The Playoff Picture and the Cowboys (Part I - NFC West)

Last summer when I made my koolaid drinking season predictions for Dallas and said the Boys could 11-5 there were many challenges I didn't anticipate -- primarily the tougher than expected games against the Seahawks and Bucs, and the rash of injuries that probably cost this team at least two games.

Was 8-8 better in 2012 than in 2011, all things considered? I think so, and the evidence was there that the Cowboys fought harder in the 2nd half and overall seemed to be better conditioned, despite the weaknesses of their offensive line and bringing in a lot of street free agents. Carry that effort over to the 2013 season with better blocking, an improved running game, add in more health on defense and two more wins seem well within reach.

10-6 may not seem good enough for the division prize considering that the Redskins and Eagles definitely improved their rosters this offseason. But in my previous post I pointed out that the Skins face a much tougher schedule this time around that features the Packers, Broncos, 49ers and Falcons, on top of their division rivals. The Giants meanwhile still have some weaknesses among their secondary cornerbacks and a linebacking corps that could be exploited by teams with talented receivers and tight ends (i.e. us). I have the Giants beating out the Skins in Week 17 to claim a tiebreaker of overall NFC games record with both NFC East runner ups tied at 9-7, while the Eagles finish a disappointing 7-9 as their schedule is no cupcake either. However, it's the strength of other divisions -- mainly the NFC North and NFC West -- that appears likely to doom a 9-7 NFC East runner up's playoff chances and set back both the Skins and Eagles this year.

Now it's time to look at which teams the Cowboys are likely to draw as playoff opponents should they take the division crown for the first time since 2009 and take the next step under Jason Garrett's tutelage.

In Part One (or part one B) of this series I'm looking at the beasts of the NFC West. With Bruce Arians reviving the Cardinals the NFC West is hands down the best division in football, after years of the NFC East or AFC North claiming that mantle. At this point given the Rams issues on defense the Cards just seem to be a more likely dark horse for a wild card spot than Jeff Fisher's bunch, and better positioned to take advantage should the Seahawks stumble out of the gate due to injuries and suspensions.

I think St. Louis is at least one more year away in their rebuilding that has been greatly facilitated by those extra first rounders received in the blockbuster RG3 trade. The Rams still have a gaping hole at safety, for one thing, while their offensive line remains a work in progress (see their current starters at RG and RT).

Once again, due to the likelihood that at least one NFC West team grabs a wild card spot while the winner takes homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, I felt it necessary to look at this division first before turning my attention to the other playoff contenders and NFC teams that could take a step back this year, like the Vikings.

SAN FRANCISCO- 13-3 NFC West and 2013-2014 Super Bowl Champs (if you want to be the champ in 2014-2015, Dallas will have to beat the champs at San Francisco as the Nineties rivalry is reborn!)

Season summary:

Forget the hype about the Falcons, the Niners are the NFC Champs are likely to repeat and go all the way in my book. Despite losing former Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree to an Achilles tear I don’t think the Niners offense should miss a beat, especially now that they have a very smart/athletic TE from Rice named Vance McDonald to pick up the slack alongside Pro Bowler Vernon Davis.

It will be interesting to see how soon their other draft picks can contribute since a couple will start the season out on PUP or IR eligible to return by season’s end -- including 3-4OLB/DE Tank Carradine. Getting ex-Longhorns star Colt McCoy who is capable of winning a few games should Colin Kaepernick miss time was a smart move.

Week Date Opponent Outcome Record
1 09/08 SUN GB W 33 - 31 1-0
Packers/Niners should be high scoring and entertaining
2 09/15 SUN* @SEA W 23 - 20 2-0
Both teams beat up after this division brawl -- I think Wilson gets hit often
3 09/22 SUN IND W 31 - 26 3-0
Luck and Colts play well against Niners D, Kaepernick pulls this one out
4 09/26 THU* @STL W 27 - 23 4-0
It's the Rams, dude. But Fisher's bunch will get better by year's end
5 10/06 SUN* HOU L 24 - 23 4-1
Texans hand the Niners their first loss of 2013
6 10/13 SUN ARI W 30 - 26 5-1
Bruce Arians offense puts up a fight, Carson Palmer sacked too often
7 10/20 SUN @TEN W 41 - 27 6-1
Titans solid running game keeps this one interesting until 2nd half
8 10/27 SUN @JAX W 38 - 13 7-1
Jags are a long way from having personnel to run 3-4 hybrid D
9 11/03 SUN BYE
10 11/10 SUN CAR W 27 - 17 8-1
Niners bottle up Cam Newton, Panthers slump continues
11 11/17 SUN @NO W 36 - 27 9-1
Niners D better than Saints D in Superdome shootout
12 11/25 MON* @WAS W 34 - 23 10-1
This is a big game that hurts the Skins playoff hopes
13 12/01 SUN STL W 24 - 23 11-1
These two teams tied last year, believe it or not
14 12/08 SUN SEA L 33 - 31 11-2
Seagulls get revenge in the NFL's new hottest intra-division rivalry
15 12/15 SUN @TB W 24 - 13 12-2
Bucs may be starting Mike Glennon by this point, o-line issues in TB
16 12/23 MON* ATL L 34 - 30 12-3
Dirty Birds win the NFC Championship preview
17 12/29 SUN ARI W 23-17 13-3$
Niners win but Cards on the upswing with optimism to contend in 2014

$ = Homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and first round bye

SEATTLE 10-6 NFC wild card

Season summary:

The Seahawks are still a nasty team that no one wants to play at home, but suspensions, injuries like the Achilles tear for TE Anthony McCoy, and defenses having more tape on QB Russell Wilson could slow them down this season. Besides facing the Niners twice, the Seahawks non-division schedule also is formidable. Quality QB depth behind Russell Wilson could also be an issue now that Matt Flynn is in Oakland.

1 09/08 SUN @CAR W 30 - 27 1-0
Wilson tops Cam Newton in a shootout, the Panthers long bad season begins
2 09/15 SUN SF L 23 - 20 1-1
Niners win tough, physical contest at Seattle
3 09/22 SUN JAX W 33 - 16 2-1
Jags roster loaded with JAGs, need a starting QB and OLBs
4 09/29 SUN @HOU L 30 - 23 2-2
Texans run game can match Seahawks in pounding the rock, another L
5 10/06 SUN @IND L 27 - 24 2-3
Colts upset Seahawks in Indy on last second field goal as Luck eludes rush
6 10/13 SUN TEN W 34 - 20 3-3
Titans part of the weak half of the AFC South schedule, need pass rushers
7 10/17 THU* @ARI W 20 - 19 4-3
Cards play some tough D, force Wilson into turnovers before Hawks rally
8 10/28 MON* @STL W 36 - 27 5-3
Wilson's finest fantasy performance of 2013 -- book it
9 11/03 SUN TB W 23 - 9 6-3
Bucs by this point benching QB Josh Freedman for rookie QB Mike Glennon
10 11/10 SUN @ATL L 33 - 28 6-4
This is best game tape for Marinelli to watch later on how to stop Wilson
11 11/17 SUN MIN L 26 - 23 6-5
Vikings 4-3 pressures Wilson early, Jennings make big plays
12 11/24 BYE
13 12/02 MON* NO W 32 - 24 7-5
Wilson exploits Rob's mob, weak Saints pass rush to have ridiculous game
14 12/08 SUN @SF W 33 - 31 8-5
Seahawks win the revenge game in the Niners-Seahawks series
15 12/15 SUN @NYG W 27 - 20 9-5
Hawks take their frustration out on Eli and the Giants
16 12/22 SUN ARI L 29 - 27 9-6
Cards pull surprise upset late in season as Arians starts to work his magic
17 12/29 SUN STL W 37 - 28
10-6 Rams already looking to next draft

ARIZONA 9-7 NFC West 3rd place finish

Season summary:

Under 2012 head coach of the year Bruce Arians the Cardinals seemed poised for a renaissance if not a playoff berth (again, due to tough division games). Even aside from Larry Fitzgerald the talent at the skill positions is undeniable and Arians will get the most out of an improving offensive line. Despite having a strong front 7 and Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson the defense may prove inconsistent while Arians still needs to find a successor to Carson Palmer by mid-season -- most likely, former Michigan State Spartan and Colts backup QB Drew Stanton.

1 09/08 SUN @STL W 23 - 20 1-0
Arians gets his first win in Arizona, as Rams begin tough season
2 09/15 SUN DET W 31 - 27 2-0
Too much pressure on Stafford leads to turnovers
3 09/22 SUN @NO L 33 - 27 2-1
Carson Palmer loses this shootout to Drew Brees
4 09/29 SUN @TB W 27 - 23 3-1
Bucs pass rush nasty enough to punish Palmer but Stanton closes this one out
5 10/06 SUN CAR W 32 - 30 4-1
Cam Newton embarrassed the Cards a while back and they haven't forgotten
6 10/13 SUN @SF L 30 - 23 4-2
Improved Cardinals can't protect QB enough to top the 49ers on the road
7 10/17 THU* SEA L 20 - 16 4-3
Cards play some tough D, but still fall to Seattle at home
8 10/27 SUN ATL L 24 - 23 4-4
Arizona sacks Matt Ryan early and often but can't hold on for the win
9 11/03 SUN BYE
10 11/10 SUN HOU W 31 - 30 5-4
Matchups, matchups -- Peterson shuts down Johnson and Cards D stuffs the run
11 11/17 SUN @JAX W 34 - 23 6-4
Arizona looks like a playoff contender after two big wins over AFC South
12 11/24 SUN IND L 27 - 24 6-5
Bruce Arians old team gets the best of him knowing his tendencies
13 12/01 SUN @PHI W 24 - 13 7-5
Cards D delivers yet another beat down to Eagles offense
14 12/08 SUN STL L 27 - 26 7-6
Cards lose a close one as Jeff Fisher's team rallies to save his job
15 12/15 SUN @TEN 37 - 30 8-6
A QB duel between Stanton and Locker - imagine that
16 12/22 SUN SEA W 29 - 27 9-6
Cards upset Seahawks to keep playoff hope alive in 'zona
17 12/29 SUN SF L 23-17 9-7
SF knocks Arizona out of playoffs, secures home field advantage

ST. LOUIS RAMS 6-10 4th place finish

Season summary:

Jeff Fisher's bunch disappoints as they only beat the Cardinals (once -- it's really hard to sweep a division rival in this league), Panthers, Jags, Titans and Bucs despite a lot of wicked plays from Tavon Austin and Jared Cook. The Rams IMO still have too many holes at safety, linebacker, and possibly an issue with cornerback depth, plus an inconsistent offensive line that has to face the nasty Niners, Seahawks and Cardinals pass rushes six times a year. In the NFC South the Rams could go 8-8 or even 9-7.


1 09/08 SUN ARI L 23-20 0-1
A disappointing loss that sets tone for the season
2 09/15 SUN @ATL L 31 - 24 0-2
Dirty Birds outscore Bradford in shootout
3 09/22 SUN @DAL L 23 - 16 0-3
Dallas D stymies Rams offense all day
4 09/26 THU* SF L 27 - 23 0-4
49ers win another tough division game
5 10/06 SUN JAX W 33 - 17 1-4
Jags are still full of JAGs, biggest blowout of the year for STL
6 10/13 SUN @HOU L 30 - 24 1-5
Fisher gives his old AFC South rivals a good game
7 10/20 SUN @CAR W 27 - 23 2-5
Rams are slightly better than the Kitties at this point
8 10/28 MON* SEA L 36 - 27 2-6
Wilson shreds the Rams secondary in this one
9 11/03 SUN TEN W 24 - 17 3-6
Rams cruise past Fisher's former team
10 11/10 SUN @IND L 30 - 27 4-7
Colts win on last second field goal
11 11/17 SUN BYE
12 11/24 SUN CHI L 27 - 13 4-8
Da Bears deliver biggest beatdown of the year for Rams
13 12/01 SUN @SF L 24 - 23 4-9
Rams fight Niners to the end but can't come out on top
14 12/08 SUN @ARI W 27 - 26 5-9
Fisher gets one back in divisional revenge game
15 12/15 SUN NO W 34 - 33 6-9
Upset of the year for Fisher's bunch as they shred Saints D
16 12/22 SUN TB W 25 - 23 7-9
Rams are better team than the Bucs despite the gap between secondaries
17 12/29 SUN @SEA L 37 - 28 6-10
Jeff Fisher's late season surge saves his job, but Rams still have a disappointing finish

So it looks like (assuming no season ending, season altering major injuries):

San Francisco 13-3 division champ, playoff bye and homefield advantage
Seattle 10-6 runner up -- likely headed to Green Bay or Dallas for wild card round playoff game
Arizona 9-7 and a likely 2014 wild card team if they can get QB and OL situation worked out
St. Louis 6 -10 next year's team when the Seagulls or Niners have a down year

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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