best in Saints fans when it comes to decibel levels — and this was one of the most meaningful games in the history of a rivalry that spans nearly 50 years, since both teams were in position to win the division entering Sunday.

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Credit also the Saints’ own playoff drought. They haven’t been to the postseason since 2013, so fans have been waiting a long time for something to get this excited for.

But most of all, credit the Saints themselves for living up to the hype.

As we’ve learned over the past three years of 7-9 seasons, crowds go quiet when the team doesn’t give the fans something to cheer for. But this time, the Saints gave them big moments throughout a convincing victory that really put an exclamation point on their breakout season.

“Listen, it all works together,” Brees said. “It all works hand in hand. You know those moments when the momentum in these games becomes so much bigger at home — the big play or the big stop on defense or the big hit. … You keep that crowd engaged, and you see the results. [The opponent] may jump offsides in a critical situation. It’s just remarkable how that can change a game.”


The Saints had hit a bit of a lull over the past month, losing two of the past four games and playing sloppy in last week’s 31-19 home victory over the Jets.

But this was a strong performance filled with big moments from every unit — from cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s incredible “butt pick” interception that came to a rest on his backside before he secured it against his thigh; to Brees’ 54-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn Jr. three plays later; to a pair of goal-line stands by New Orleans’ defense in the second half; to Mark Ingram’s 26-yard TD run; to Alvin Kamara’s 49-yard kickoff return and more.
As I wrote Sunday, the Saints’ defense especially rose to the challenge — in a week in which they lost both starting linebacker A.J. Klein and starting safety Kenny Vaccaro to injured reserve. The revitalized young defense has been one of the stories of this season, and they proved just how legit they are against a dangerous offense led by Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Matt Ryan.

This Saints team doesn’t feel like as much of a Super Bowl favorite or front-runner as those peak teams of 2009 and 2011 did. But it can win in a lot of ways with a defense and run game that are thriving even more than their downfield passing game.

And if Sunday’s game was an indication, the Saints sure look poised to peak at the right time.