By Matthew Postins
With two games left the Dallas Cowboys are no longer outliers in the NFC playoff race. Here’s where the Cowboys stand and how it could break down.
Where the Cowboys are now: With the New York Giants’ loss to Atlanta, the NFC East is now in a three-way tie. It’s important to note that if the season ended today that the Cowboys would not win the division title. The Washington Redskins would actually win the title, thanks to the Redskins’ Thanksgiving Day win over Dallas. Overall the Cowboys remain the No. 8 playoff seed in the NFC, with the Chicago Bears at No. 7.
Winning the NFC East. Let’s start with the simplest scenario. If the Cowboys win their remaining two games they will win the division outright, since they still have a game with Washington. That would ensure that the Cowboys finish 10-6 and the Redskins finish no better than 9-7. The New York Giants could win out and go 10-6, but Dallas has that tiebreaker because they would have a better divisional record (4-2) than New York (no better than 3-3).
Now here’s where the fun starts. Can the Cowboys win the division if they absorb a loss next week against New Orleans? It looks like they can, but the following has to happen:
First, Dallas has to beat Washington in Week 17, ensuring that both teams finish with a 9-7 record;
Then, the New York Giants have to lose one of their final two games, ensuring that all three will end in a tie at 9-7.
Then it comes down to tiebreakers. The first – head-to-head – would be dead even because all three would be 1-1 against each other. The next tiebreaker is divisional record. In this scenario, that would eliminate the Giants, since they would have a 3-3 divisional record compared to the 4-2 divisional records of Dallas and Washington (we assume in this scenario that the Redskins will beat Philadelphia next Sunday).
The third tiebreaker is record against like opponents. This is where the Cowboys would win the berth. Right now Dallas has an 8-4 record against like opponents. The Redskins are at 6-5. Even if Dallas were to lose to New Orleans (keeping in mind that Washington beat New Orleans and we can’t include that until the Cowboys actually play the Saints), if it beat Washington it would still have a better record in this tiebreaker (9-5 for Dallas and 8-6 for Washington) and clinch the playoff berth. That 3-1 record against the AFC North may pay off for Dallas. The Redskins are 2-2 in that department.
Week 16: The Cowboys host the New Orleans Saints. That should be a shootout. Washington is at Philadelphia. The Giants have the hard draw. They’re at the Baltimore Ravens. We wrote two weeks ago that the Giants had the hardest schedule down the stretch. It will be their second divisional leader in as many weeks.
The Wild Card. It’s not out of the question for Dallas to clinch a Wild Card berth, but it’s an uphill battle. If the season ended today the Seahawks and the Vikings would be the Wild Card teams. Yes, the Vikings would be in, thanks to the free fall of the Chicago Bears. We’ll explore Wild Card scenarios next week, assuming Dallas wins.
Realistically? Two weeks ago we wrote that Dallas needed a Giants loss, and they got it. The Cowboys now control their own destiny. That’s all you can really ask for after their sloppy start to this season.