Jones is healthiest, most effective RB

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys face one of their biggest games in years, an NFC divisional playoff contest against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, with two of their three running backs at less than 100 percent.

Starter Marion Barber has a swollen left knee, and backup Tashard Choice is feeling OK despite getting shaken up in the playoff victory against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then there's the other backup, Felix Jones, who is feeling great.

With Barber at less than 100 percent, it might be beneficial for the Cowboys to start Jones against the Vikings, or at least continue increasing his carries.

Barber had to leave Saturday night's game after only three touches when he got hit on his left knee, which was bruised the previous week. Jones came in and was sensational.

He rushed 16 times for 148 yards, including a fantastic 73-yard touchdown run that had owner Jerry Jones high-fiving people in his luxury suite.

Barber has earned the right to remain the starter after rushing for a team-high 932 yards on 214 carries in the regular season.

But in the biggest game of the season, you want to make sure you have your most productive players, especially the healthy ones, on the field.

Jones said he doesn't care whether he starts, he just wants to play.

"That's what's important to me, going out there and helping the team, giving all I got," he said Monday. "I want to maximize my opportunities and keep going out there and producing."

In the last four weeks of the regular season, Jones averaged 5.2 yards per carry and didn't have a game in which he averaged under 4.1. Barber averaged 4.2 yards per carry in the same span but averaged less than 4 yards in three of those games.

Although it's true that Barber might be the better running back in the short term, he has never completed a season without getting hurt since becoming the full-time starter in 2008. And for that matter, he hasn't rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

Jones' time on the field also has been cut short by injuries.

The Cowboys only received glimpses of what Jones could be last season. He injured a hamstring versus Arizona in October 2008. While rehabbing from the hamstring injury, Jones hurt his toe so badly that he needed surgery.

Jones walked around Valley Ranch in pain. He said he had never experienced something so bad. When training camp came around, his toe was stiff and he couldn't push off it well enough to make cuts and show everybody his speed.

He learned a lesson quickly.

"I've been laying around for a few months beforehand," Jones said of his summer. "And when I was getting out there every day consistently pounding and pounding on [the toe], it got a little stiff on me. At the time, I wasn't going into treatment because I was trying to be tough. But you learn from your mistakes, and I have to stay on top of that, and I do that for my whole body."

This season, other than a knee injury that kept him inactive for two games, he hasn't missed any time.

Jones never rushed for more than nine carries in a game his rookie year, but in his second year, he started hitting double digits.

It began against Washington on Nov. 22, when he gained 49 yards on 10 carries. Then offensive coordinator Jason Garrett slowly gave him more attempts.

In the San Diego Chargers game, Jones had 10, then 14 more the next week in a win over the New Orleans Saints. On Dec. 27, with a chance to clinch a playoff spot against the Washington Redskins, Jones had 10 carries for 58 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

In the regular-season finale, with the NFC East title on the line, Jones carried 15 times for 91 yards and a touchdown, a 49-yard burst against the Eagles.

Of course, the playoff game was where he really excelled.

When all three running backs are healthy, the Cowboys have a deadly combination.

"All three of us can run the rock, man," said Choice, who rushed for 42 yards on 14 carries in the playoff win over the Eagles. "All three of us, on any given day, can do big things, and that's how I know. I know what I can do, and [those] two guys know what they can do. I think we all trust each other, whoever got to tote the load and make the plays."

Sunday in Minneapolis, Jones should carry the load more with the season on the line.

"Patience is a virtue," Jones said. "You need it. You need to have patience. Just wait, your time is coming."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.