ARLINGTON, Texas - With 13 wins and home-field advantage clinched through the NFC playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys rested many of their regular players in a season-finale loss to the Eagles.
Little was made out of the losing locker room that day, because the Cowboys were already established as the favorites in the NFC after sterling seasons by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Except they never experienced a winning locker room again.
Dallas' season ended Sunday with a 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs when the Cowboys became the latest victims of Aaron Rodgers' scorching late-season march. They fell into an early 21-3 hole before tying the game late in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Packers win on a last-second field goal.
The early exit will sting the Cowboys, who have not reached the NFC championship since the 1996 postseason and have now lost in the divisional round in four consecutive playoff trips dating back to 2007.
"There are no moral victories here," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game. "For this bunch to come back and get it together, I know we were very capable of doing a good job against Atlanta had we won this game and probably a good job in the Super Bowl. I don't want to say in any way that's a consolation, but I know they are capable of playing at this level and the kind of level we expected them to in order to win this game."
Philadelphia fans can celebrate a premature finish to their rivals' season, but the performance of the Cowboys' rookie sensations should indicate just how bright the future appears in Dallas. Prescott went 24 of 38 for 302 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. Elliott rushed 22 times for 125 yards. Wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is only 28, caught nine passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. And most of the Cowboys' heralded offensive linemen are in their 20s, too.
So the Eagles could be challenged by the Cowboys for years to come. That's how Rodgers saw it, praising the Cowboys' two rookies and adding that "it's just the beginning" for the Cowboys.
Prescott was especially impressive in his postseason debut. He quieted any early-game speculation that the Cowboys might need to turn to veteran Tony Romo while leading the Cowboys on their second-half comeback even though it was the largest deficit of their season. He made two key third-down conversions in the fourth quarter, including a 15-yard pass to Jason Witten on a third-and-14 and a 7-yard touchdown pass to Bryant on a third-and-2. He also rushed for a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28.
"I just hate to be on the losing end, obviously, but it was a game that I've dreamed of playing in since I was a little kid," Prescott said. "Plan to play in many more of them."
The Cowboys needed to play catch-up because the offense could not keep pace with Rodgers early in the game. After a field goal on the opening possession, they were forced to punt on their next two possessions while the Packers scored touchdowns. The Cowboys finally found the end zone on a 40-yard pass to Bryant.
Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher, had 10 first-half carries and 12 in the second half. Jones said it was dictated by the score, and he thought the Cowboys found a balanced offense and allowed Prescott to make plays with his arm and legs. Elliott was hard to stop in the second half, even spinning away from linebacker Clay Matthews' grasp on an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter.
"He's been a great football player from Day One," coach Jason Garrett said. "Talk about a guy that doesn't blink. . . . He controlled the game for us."
Garrett did not think the Eagles game and the first-round bye negatively affected the Cowboys. He countered that it gave them a chance to get healthy.
Nonetheless, they finished the season with two losses. The combination of Prescott and Elliott still has not won a playoff game. Their challenge will be advancing in the postseason, but they are still the top team in the division. The Eagles must build a team that can compete with Dallas.