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2016 NFC Playoff Race: Tough Remaining Schedule For Cowboys And Rest Of NFC East

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A look at the strength of schedule for all of the NFC contenders. Plus the Eagles.

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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys are sitting atop the NFC East playoff rankings with a three-win lead over the other division leaders, and a two-win lead in the NFC East. A lot can still happen over the remaining five games, but for the Cowboys to lose their spot as the No. 1 seed, a lot would have to happen. Here's how the playoff seeding currently plays out.

Seed Team Record Rationale
1 Dal_medium Dallas 10-1 NFC East Champion
2 Sea_medium Seattle 7-3-1 NFC West Champion
3 Det_medium Detroit 7-4 NFC North Champion
4 Atl_medium Atlanta 7-4 NFC South Champion
5 Nyg_medium New York 8-3 Wildcard #1
6
Was_medium Washington 6-4-1 Wildcard #2
7
Tb_medium Tampa Bay 6-5 Conf. win percentage
8
Min_medium Minnesota 6-5 - -
9 Gb_medium Green Bay
5-6 Conf. win percentage
10 No_medium New Orleans
5-6 Head-to-head
11 Phi_medium Philadelphia 5-6 - -

One big factor remaining in how the next five games will play out for the playoff contenders is the quality of the teams they will face. The 8-3 Giants, for example, still have the Steelers, Cowboys, Lions, Eagles, and Redskins on their schedule, and those five opponents have combined for a 34-20-1 record so far this season. So the Giants remaining strength of schedule (if we count each tie as half a win) is .627 - the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL by this measure.

Here's a look the schedules of the top 11 teams in the NFC listed by their opponent’s winning percentage:

Team Strength of
Schedule
Opp. W/L
Remaining Opponents
Seahawks 0.336 18-36-1 vs. CAR, @GB, vs. LA, vs. ARI, at SF
Falcons 0.400 22-33 vs. KC, @LA, vs. SF, @ CAR, vs. NO
Washington 0.427 23-31-1 @ARI, @PHI, vs. CAR, @CHI, vs. NYG
Vikings 0.436 24-31-0 vs. DAL, @JAX, vs. IND, @GB, vs. CHI
Packers 0.518 28-26-1 vs. HOU, vs. SEA, @CHI, vs. MIN, @DET
Buccaneers 0.527 29-26 @SD, vs. NO, @DAL, @NO, vs. CAR
Lions 0.545 30-25 @NO, vs. CHI, @NYG, @DAL, vs. GB
Saints 0.555 30-24-1 vs. DET, @TB, @ARI, vs. TB, @ATL
Cowboys 0.582 32-23 @MIN, @NYG, vs. TB, vs. DET, @PHI
Eagles 0.618 33-20-2 @CIN, vs. WAS, @BAL, vs. NYG, vs. DAL
Giants 0.627 34-20-1 @PIT, vs. DAL, vs. DET, @PHI, @WAS

The Giants may have the toughest remaining schedule of all the playoff contenders, but the Eagles and Cowboys are right behind them. The Eagles and Giants have three divisional games on their schedule, the Cowboys have two, and with the strength of the NFC East this year, that automatically translates into a tough SOS.

The Redskins have a moderate SOS by comparison, but only because they already faced the 10-1 Cowboys twice and lost both times. Minnesota is up next on the Cowboys schedule and there's a good chance that in playoff terms, the Vikings will soon go to a place where there is no more pain after the Cowboys game.

Overall, the schedule promises an exciting final stretch: Over the next five games, all but four of the 11 playoff contenders are facing opponents with an overall winning record.

But for the Seahawks and Falcons, the opposite is true. The Seahawks - currently ranked as the No. 2 seed - have the easiest remaining schedule in the entire NFL while the Falcons have the third-softest remaining schedule, so a lot would have to go wrong either team not to lock up its division.

That means that a lot of the remaining playoff action will center around who is able to win the NFC North, where the Lions, Vikings, and Packers all still have playoff ambitions. Outside of that, most of the playoff jostling will likely be for the wildcard spots. The Giants have a two-game lead for a wildcard spot, but that could quickly evaporate with the schedule they face. The Redskins on the other hand already hold the sixth seed, and with a relatively soft remaining schedule, they too could smoothly roll into the playoffs while other contenders face uphill battles all the way.

Of course, this is the NFL, where things change dramatically from one game to the next, and what we think is a likely scenario today may read like utter foolishness in two weeks.

Stay tuned.