The Dallas Cowboys return from the bye with a one-game lead in the NFC East and a case as the NFC’s best team. But the Cowboys are by no means a playoff lock yet. So, as Dallas enters its seventh game of the season with a 5-1 record, I wanted to see if there was a way to guarantee, or practically guarantee, a Cowboys playoff berth.
Turns out, there is. All you have to do is count to 10 (wins).
Now, a first, ideal step is having all hands on deck, and the Cowboys are a stride closer to that, it seems, with Tony Romo returning to the practice-field fold -- in a meaningful way.
Scout team means full-speed. Full-speed means prepping for real-game action, for making sure the conditioning and the fluidity and the mobility are there. Not for the Eagles, not yet.
But for Romo's availability, in whatever form, to a Dallas playoff run.
Now to the numbers ...
To determine if there was a magic number of wins to reach the playoffs, I dug deep into the NFL’s standings since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, which provides us 45 years of research. After reviewing all of that data, I found that there were 423 teams during those 45 years that had won 10 or more games in a single season. Of those 423 teams, 398 of them made the postseason.
That’s a success rate of 94.1 percent in the past 45 years. So 94 out of every 100 teams that win 10 or more games makes the NFL playoffs.
The era of scheduling and divisions has no impact on this, either. From 1970-2001 the NFL had a six-division format and a scheduling format that could be quirky outside of divisional play. Starting in 2002 the NFL went to an eight-division format and a more rigid scheduling format out of divisional play. In both samples a 10-win team missed the playoffs approximately every two years.
In 18 of the 45 seasons sampled a 10-win team missed the playoffs. On approximately a third of those occasions two 10-win teams missed the playoffs in the same year, but the last time that happened was in 1991, when both Philadelphia and San Francisco won 10 games and missed the playoffs.
So why does this happen? It would seem winning 10 games should get you in the playoffs no matter what. Well this phenomenon usually occurs for one of two reasons. First, it can be because you have more 10-win teams than playoff berths. For instance, the NFL now takes 12 total playoff teams, six in each conference. Well, in 2014 that’s exactly what happened. Thirteen teams won 10 games, but Philadelphia ended up the odd team out as the Eagles won 10 games but were eliminated from wild card contention.
Second, a team that wins fewer than 10 games, but wins a division, usurps a 10-win wild-card candidate. That happened in 2013 when 12 NFL teams won 10 games, but the Arizona Cardinals, winners of 10 games, failed to make the playoffs. That year the Green Bay Packers won the NFC North with an 8-7-1 record. If you’re a proponent of a system in which the top six teams in each conference make the playoffs, regardless of division, that probably doesn’t sit well with you.
So what if you win 11 games? That should be a lead-pipe lock, right? Well, practically. We’ve actually seen two 11-win teams miss the postseason in the last 45 years. The first was the 1985 Denver Broncos. Back then five teams made the playoffs in each conference and the Broncos hit a double-whammy. First, the Cleveland Browns won the AFC Central with an 8-8 record. Second, there were three 11-win wild-card candidates. The New York Jets and the New England Patriots took the wild-card berths and the Pats went on to their first Super Bowl berth.
The second time was in 2008. New England lost Tom Brady to a knee injury in the season’s first game and Matt Cassel led the Pats to 11 wins. But they still failed to make the playoffs. With the current four-division, six-playoff berth format in effect, the 8-8 San Diego Chargers won the AFC West. From there the AFC had six teams with 11 or more wins, leaving the Pats on the outside after losing an AFC East tiebreaker with Miami and an AFC wild-card tiebreaker with Baltimore.
So the Cowboys would appear to be in good shape with five wins in their first six games. To reach 10 wins the Cowboys only need to win five of their final 10 games. But how does this magic number apply to Cowboys history? Let’s take a look.
The worst the Cowboys can start the first seven games of this season is 5-2, depending on the result of Sunday night’s game with Philadelphia. I tracked every Cowboys season starting in 1978. Why 1978? Because the league’s current 16-game schedule came into effect that year. From 1978 to 2015 the Cowboys won five or more of their first seven games 16 times. Of those 16 seasons, the Cowboys won at least 10 games and reached the playoffs 15 times.
So what was that 16th season? It was 1986 and it was an historic one from a Cowboys perspective. Dallas started the season 5-2. The Cowboys has swept their first round of NFC East play. Running back Herschel Walker was tearing up the NFL. The hiring of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett had boosted the Cowboys’ offense. Danny White was playing some of the best football of his career. In fact, the Cowboys had reached 6-2 and had the league’s No. 1 offense when they went to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants for a late-afternoon showdown in early November.
I remember the exact moment that season ended. It was the second half and as White dropped back to pass Giants LB Carl Banks hit White and drove him to the ground. White tried to brace himself to hit the hard Meadowlands Stadium turf and ended up breaking his wrist. He never came back that season. Steve Pelluer took over, threw 17 interceptions and the season went into the tank, with Dallas finishing 7-9 and notching its first losing season since 1965. This season precipitated the Cowboys’ decline the next few seasons and ultimately gave way to the Jerry Jones era.
You might also remember 1985 as the year with the “death threat” game. The Cowboys played a late-season game in Los Angeles against the Rams and head coach Tom Landry had to leave the field due to death threats. He put on a bulletproof vest and returned to the sideline because, well, he was Tom freaking Landry.
But the path is clear. When an NFL team wins 10 games in a season it makes the playoffs 94 percent of the time and when the Cowboys win five of their first seven games they reach 10 wins and the playoffs 15 out of 16 times since 1978.
Maybe it's because Dak stays hot. Maybe it's because Romo is ready. But the math says this: As long as these Cowboys can count to 10, you can just about count on a playoff berth come January.