On the day the 2015 season kicked off, Will Brinson of CBS Sports reviewed the 2016 Super Bowl odds for all 32 NFL teams. At the time, the Seahawks (9-2 odds), Packers (6-1), Eagles (8-1), Cowboys (14-1), Cardinals (30-1), and Lions (30-1) were projected as the top NFC teams. With just two games left in the 2014 season, only three of those six teams would currently qualify for the playoffs - and only two of them are leading their division.
It's a testament to the unpredictable nature of the NFL that preseason favorites fall from grace due to key injuries (Cowboys), loss of key players in free agency (Lions), or because they're full of hot air (Philly). In their stead, a new crop of teams has set out to once again confirm the old adage that the playoff field churns by about 50% from year to year: Since the league moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, an average of about six new teams made the NFL playoffs every year. Only once, in 1994, did that number dip to four teams.
If the season were to end today, the Redskins and Vikings would be the new NFC teams in the playoffs, while the Cowboys and Lions are already planning their January holidays. Here's a look at the current playoff picture and how that compares to the preseason Super Bowl odds:
The biggest underachievers relative to their preseason Super Bowl odds, in sequence: Colts (8-1), Eagles (8-1), and Cowboys (14-1), as the table below illustrates.
The Cowboys in particular have crashed and burned at an historic level. The biggest negative swing in wins from season-to-season so far was -5, when they dropped from 11-5 in 2009 to 6-10 in 2010. Even if the Cowboys were to win their last two games, they'd still set a franchise record for season-to-season futility.
Anything can happen in the NFL. Every new NFL season is always a new chance for teams that fell short of the playoffs the season before. The NFL is intrinsically designed to be a parity-driven league; the draft, revenue sharing, the salary cap, compensatory draft picks, all the way through the schedule; everything about the NFL is designed so that every team from every market has a legitimate opportunity to compete year-in and year-out.
The question for the Cowboys now is whether 2015 was just a glitch, or whether the 12-4 finish in 2014 was an outlier and 2015 is much closer to the norm than anybody likes to admit. After all, the Cowboys were an 8-8 team for three years before suddenly improving by four wins last year, so what's to say the baseline for this team isn't 8-8? One or two more wins this year and this season would be much less of an outlier vs. the 8-8 record than the 2014 season was.
One way of getting a better feel for which year might have been the outlier is to look at the team's points per game, which is summarized in the table below.
In the table, the two scoring rows tell clear and distinct stories. Points scored had been steadily increasing from 2011-2014 and dropped like a stone this year. The Cowboys are scoring 11.6 points per game less than they did last year, a drop that is only partly attributable to Tony Romo's absence. The drop in of takeaways, unfavorable field position, the inability to sustain drives all played a role. This litle factoid illustrates just how much of a dropoff the 11.6 points are: If the Cowboys had scored 11.6 more points in each game, they'd have an 11-3 record right now, only losing the games against the Patriots, Panthers, and Packers.
On points allowed, the Cowboys saw a bad year in 2102 and a terrible year in 2013, but the points seem to have returned to an average level over the last two years, and you could probably make an argument that the 2015 number is actually pretty good given the drop in scoring.
All of which is nice and well, but doesn't bring back a lost season. And as we dejectedly watch a season come to a close that had so much promise early on, we can only pin our hopes on a successful offseason that will allow the Cowboys to make the push in 2016 that we had all hoped would happen in 2016.
Because if nothing else, we know that there will most likely be three new NFC teams in the playoffs next year. And why shouldn't the Cowboys be one of those teams?