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Cowboys hope to ride aggressive approach into postseason

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He had just imposed the full force of his will on the Detroit Lions, triggering a run of four unanswered touchdowns that doomed his desperate-for-a-playoff-berth opponents to a 42-21 defeat. And now Dez Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys' emotional and inexorable receiver, took his best shot at enunciating a collective mentality that cuts to the core of a primal and hyper-physical sport.

"There's a lot of talk about how we're supposed to play this," Bryant said as he stood outside the Cowboys' locker room at AT&T Stadium late Monday night. "But here's the deal. F--- it, we're gonna play ball, and we're not gonna play scared. That's what the coaches want, so that's what we're gonna do, and when we get on that field, we're not holding anything back."

With the top seed in the NFC playoffs secured and a slew of devastating injuries in their collective memory bank, the Cowboys had no reason to go for broke Monday night -- except for the most important reason of all: Playing to win in 2016 has made them winners, plain and simple. As head coach Jason Garrett explained while strolling through the victorious locker room, "If you start to pull back and pull back, you lose some of what you built up over all these weeks, and it makes you vulnerable. We don't want to do that. We want to go after it."

On Monday, Dallas fell behind a Lions team looking to clinch a playoff berth -- and to take some pressure off next Sunday night's showdown with the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title -- and got after it with a vengeance, playing with a greater sense of urgency than the vanquished visitors.

And even after their 13th victory in 15 games was assured, the Cowboys maintained a foot-on-the-gas (and foot-on-the-throat) approach to the finish, keeping rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and most of their other starters on the field.

Given the carnage that occurred two days earlier, with one playoff-bound team (the Raiders) and another with postseason aspirations heading into the weekend (the Titans) losing franchise quarterbacks to broken legs, the Cowboys' reluctance to play it a bit safer may have been perplexing to many viewers, and even to some of the 92,885 fans in attendance who spent much of the night roaring their approval.

Know this, however: Their aggressive approach makes sense to the most important voice in the building -- that of owner Jerry Jones -- who, not surprisingly, foresees the Cowboys taking a similarly hell-bent mindset into next Sunday's regular-season finale against the Eagles in Philadelphia.

"The plan we had tonight was aggressive, and that was not by accident," Jones told me as he walked to his car after the game.

"Anything less than that is a little too much to get your hands around, and I think you'll see the same thing next week. We think this suits us best, and we think our guys will carry that edge into the playoffs."

The Cowboys' edge was evident to all after the Lions, who scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, took a 21-14 lead midway through the second quarter on running back Zach Zenner's second scoring run. Dallas' next drive stalled, with Prescott getting violently slammed by linebacker Tahir Whitehead and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata at his own 33 after running for five yards on third-and-6.

That disquieting sight was augmented by the surly sounds of Dallas linebacker Sean Lee upbraiding his defensive teammates on the sidelines and insisting they play to a higher standard. Message delivered: The Cowboys (13-2) shut down the Lions (9-6) the rest of the way, while Bryant and friends ran rampant over Detroit's defense in every way imaginable.

First Bryant made a sliding, one-handed, 25-yard touchdown catch despite being interfered with by Lions cornerback Johnson Bademosi, allowing Dallas to tie the game at 21 with 1:04 remaining in the first half. On the Cowboys' first drive of the second half Bryant went deep down the right sideline and drew another interference penalty (this one on cornerback Nevin Lawson) to set up a one-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott (who earlier scored on a 55-yard burst).

At that point, it was clear the Lions couldn't cover Bryant. When the Cowboys entered the red zone on their next drive, however, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan took things to the next level: On first-and-goal from the 10, Bryant ran an apparent end-around, took a pitch from Prescott and raced to his left, only to pull up and loft a perfect, left-handed toss to tight end Jason Witten in the back of the end zone. As Witten threw up the X, mimicking Bryant's trademark celebration, it was abundantly clear that Detroit was done.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, seemed like they were just showing off -- and/or sending a message to their future playoff opponents, whoever they may be. After Prescott (15 for 20, 212 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) connected with Bryant on a 19-yard touchdown on Dallas' next drive, logic suggested his night was done.

However, Prescott closed out the game, throwing a pass as late as the 6:40 mark (a deep ball to Bryant that fell incomplete) -- and setting up one more emphatic and dramatic display of Dallas dominance, as punter Chris Jones pummeled Lions returner Andrew Roberts on the sideline following a 23-yard return.

Yeah, it was like that.

And no, Monday night was not Romo Time, despite the protestations of many adoring fans. Tony Romo, whose decade as the Cowboys' starting quarterback ended abruptly after he suffered a compression fracture in his back during the preseason, remained on the sidelines even in the blowout's final stages, apparently to be used only in case of emergency.

This unorthodox approach to quarterback management speaks to the Cowboys' determination not to rely on any one player the way they've depended upon Romo in recent years. And it shows that, while Prescott is undeniably the man who'll be charged with leading Dallas to what Jones hopes will be the franchise's ninth Super Bowl appearance -- and first in 21 years -- the owner isn't petrified by the prospect of Romo stepping in should the situation warrant it.

As we stood on the field before the game, I asked Jones if the sight of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr going down with a broken fibula in Saturday's victory over the Colts (with Titans QB Marcus Mariota already having suffered a similar injury in a defeat to the Jaguars) made him at all squeamish about playing Prescott against the Lions.

"Of course it scares you," Jones conceded. "But I know that playing in games like this will help Dak prepare for the bigger moments, and I also know what we have in Romo. I'm not worried about (him being rusty); I've seen what he can do in practice, and he'll be ready if needed. And, I mean, what a luxury. How much would Oakland love to have a Romo who could step in right now?"

Last season, after Romo went down with a broken left clavicle in Week 2, the Cowboys -- who were coming off an NFC East championship the previous year -- lost seven consecutive games to fall out of contention. Romo was shut down for the season after suffering a similar injury in late November, and Dallas sputtered to a 4-12 record.

So when Romo sustained his compression fracture in late August, Jones and his son, Stephen, the Cowboys' executive vice president and director of player personnel, were understandably stressed. Yet something about the poise of Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick, compelled them to resist the temptation to trade for an experienced passer to serve as a stopgap replacement -- along with a collective initiative they'd forged in the wake of last year's disappointing campaign.

"Obviously, when Tony goes down, you start thinking about, 'Are you gonna be able to get this done without him?'" Jones said following Monday's game. "But everybody took the blame for last year and came back determined to do it differently. Our attitude was, 'Hey, let's focus on the guys we've got.'

"That's something I don't think we did in the past, and certainly not last year. This time, our guys never blinked. It was full speed ahead. I don't think our players ever worried about who was gonna play this week. They've just gone out and played, and that's what we wanted to do tonight as well."

Jerry Jones insisted he wasn't worried when Prescott absorbed that second-quarter sandwiching by Ngata and Whitehead, saying, "Dak's a big guy. To me, that's part of him getting to be a better quarterback, fighting through situations like that. And he's a better quarterback having played this game balls out than if we had measured it in some way.

"So yeah, we had a different mentality when (Romo got hurt) this year. But I'm gonna say this: We had no idea it was gonna be a fourth-rounder, Dak Prescott, who got on the field, first of all, and then did what he's been able to do ... To me, the odds of Dak Prescott getting this opportunity and being on the field in the first place are so long, you can't even count them."

Thus, having beaten the odds to this extent, Jones is willing to live with the possibility that the Cowboys could lose Prescott -- or Elliott, or Bryant, or Lee, or Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith (who sat out the fourth quarter with a knee injury that the owner does not believe is serious), or another key player -- in pursuit of victories they don't technically need, all in the name of maintaining their edge.

"Yeah, there's a risk," Garrett conceded, "but you've gotta play. "There are so many examples out there of teams over the years that pulled back and lost their edge and didn't look the same in the playoffs, and we don't want to be one of them."

It's telling that Lee, perhaps the most injury-prone Cowboys standout in recent memory, has absolutely no desire to play it safe as the playoffs approach. With Dallas three victories away from a championship -- in games that would all be played in the state of Texas, with Super Bowl LI set for Houston's NRG Stadium on Feb. 5 -- Lee is focused on playing to win in Philadelphia next Sunday.

"Playing makes you better," he said. "You can practice as much as you want, but playing in games helps me be a better football player -- and helps me play the game right. You could see tonight, we didn't play the right way early on, and it was unacceptable. But we played our way out of it, and that was really valuable. All year long, we've gone out and played and kept getting better, and that's a real thing."

In three weeks, the real challenge begins, with the Cowboys hosting a divisional-round game against an undetermined opponent. There's no guarantee that they'll be fully healthy -- but judging from Monday's performance, they'll almost certainly be ready.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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