With Cowboys and Patriots leading the way, NFL is building to an intriguing playoff climax

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott celebrated a touchdown at AT&T Stadium by jumping into the Salvation Army's Red Kettle at AT&T Stadium. (Photo by James D. Smith via AP)

It was an NFL season that meandered relatively aimlessly for a couple months. Television viewership suffered while the country focused on bigger issues. Those inside and outside the sport debated the reasons for the ratings drop and wondered how much a perceived erosion of the quality of the on-field product might have to do with it.

Things seem to be looking decidedly up again now for the NFL, however. The sport’s TV ratings have rebounded since the attention-consuming presidential election concluded. And as the regular season winds down and prepares to give way to the playoffs, the potential convergence of the rookie-led rise of the Dallas Cowboys and the Deflategate revenge tour of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots could give the league the biggest of finishes to its once-bland season.

The intrigue from this point forward will swirl around which teams – if any – are capable of preventing a Super Bowl matchup between the Cowboys and Patriots that increasingly feels inevitable. But first, there is the Week 17 business of completing the postseason field and settling the playoff seedings this coming weekend.

Ten of the 12 playoff participants are determined. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions will play for the NFC North title Sunday night in Detroit. The Washington Redskins benefited greatly from the Cowboys’ triumph Monday night over the Lions and now will secure the NFC’s sixth and final playoff spot Sunday if they beat the New York Giants at FedEx Field, provided that the Packers-Lions game does not end in a tie.

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The Cowboys had clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs even before Monday’s triumph at home over the Lions. But Coach Jason Garrett kept his standout rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott, in the lineup, putting aside the risk of injury in favor of keeping the Cowboys functioning at peak efficiency without interruption.

Garrett’s strategy paid off as the Cowboys won impressively, 42-21, and seemed to escape without a significant injury, although standout left tackle Tyron Smith stood on the sideline in the game’s late stages with an apparently minor knee issue. The Cowboys didn’t play like a team with nothing at stake.

“The biggest thing when you talk about that is the focus you have during the week of preparation,” Garrett said after the game. “And the focus and the edge that we had throughout our practice week was really, really important. That’s what allows you to play at a high level. The guys came back to work after last week’s game and whatever potential distractions there were, guys were focused on what we needed to do each and every day to prepare and play the right way.”

It remains to be seen what approach Garrett will take this Sunday at Philadelphia. Is there any need to get a few snaps for Tony Romo, the veteran quarterback whose preseason back injury gave Prescott his chance, just in case he’s needed? Cowboys owner Jerry Jones indicated after Sunday’s game he didn’t think Romo playing would be worth the risk and he wouldn’t be surprised to see similar snap counts to other games for the Cowboys’ key contributors.

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The Patriots, meanwhile, play Sunday at Miami and still have some work to do to clinch the top seed in the AFC playoffs. So Brady will be on the field to finish a regular season that began with his four-game Deflategate suspension yet could conclude with him winning the league’s MVP. That’s how Coach Bill Belichick seems to prefer it, expressing his disdain this week for discussions about resting key starters down the stretch.

“I don’t really understand that question. . . . We can only inactivate seven players,” Belichick said during a conference call with reporters. “This isn’t like a preseason game where you have 75 guys on your roster. This is a regular season game. I don’t really understand that whole line of questioning. I’m not saying I’m a great mathematician or anything. But the numbers just don’t add up for that type of conversation. So there’s no point in even getting involved in it.”

Would any AFC team be capable of going to Foxborough, Mass., during the postseason and preventing the Patriots from reaching another Super Bowl with Brady and Belichick?

The Oakland Raiders now have backup Matt McGloin at quarterback after their MVP contender, Derek Carr, suffered a broken bone in his leg during Saturday’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts. That could leave the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers — on a six-game winning streak and with the imposing offensive triumvirate of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tailback Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown — and the Kansas City Chiefs as the primary challengers.

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In the NFC, the Packers have five straight victories but aren’t even in the postseason field yet. The Atlanta Falcons have the league’s highest-scoring offense but face questions about a porous defense. The Seattle Seahawks haven’t had a two-game winning streak in more than a month. The Giants, locked into the No. 5 seed, have beaten the Cowboys twice and have gotten good results from their rebuilt defense. But their offense has gone four games without a 20-point outing.

“Let’s say it hasn’t been there, it hasn’t been there, it hasn’t been there and next week it’s there — I think everything goes out the window,” wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said after the Giants’ loss at Philadelphia last Thursday. “Then you’re talking about the offense next week and what an explosive game they had, and not what we’re not doing. So it’s just timing. I truly believe it’ll all come together at the right time. But the time’s pretty much now.”

And if it is Cowboys vs. Patriots in Houston, all those pre-election TV-ratings woes for the NFL likely will end up being a fading memory. The Cowboys have led the league’s post-election bounce-back in television viewership (Monday night’s game against the Lions drew a 10.7 overnight rating, the highest Monday night game since the Redskins and Cowboys in 2014). The Patriots are the team that everyone loves or loathes.

“It’s clear that the election had an impact,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at an owners’ meeting earlier this month. “I think since the election our ratings are about 2 percent down, compared to double digits prior to that. So there’s no question obviously going head to head with debates, you’re gonna get that kind of an impact, particularly with an election that may have been more followed than any election in our history. . . . And we’ve seen it in the rebound from ratings. But we’re not stopping there.”