Last week, I laid out all the playoff options for the ten NFC teams vying for six playoff positions. Now that the dust has settled, let me again do the math for what can happen this week.
The past two years, I have done I Did the Math FanPosts, and each was a series of three. Because I waited this year, this will be the final one.
By this time, every Tom, Dick, and Harry will know all of the playoff options, because there are so few. I will not try to replicate their work, just lay the options out and make them simple to understand. I will also do it from a Cowboys perspective, so we can know in advance what outcomes from other games will benefit the Cowboys or hurt them.
First of all, everything I laid out last week is still in play for the Cowboys. I was a lone voice declaring that the Cowboys were alive for a #3 seed. Three weeks ago, the Cowboys were still alive for a first round bye - even the #1 seed. The loss to the Bears eliminated the options for the top two seeds, and the loss to the Packers eliminated wild card options. The only two seeds available for the Cowboys are #3 and #4 - division champion hosting a wild card in the first round of the playoffs.
For the Cowboys to be alive this week for the #3 seed, four things had to happen - Cowboys win, Bears loss, Packers loss, and Lions loss. I explained why. All four happened. Now, others are picking up and realizing that possibility.
From last week:
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.
Arizona is the fifth team in the West/South to win at least ten games, and Detroit's loss to the Giants did eliminate them.
The Cowboys needed Detroit to lose one of their two remaining games in order to keep them from winning the division with the same 9-7 record as the Cowboys (since they beat the Cowboys and own the head-to-head tiebreaker). However, losing to the Giants put them into a mathematical impossibility - they are a full game behind the Bears and a half-game behind the Packers. Bears and Packers play each other, so the winner will stay ahead of Detroit. They cannot both lose; and, a tie still keeps the Bears ahead of the Lions.
So, our ten teams playing for six spots are now down to nine. Eight of the nine still control their destiny, and two more (San Francisco and Carolina) joined Seattle as clinching a playoff spot. Note - no one yet has clinched a division championship. Only Arizona has no control over its destiny and needs help to make the playoffs; they are also the only one of the nine who cannot win their division and only have hopes for a wild card position.
This is Pete Rozelle's parity at its finest. Of the sixteen NFC teams, only seven are eliminated, and the other nine are alive for the six playoff spots, with all four division titles still up for grabs.
Here's an updated breakdown of the two competitions - first, the West/South (five teams competing for four seeds - #1, 2, 5, 6); then, the East/North (four 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 chance to advance.
West and South (playing for seeds #1, 2, 5, 6):
Seattle - 12-3-0 - remaining game - vs. St. Louis; possible outcomes - #1 or #5:
- West champ and #1 seed - most likely, and a destiny they control; beat or tie the Rams OR 49ers lose at Arizona
- West champ and #2 seed - not possible; Seattle, even at 12-4, could not be overtaken by either New Orleans or Carolina; Carolina could finish 12-4, but Seattle beat them
- Wild Card and #5 seed - possible; lose to the Rams AND 49ers beat the Cardinals; 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 - 11-4-0 - remaining game - at Arizona; possible outcomes - #1, #2, #5, or #6:
- West champ and #1 seed - win at Arizona AND Seattle lose to the Rams (49ers at 12-4 would have a better division record than Seattle); AND, Carolina lose at Atlanta
- West champ and #2 seed - slightly more likely (win at Arizona AND Seattle lose to the Rams); 49ers would be West champ, but be passed by Carolina at 12-4 (beat San Francisco)
- Wild Card and #5 seed - most likely, and a destiny they control; win or tie at Arizona (eliminate Cardinals and have a better record than the South wild card); another option requires help - lose at Arizona AND New Orleans loses at Atlanta (eliminate Saints)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - possible; lose at Arizona AND New Orleans beats the Bucs; better division record eliminates Arizona, and head-to-head puts Saints (or Panthers) in at #5
- Miss the Playoffs - not possible; worst 49ers can finish is tied with Arizona and they have a season split and a better division record; if they lose to Arizona and the Saints lose, then 49ers and Cardinals are Wild Cards (Saints drop out of playoffs at 10-6); if they lose to Arizona and the Saints win, then Cardinals are eliminated in the first step of the wild card tiebreaker (teams in the same division); then, the 49ers lose head-to-head to either South wild card
Arizona - 10-5-0 - remaining game - San Francisco; possible outcomes - #6 or miss:
- West Champ - no possibility - they are two games back with only one to play
- Wild Card and #5 seed - not possible; the 49ers' win over Atlanta guaranteed that the Cardinals finish behind them even if both finish 11-5
- Wild Card and #6 seed - possible, but not likely; beat the 49ers AND New Orleans lose to Tampa Bay (eliminate Saints); this is the only scenario for Arizona - tie the 49ers at 11-5 and have the Saints drop to 10-6
- Miss the Playoffs - most likely; Cardinals do not control their destiny; their only chance to make the playoffs includes a Saints loss to the Bucs
New Orleans - 10-5-0 - remaining game - Tampa Bay; possible outcomes - #2, #5, #6, or miss:
- South champ and #1 seed - not possible; West champ will be at least 12-4; Saints' best finish is 11-5
- South champ and #2 seed - possible, but need help; beat Tampa Bay AND Carolina loses at Atlanta; Saints at 11-5 would win a tiebreaker with Carolina because of a better division record
- Wild Card and #5 seed - beat Tampa Bay AND San Francisco loses at Arizona (49ers win division tiebreaker over Cardinals, but 11-5 Saints beat 49ers and claim the #5 seed)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - possible, and a destiny that they control; beat Tampa Bay OR San Francisco wins at Arizona (49er win eliminates Arizona; Saints win eliminates Arizona)
- Miss the Playoffs - possible, but not likely; lose to or tie Tampa Bay AND Arizona beats San Francisco (both West teams at 11-5 would pass a 10-5-1 or 10-6 New Orleans)
Carolina - 11-4-0 - remaining game - at Atlanta; possible outcomes - #1, #2, #5, #6, or miss:
- South champ and #1 seed - possible, but not likely; win at Atlanta AND Seattle loses to Rams AND San Francisco wins at Arizona, giving Carolina, Seattle, and San Francisco 12-4 records; 49ers win the division due to a better division record; Carolina gets the top seed by beating the 49ers during the season
- South champ and #2 seed - very possible, and a destiny that they control; win or tie at Atlanta OR New Orleans loses to Tampa Bay (Panthers at 11-5 lose division record tiebreaker to Saints, so must stay ahead of them in order to win the division)
- Wild Card and #5 seed - possible; lose at Atlanta AND New Orleans beats Tampa Bay AND San Francisco loses at Arizona (11-5 Panthers lose division to New Orleans because of division record; San Francisco eliminates Arizona because of division record; Carolina beat San Francisco and would claim the #5 seed over San Francisco)
- Wild Card and #6 seed - possible; lose at Atlanta AND New Orleans beats Tampa Bay (Saints win division) AND San Francisico wins at Arizona (49ers or Seahawks at 12-4 claim #5 over 11-5 Panthers)
- Miss the Playoffs - not possible; worst possible finish is 11-5 (lose division to 11-5 Saints because of division record) and tied with 49ers and Cardinals; 49ers eliminate Cardinals (division record) and Carolina claims the tiebreaker over the 49ers
East and North (playing for seeds #3, 4):
Dallas - 8-7-0 - remaining game - Philadelphia; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- East champ and #3 seed - possible, and more likely than last week; beat Philadelphia AND Chicago loses to Green Bay; this scenario gives Green Bay the division at 8-7-1, and has Chicago at 8-8 and Detroit at 8-8 or worse (unlikely last week, but mathematically possible; Cowboys win and losses by Bears, Packers, and Lions kept math alive)
- East champ and #4 seed - very possible, and a destiny that they control; beat Philadelphia, completing a sweep of the division (Dallas at 9-7 sweeps the Eagles but would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to Chicago at 9-7)
- Miss the Playoffs - very possible; lose to Philadelphia
Philadelphia - 9-6-0 - remaining game - at Dallas; possible outcomes - #3 or miss:
- East champ and #3 seed - possible, and a destiny that they control; win or tie at Dallas
- East champ and #4 seed - not possible; lose at Dallas and lose the division with no wild card option; even a tie gives Eagles a better record than North champion
- Miss the Playoffs - possible, and what I hope to see; lose at Dallas (Cowboys own head-to-head and claim the divison; West/South wild cards will be no worse than 10-6)
Chicago - 8-7-0 - remaining game - Green Bay; possible outcomes - #3, #4, or miss:
- North Champ and #3 seed - possible, beat Green Bay AND Dallas beats Philadelphia (Bears at 9-7 have head-to-head tiebreaker over Cowboys at 9-7)
- North Champ and #4 seed - possible, and a destiny they control; beat or tie Green Bay AND Philadelphia wins at Dallas
- Miss the Playoffs - possible; lose to Green Bay
Green Bay - 7-7-1 - remaining game - at Chicago; possible outcomes - #4 or miss:
- North champ and #3 seed - not possible; East champion will be at least 9-7, better than the Packers best option
- North champ and #4 seed - possible, and a destiny they control; win at Chicago
- Miss the Playoffs - possible; lose at Chicago
Detroit - 7-8-0 - remaining game - at Minnesota; eliminated from playoffs:
- Miss the Playoffs - Lions' loss to Giants eliminated them; they are behind both Chicago and Green Bay, who play each other; they can win at Minnesota and catch/pass the Green Bay-Chicago loser, but not the winner
Here's an explanation of the NFL rule for breaking three-team ties for wild cards (and why Arizona loses out in a three-way tie at 11-5):
- Any three-way tie would involve two West teams (San Francisco and Arizona) and one South team (either New Orleans or Carolina) – all finishing 11-5
- Step #1 – eliminate all but one team from each division (49ers have a better division record than Cardinals)
- Step #2 – both New Orleans and Carolina beat San Francisco; so, either South team would claim the #5 seed
- Step #3 – once the #5 seed is established, start all over with the remaining teams
- Step #4 – again, San Francisco claims the #6 seed because of a better division record than Arizona and the Cardinals are eliminated
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 four of the eight East/North teams are playing for the other two spots (all four control their destiny - win and in; lose and out). There is no overlap, and the tiebreakers are simple - either head-to-head or division record. Seattle, Carolina, and San Francisco are in; New Orleans or Arizona will make the playoffs, but not both.
All four division leaders would lose tiebreakers to their pursuers. If they (Eagles, Bears, Panthers, Seahawks) win, then they win their division. If they lose, then their pursuers (Cowboys, Packers, Saints, 49ers) can claim their division with a win. Both East (Eagles-Cowboys) and North (Packers-Bears) are true "play-in" games - winners are division champions and losers are eliminated.
December losses have dropped the Cowboys behind the Eagles, but 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.
For the third year in a row, Dallas has flexed to NBC for the season-ending Sunday Night Football game. This year is different - the Cowboys lost the previous two years in week #16 and had to play on the road in week #17; this year, the Cowboys won in week #16 and are at home in week #17.
The Cowboys are looking to complete a division sweep, having already swept the Giants and Redskins, and having won at Philadelphia. The last time this scenario came up (in 2009) - Cowboys and Eagles playing for the division and Cowboys going for a sweep - Cowboys shut out the Eagles, and then turned around and played them again the next week in the playoffs, dominating them two straight weeks and completing a season trifecta.
There will be no trifecta this year, as this Sunday's loser will miss the playoffs. If the Cowboys beat the Eagles, they could face any of the five West/South teams in the first round of the playoffs. If the Packers beat the Bears, then the Cowboys, at #3, could host San Francisco, Arizona, New Orleans, or Carolina. If the Bears beat the Packers, then the Cowboys, at #4, could host Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, or Carolina.
By kickoff on Sunday night, all of the other games will be final, and we will hear the NBC pregame crew confidently announcing whom the Cowboys will play if the beat the Eagles: "If the Cowboys win, they will be the ___ seed and host ___ on Sunday." Playing at night in the final game of the season pretty much guarantees a Sunday afternoon slot on FOX in the first round, and not a Saturday afternoon slot back on NBC.
I did the math. You enjoy watching everything unfold on Sunday afternoon, and then the math gets simpler - scoreboard.