When there are still four games left to play in the season, the playoff picture can become muddled and confusing. But here’s the bottom line in regards to the Cowboys’ playoff picture entering Thursday night’s game at Chicago: there are 6 teams from the NFC that will make the playoffs; right now the Cowboys are #7.
In the NFL, both conferences (the NFC and the AFC) have four division winners that automatically make the postseason and host a playoff game. Each conference also has two “Wild Card” teams that make the playoffs. Thus, six teams per conference.
Here are the NFC rankings entering Week 14:
#1 Arizona Cardinals, NFC West leaders (9-3 overall, 2-1 vs division, 7-2 vs NFC)
#2 Green Bay Packers, NFC North leaders (9-3 overall, 4-1 division, 6-3 vs NFC)
#3 Philadelphia Eagles, NFC East leaders (9-3 overall, 3-0 division, 5-3 vs NFC)
#4 Atlanta Falcons, NFC South leaders (5-7 overall, 4-0 division, 5-4 vs NFC)
#5 Seattle Seahawks, Wild Card (8-4 overall, 2-1 division, 6-2 vs NFC)
#6 Detroit Lions, Wild Card (8-4 overall, 3-0 division, 6-2 vs NFC)
#7 Dallas Cowboys (8-4 overall, 2-2 division, 5-3 vs NFC)
#8 San Francisco 49ers (7-5 overall, 1-3 division, 6-4 vs NFC)
#9 – #12 Four teams are tied with records of 5-7 (Saints, Bears, Vikings, Rams)
Some interesting notes in the rankings include:
*The Falcons record is only 5-7, yet they’re ranked ahead of teams like the Seahawks, Lions, Cowboys and 49ers who have more wins. That’s because every division winner is guaranteed a ranking in the top 4 (there are 4 divisions). Whichever team wins the NFC South (it could be the 5-7 Saints or the 3-8 Panthers) is guaranteed a home playoff game. In other words, there could be a scenario in which the 11-5 Cowboys or 10-6 Eagles play on-the-road in the city of the NFC South winner. It’s not necessarily fair, but those are the rules: win your division, get a ranking in the top four, host a home playoff game.
*The Cowboys (8-4) have the same record as the Seahawks (8-4) and Lions (8-4), so why are the Cowboys ranked below those two teams for a Wild Card spot? Simple: the Cowboys have a worse record within the conference (vs NFC teams).
Here’s the tie-breaker scenario for the Wild Card: if there is a two-way tie between two teams, if those two teams played head-to-head, the winner of that head-to-head matchup will get the playoff spots. That’s good news for the Cowboys because they beat the Seahawks in a head-to-head matchup in October.
However, if there is a 3-way tie for a Wild Card spot, one team would have to sweep the other two in order to win the tie-breaker. The Cowboys and Lions do not play each other this season, so that particular scenario does not apply. So it goes to the next step down in the tie-breaker which is: “best won-loss record within the conference”.
If the 3 teams vying for a Wild Card spot are tied in terms of conference wins, there are several more steps of tie-breakers including: games against common opponents; strength of victory; strength of schedule….all the way down to line to a “coin flip” which is the 11th and final tie-breaker.
Yes, it can get super-complicated. But that’s not important right now because we still have the full month of December games to go.
Bottom line: the Cowboys’ four losses this season have all been against NFC teams within the conference (losses to the 49ers, Redskins, Cardinals, and Eagles). Two of those losses are within the Cowboys’ division (Redskins, Eagles). That’s not good for tie-breakers.
So here’s what you need to know:
The Cowboys have four games remaining in the 2014 regular season: @ Chicago Bears (5-7), @ Philadelphia Eagles (9-3), vs Indianapolis Colts (8-4, an AFC team), @ Redskins (3-9).
Win those game and they Cowboys will be in the playoffs. Not necessarily as the NFC East division champions…the Cowboys need to beat the Eagles on December 14th, then hope the Eagles lose at least one more additional game. But the Cowboys, by winning the final four games, can punch their ticket to postseason as a Wild Card team.
And as former Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells used to say, “Once you’re in the tournament (playoffs), anything can happen.”