The Dallas Cowboys are now on the right side of a winning record and hanging on for dear life in the playoff chase. They are tied with two other teams that have 7-6 records (Detroit, Green Bay), and are chasing down three others (Seattle, Atlanta, Carolina) for a wild card berth. There are other teams like New Orleans and Los Angeles who could come into play, but that is not very likely. For this exercise, we’re looking at the easiest path for the Cowboys to make the playoffs. And by easiest, we mean most likely, a scenario where the Cowboys win out, and some other teams lose in the most likely way to fulfill our playoff fantasy. We are using the ESPN Playoff Machine for the simulations, so if the math is wrong in any calculations, or the tiebreakers are not correct, we’ll blame ESPN.
The basic formula for the Cowboys to make the playoffs runs like this:
- Detroit and Green Bay lose one game apiece in Week 15-17.
- The Cowboys winning out is assumed in this exercise, so that would result in them beating Seattle and moving ahead of them.
- Either Atlanta or Carolina need to lose two games.
There it is, what I would consider there easiest general path to the playoffs. Now, let’s get a little more detailed. How and when will they get those favorable outcomes in the final three weeks of the season? Follow along.
Green Bay Packers (7-6) - Remaining schedule: @ Panthers, Vikings, @ Lions
Dallas needs a loss from Green Bay because they own the head-to-head tie-breaker. It’s pretty easy to see the Packers losing a game, with or without Aaron Rodgers. Even if Rodgers comes back, he’s going to be a little rusty, probably a little cautious, and if he starts getting hit who knows what will happen. (Remember Tony Romo coming back from a broken collarbone?)
The way Carolina is playing, and being the home team against the Packers this week, I doubt the Packers win there even with Rodgers. If they do happen to win, then they have to take care of the Vikings the next week. But I’m guessing it won’t even come to that. The Panthers beat the Packers and Dallas jumps over Green Bay.
The Lions last-second win over Tampa Bay on Sunday was actually a huge problem for the Cowboys. There are scenarios where both Detroit and Dallas win out and both make the playoffs, but the more likely scenarios greatly favor Detroit being the only one to get in if both teams win out. Detroit losing a game makes the Cowboys path much less complicated. So in our easy, most-likely scenario, we have to get a loss from them somewhere.
Their remaining schedule isn’t exactly a collection of Murderer's Row. The Bears shouldn't pose an overwhelming threat. The Bengals game is on the road, and you never know about the weather, but Cincinnati is playing some bad football right now. Then you have the Packers; will Aaron Rodgers play in that Week 17 game? Will he play in any of the final three games, and will the Packers still even be in playoff contention once this game rolls around? As we noted above, we think the Packers will lose versus the Panthers, and they might lose against the Vikings the next week. So we’re counting Rodgers out of the final game as the Packers are eliminated
So when will the Lions lose? Week 16. The Lions will go on the road, and play a cold, snowy game in Cincinnati and lose.
Seattle Seahawks (8-5) - Remaining schedule: Rams, @ Cowboys, Cardinals
There isn’t a whole lot of point discussing Seattle. The Cowboys need to beat them in two weeks and make it easy. Once Dallas does that, as long as Seattle doesn’t win it’s division and the Cowboys don’t tie the Rams at 10-6, then all is good.
Atlanta Falcons (8-5) - Remaining schedule: Bucs, @ Saints, Panthers
Here is where it starts getting even trickier. The Cowboys are looking for two losses by either the Falcons or the Panthers. Those two teams play each other on the final day of the season, so one of them will get another loss. Which of them has the harder schedule making two losses more likely? I think you have to go with the Falcons. While the Bucs shouldn’t be an issue, they visit the Saints in Week 16. That could very easily be a loss for the Falcons. Then if they get knocked off by the Panthers the next week, which is a plausible scenario, then the Cowboys jump them and make the playoffs in our above scenarios.
So there you have it, what I believe to be the most-likely path to the playoffs for the Cowboys. It goes like this:
- The Cowboys win out.
- The Packers lose to the Panthers.
- The Lions lose to the Bengals.
- The Falcons lose to the Saints and the Panthers.
Of course, in our scenario we are counting on the Panthers to be strong down the stretch, winning at least two of three. But let’s say that doesn’t happen, then we could substitute them in for the Falcons as the two-loss team and get the Cowboys into the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers (9-4) - Remaining schedule: Packers, Bucs, @Falcons
If both Dallas and Carolina end up at 10-6, the Cowboys get in by virtue of a better conference record. So we could get a scenario where the Panthers lose to the Packers (possibly), the Bucs (unlikely) or the Falcons (possibly). So it would likely be losses to Green Bay and Atlanta, but if that occurs then Green Bay would have to lose a different game, like to the Vikings in Week 16, to make everything work.