Each year, around this time, I "do the math". And, yes, I used that term before Walmart began to use it in their back-to-school promotions.
Anyone can read and regurgitate what everyone else is saying. I try to go a little deeper - to see what is possible, and not necessarily what can or will happen.
I'm about a week late with this one because I had decided (and been encouraged) to not do the series this year.
Two weeks ago, I ran numbers and saw scenarios where the Cowboys could run the table, get a little help, and actually claim the #1 seed. It wasn't probable, but it was possible. The loss to the Bears took care of that (along with any chance at the #2 seed and a first-round bye). The come-from-ahead loss to the Packers eliminated any possibility of a wild card for Dallas, and it nearly knocked out any possibility of a #3 seed. Fortunately, the NFC North is mirroring the East's miring in the muck of mediocrity.
There are actually two NFC contests going on, jockeying for playoff inclusion and positioning. The first - involving the NFC West and South - is for the top two playoff seeds, and for the two wild card berths. Five teams are competing for those four places, and all but one have some control of their playoff destiny. Only Arizona needs some help to overtake one of the other four.
With four teams in the NFC West and South already having ten or more wins, the East and North are shut out of top seed possibilities and wild cards. Two East teams (Dallas and Philadelphia) and three North teams (Chicago, Detroit, and Green Bay) are competing for two playoff positions. One will be a division champ and #3 seed; one will be the other division champ and #4 seed; and, the other three will miss the playoffs. But, just as with the West/South, four of the five teams control their destiny, and can be division champs by winning their final two games. Only Detroit needs outside help.
Here are breakdowns of the two competitions - first, the West/South (five teams competing for four seeds - #1, 2, 5, 6); then, the East/North (five teams competing for two seeds - #3, 4). In both groups, the top four have some control of their destiny, and the fifth needs help but has a reasonable opportunity to advance.
West and South (playing for seeds #1, 2, 5, 6):
Seattle - 12-2-0 - remaining games - Arizona and St. Louis (both at home); possible outcomes - #1 or #5:
- West champ and #1 seed - most likely, and a destiny they control; if they win one of their two remaining home games, they clinch the top seed (Seattle could also lose both games and still clinch the top seed, but would need San Francisco to lose once)
- West champ and #2 seed - not possible; Seattle, even at 12-4, could not be overtaken by either New Orleans or Carolina; their best possible is 12-4, and Seattle beat them both this season
- Wild Card and #5 seed - possible, but very unlikely; the only way this can happen is for Seattle to lose both games, and San Francisco win both; at 12-4 each, the 49ers would have a better division record
- Wild Card and #6 seed - not possible; no other wild card could finish better than 11-5
- Miss the Playoffs - not possible
San Francisco - 10-4-0 - remaining games - Atlanta and at Arizona; possible outcomes - #1, #2, #5, #6, or miss:
- West champ and #1 seed - must win both remaining games AND Seattle must lose both (49ers at 12-4 would have a better division record than Seattle); AND, New Orleans-Carolina winner must lose in week #17 (both teams beat the 49ers, and at 12-4 would have the top seed)
- West champ and #2 seed - slightly more likely (win both AND Seattle lose both); 49ers would be West champ, but be passed by the South champ (either New Orleans or Carolina finish 12-4; both beat San Francisco)
- Wild Card and #5 seed - most likely, and a destiny they control; win both games (eliminate Arizona and have a better record than the South wild card)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - possible, and another destiny they directly control; win or lose Sunday, but beat Arizona in the finale; OR, beat Atlanta AND Arizona loses at Seattle
- Miss the Playoffs - possible; can only happen if San Francisco loses out AND Arizona wins out (either New Orleans or Carolina, even at 10-6, would pass them for the other wild card, since both beat the 49ers)
Arizona - 9-5-0 - remaining games - at Seattle, San Francisco; possible outcomes - #5, #6, or miss:
- West Champ - no possibility - they are three games back with only two to play
- Wild Card and #5 seed - possible, but not likely as these all need to happen - Arizona wins out (at Seattle and vs. San Francisco) AND San Francisco loses at home to Atlanta AND Carolina loses to New Orleans; an 11-5 Arizona would only have a tiebreaker over an 11-5 Carolina (they beat the Panthers, lost to the Saints, and have a worse division record than the 49ers)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - possible, but not likely; Arizona must win at Seattle AND have San Francisco lose to Atlanta AND beat the 49ers in the finale (Cards win out; 49ers lose out) AND New Orleans lose out (11-5 wild card Saints beat Arizona and would have a tiebreaker)
- Miss the Playoffs - most likely; Cardinals do not control their destiny; their only chance to make the playoffs includes a 49ers home loss to the Falcons
New Orleans - 10-4-0 - remaining games - at Carolina and Tampa Bay; possible outcomes - #1, #2, #5, #6, or miss:
- South champ and #1 seed - possible, but not likely; Saints must win out AND have Seattle lose both games at home AND have San Francisco win out (giving 49ers the West crown), since New Orleans beat San Francisco and lost to Seattle (12-4 Saints would be top seed over 12-4 49ers, but not 12-4 Seahawks)
- South champ and #2 seed - most likely scenario, and a destiny they control; win at Carolina, and week #17 is irrelevant, along with all the scenarios in the west
- Wild Card and #5 seed - lose at Carolina, and beat Tampa Bay; AND, hope that San Francisco loses at least once (11-5 Saints beat both 49ers and Cardinals)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - lose at Carolina and beat Tampa Bay
- Miss the Playoffs - possible, but not likely; lose both games AND San Francisco and Arizona win Sunday AND Arizona beats San Francisco (both West teams at 11-5 would pass a 10-6 New Orleans)
Carolina - 10-4-0 - remaining games - New Orleans and at Atlanta; possible outcomes - #2, #5, #6, or miss:
- South champ and #1 seed - not possible; even by winning out (12-4), both Seattle and San Francisco beat Carolina and would be no worse than 12-4 as West champ
- South champ and #2 seed - very possible, and a destiny that they control; win out
- Wild Card and #5 seed - possible; lose to New Orleans and win at Atlanta AND have San Francisco and Arizona each lose at least once (11-5 Panthers beat San Francisco and lost to Arizona)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - more likely if they lose to the Saints; win at Atlanta and finish behind either 12-4 San Francisco or 11-5 Arizona
- Miss the Playoffs - very possible if they lose out AND both San Francisco and Arizona win in week #16 AND Arizona beats San Francisco in week #17; 10-6 Panthers would be passed by both San Francisco and Arizona (11-5 each)
East and North (playing for seeds #3, 4):
Dallas - 7-7-0 - remaining games - at Washington and Philadelphia; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- East champ and #3 seed - possible, but extremely unlikely; Dallas must win out AND have Chicago lose out AND Green Bay lose to Pittsburgh AND Detroit lose at least once; Cowboys have lost to all three North contenders, and at 9-7 must finish ahead of all three as they would lose any head-to-head tiebreaker; this scenario gives Green Bay the division at 8-7-1, and has Chicago at 8-8 and Detroit at 8-8 or worse
- East champ and #4 seed - very possible, and a destiny that they control; win both remaining games, completing a sweep of the division
- Miss the Playoffs - very possible; either lose to Philadelphia in week #17, or lose at Washington AND Philadelphia beats Chicago, making week #17 irrelevant
Philadelphia - 8-6-0 - remaining games - Chicago and at Dallas; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- East champ and #3 seed - possible, and a destiny that they control; win out
- East champ and #4 seed - possible, and a destiny that they also control; beat Dallas in week #17 OR clinch in week #16 by beating Chicago if Dallas loses at Washington
- Miss the Playoffs - possible, and what I hope to see; lose to Dallas following either a Cowboys win at Washington OR an Eagles loss to Chicago
Chicago - 8-6-0 - remaining games - at Philadelphia and Green Bay; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- North Champ and #3 seed - possible, and a destiny that they control - win both games
- North Champ and #4 seed - possible, but would need some help; lose at Philadelphia and beat Green Bay AND have Detroit lose at least once AND have Dallas beat Philadelphia; another scenario - beat Philadelphia and lose to Green Bay AND Green Bay lose to Pittsburgh AND Detroit lose once; final scenario - lose out AND Green Bay lose to Pittsburgh AND Detroit lose out
- Miss the Playoffs - possible; lose either or both games and either Green Bay (possible 9-6-1) or Detroit (9-7 with a sweep of the Bears) could eliminate Chicago
Green Bay - 7-6-1 - remaining games - Pittsburgh and at Chicago; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- North champ and #3 seed - possible, but would need help; win out AND have Philadelphia lose to either Chicago or Dallas
- North champ and #4 seed - possible, and a destiny they control; win out; another less-likely scenario - lose to Pittsburgh, beat Chicago, AND Chicago lose to Philadelphia AND Detroit lose at least once
- Miss the Playoffs - possible; lose to Chicago in the finale
Detroit - 7-7-0 - remaining games - New York Giants and at Minnesota; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- North champ and #3 seed - possible, but very unlikely; win out, have Chicago and Green Bay each lose once (helps that they play each other) AND have Dallas win the East; Lions at 9-7 would have tiebreakers over Chicago (sweep), Dallas (victory), but not Philadelphia (loss), and would need Green Bay at 8-7-1, not 9-6-1
- North champ and #4 seed - also possible, and more likely; win out, have Chicago and Green Bay each lose once (same tiebreakers as above)
- Miss the Playoffs - most likely; Lions do not control their destiny; their only chance to make the playoffs includes at least one loss by both Chicago and Green Bay
I do not care about the AFC and am not doing the math for them. I am focused on the Dallas Cowboys, and their playoff/seeding options. I am very big into "destiny that they control", and find it very intriguing how this year's conference splits have two intertwined groups - the same divisions that played each other this year (East and North played, West and South played) are also competing for the same playoff spots.
Five of the eight West/South teams are playing for four seeds (four control their destiny), and five of the eight East/North teams are playing for the other two spots (four also control their destiny). There is no overlap, and the tiebreakers are simple - either head-to-head or division record.
As disappointing as the last two Cowboys' losses have been, they are still in the mix and have full and total control over their destiny. We've been there the past two years, and we're here again.