Cowboys Playoff Picture: Down The Stretch

The Cowboys loss has filled their path to the playoffs with muddy steps.

Dallas was dominated.

Although a lopsided defeat can and sometimes does mean more about the state of your team, it still only counts as a single negative mark in the standings. In that way, the Cowboys did not suffer more from the loss against the Eagles than any other loss. However, looking over the landscape of the highly competitive NFC, Dallas is now in a precarious situation where a final record that in most years would be seen as a major accomplishment, could still leave them on the outside looking in.

Due to tiebreaker rules, Dallas is currently fogging up the window while watching six teams ahead of them in the race for the tournament, as Bill Parcells used to call it. Yes, Dallas has beaten Seattle head-to-head already, but the Seahawks would be in at 8-4 while Dallas would be out. That’s because in a three-way tiebreaker, which the Cowboys are currently in with Seattle and Detroit, all 8-4, head-to-head only matters if all three teams have met.

The next tiebreaker is win percentage in conference games. Seattle and Detroit both have better conference record than Dallas. The next tiebreaker is win percentage in common games. Those common games are currently New York and Arizona. Seattle is 2-0, while Detroit is 1-1 (Dallas is 2-1, but already eliminated from three-way tie because of conference mark). That puts Seattle in as the 5th seed. Next, Detroit and Dallas square off for the sixth seed, and Detroit has the better record in conference games (the next tiebreaker after head-to-head for two teams). Here’s a link to the tiebreaking procedures in the NFL.

All is not lost.

Dallas still controls their own playoff destiny. If Dallas wins out, they are in the playoffs; no matter what any other team does. That is the most important factor in play and the only thing this team can do to affect their own chances. Win all four, you are at least a playoff team.

There are still six games remaining that are head-to-head battles amongst serious playoff contenders in the NFC. For a moment, we’ll assume the Saints win all of their games to salvage the rep of the NFC South. No team in that division will play a major role in the playoff chase outside of spoiler.

Here’s a look at the six games of great importance:

WkKey Matchup 1 Key Matchup 2
17Det / GBAz / SF
We’ll circle back to these matchups in a few, but for now, let’s assume that each of the contenders wins every single matchup remaining on their schedule other than these. That allows us to operate from a position of worst-case scenario for Dallas’ playoff chances.

If Dallas is at 12-4, and Seattle wins the Week 14 matchup against Philadelphia; then Dallas wins the NFC East (PHI: 11-5) and is the third seed. In our scenario where all teams win their games against non-NFC playoff contenders, Dallas cannot get a bye. For this to happen, Arizona, Green Bay and Detroit would have to lose multiple games.

If Dallas is at 12-4 but Philadelphia defeats Seattle, Dallas will be a wild card team.

Beyond running the table, Dallas’ playoff hopes are in a very precarious position, even with 11 wins, and the Seahawks appear to be the key.

Seattle is in the midst of one of the toughest late-season stretches in recent memory. After facing Kansas City (loss) they’ve defeated Arizona and San Francisco in consecutive weeks. They will now face Philly, San Fran again and then Arizona again. If they can manage to win at least two of the following three games, things get very tough on Dallas.

Seattle finishing 12-4, likely puts Dallas in a tiebreaker with Detroit for the sixth seed, which Dallas loses. Seattle at 11-5 likely puts all three in a tiebreaker for the two wild card spots, which is the same scenario the Cowboys are in currently, not in the playoffs.

Even if Seattle defeats Philadelphia, Dallas wins the rematch against the Eagles and then loses to the Colts to finish 11-5 (assuming win over Washington), Dallas is still likely on the outside looking in.

Dallas can actually lose to the Eagles (salting away the division for Philly) and lose another game and still make the playoffs. If Seattle loses two more and the only two teams tied at 10-6 are them and Dallas, Dallas is in. However, if Detroit stumbles against any foe in addition to a season ending loss to Green Bay, again, Dallas is out.

Dallas could still possibly make the playoffs at 9-7 or even 8-8, but that would require collapses by other teams as well, and not being tied with San Francisco (Dallas would lose tiebreaker based on Week One loss.)

In essence, despite Dallas’ fast start to the season, they are going to need an extremely strong finish, or some help by lesser teams down the stretch, in order to qualify for the playoffs. Should they miss them for the fifth consecutive year, a lot of people’s jobs may be subject to the last tie-breaking procedure… a coin flip.

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