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Can Cowboys Still Save The Season? Of Course They Can, But It Won't Be Easy.

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The Cowboys are 2.5 games back in the NFC East. Is there a historical precedent for teams coming back from such a deficit this late in the season to take their divison? Of course there is.

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The Cowboys are in last place in the NFC East at 2-7. Heading into Week 11, that's the second-worst record in the NFL.

Other teams with a 2-7 record like the Ravens are six games out of first place in their division, the Lions and Chargers are five games out of the division lead in their respective divisions.

But the Cowboys are only 2.5 games behind first-place New York (5-5) in the NFC East, and with the Giants on a bye week in Week 11, there's a chance the Cowboys could close the gap to the division lead to 2 games with a win in Miami on Sunday.

We've all heard how no team since 1978 (when the league moved to a 16-game schedule) has made the playoffs off a 2-6 or 2-7 start. But what about teams, like the 2015 Cowboys, that were 2 or more games behind the division leader heading into Week 11?

The good news is that historically, making the playoffs when 2 or more games behind the division leader after week 10 is not a big deal. 21 teams achieved that since realignment in 2002.

The bad news is that 18 of those 21 teams "only" made the playoffs as a wildcard team. Given the state of the NFC, there’s virtually no way the Cowboys make the playoffs as a wildcard team this year. The Cowboys have to win the NFC East to make the playoffs, and only three teams over the last 13 years won their division after they were behind by two or more games heading into Week 11.

Here's a look at the three teams who climbed out of a 2-game-back hole after week 10 to win their divison.

1. 2014 Seattle Seahawks

NFC West, Week 10, 2014 NFC West, Week 17, 2014
Team W L GB Team W L GB
1. Arizona 8 1 - - 1. Seattle 12 4 - -
2. Seattle 6 3 2 2. Arizona 11 5 1
... ...

Last year, the Cardinals stormed out to an 8-1 record until QB Carson Palmer tore his ACL in the Week 10 win over the Rams. After that, the Cardinals limped to a 3-4 record, and lost the divison to the late-surging Seahawks, who finished their season on a 6-1 run.

2. 2012 Washington Redskins

NFC East, Week 10, 2012
NFC East, Week 17, 2012
Team W L GB
Team W L GB
1. NY Giants
6 4 - -
1. Washington 10 6 - -
2. Dallas 4 5 2.5

2. NY Giants
9 7 1
3. Philadelphia
3
6
3.5

3. Dallas
8 8 2
4. Washington
3
6
3.5

4. Philadelphia 4 12 6

The 2012 Redskins moved from last to first in the NFC East in the span of just seven weeks behind a 7-0 record to close the season. They also got a lot of help from the general suckitude in the NFC East that year:

  • The Giants, who had been at 6-2 at one point in the season, had one of their regular late-season meltdowns and would only manage a 3-3 record over their last six games and miss the playoffs entirely.
  • The Cowboys went 4-3 over their final seven games, but would lose twice in that span to the Redskins, including the last game of the season, a win-and-you're-in game.
  • The Eagles rang in the end of the Andy Reid era as they finished their season with a 1-6 record over their last seven games.

Importantly for the 2012 Redskins, five of their last seven games were against teams within their division, and the Redskins won all five of those games en route to the division win - and an early playoff exit in the wildcard round.

3. 2003 Green Bay Packers

NFC North, Week 10, 2003
NFC North, Week 17, 2003
Team W L GB
Team W L GB
1. Minnesota
6
3
- -
1. Green Bay
10
6
- -
2. Green Bay
4
5
2

2. Minnesota
9
7
1
... ...

The 2003 Vikings stormed out of the gate to a 6-0 record, then lost their next four games, after which they alternated wins and losses for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, the Packers would finish their final seven games with a 6-1 record, but needed to wait until the final seconds of the season before securing the division win, as the Packers needed a win and a Vikings loss in Week 17 to clinch the division. The Packers handled their side with ease, dropping the Broncos 31-3 in the regular season finale. The Vikings held on for the longest time against the Cardinals, but a touchdown reception on 4th and 25 by Cardinals receiver Nate Poole handed the Vikings a dramatic last-second 18-17 loss.

Conclusion

Football Outsiders put the Cowboys' chances of winning the division at 2.1%. That's almost negligible, but significantly better than their chances at a wildcard (0.1%). We saw from the three examples above that a lot of things have to come together for the Cowboys to make they playoffs.

The Cowboys probably need at least a 6-1 and most likely a 7-0 record to even have a chance at the division. Plus they'll need the other NFC East teams to suck the rest of the way, with none of the three teams having a winning record in their remaining six or seven games. Plus they'll have to win both their remaining divisional games against the Redskins.

And even with all of that, it still may come down to the final few plays of the season.

The Cowboys may eventually find themselves in such a position. After all, there is a 2.1% chance of that happening. But first, they have to win against the Dolphins on Sunday. And then they'll have to follow that up with a win against the Panthers. And if the other NFC East teams suck as much as we hope they will, the Cowboys may have closed the gap to a game or a game and a half in eight days time.

And from there, anything can happen. Or is it that too much needs to happen?.