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Cowboys playoff hopes could be ruined if NFL flexes Panthers/Falcons to Sunday Night Football

Dallas could wind up with more out of their control than they realize.

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

By now you’re likely well-aware of what the Dallas Cowboys need in order to make the playoffs. It seems like a lot, but it also seems fairly possible.

This is a set of circumstances that most Cowboys fans have made peace with, telling themselves how this or that is possible.

It’s true, really, that this is possible for the Cowboys. Things on the Lions front were made a little bit more difficult when the Packers put Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve on Tuesday, as Green Bay visits Detroit in the season finale.

A Lions loss may be the hardest thing to come by, as you can sort of see an NFC South team losing out, namely the Atlanta Falcons. But things could get a bit more complicated within that division than originally thought.

NFC South Standings

Over a month ago we talked about how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were going to play a role in the Cowboys playoff hopes. Coming out of their bye the Buccaneers have been at Atlanta, at Green Bay, against Detroit, and against Atlanta.

Any of those games would have been wins for the Cowboys playoff hopes had Tampa Bay won, and a month in they have zero wins to show for their work. A Bucs’ life is not the life for us.

The Buccaneers finish their season at Carolina and against New Orleans, so hope still exists that they could provide some semblance of help before the regular season is all said and done, as any wins they could provide would be gigantic for the Cowboys playoff efforts.

When you look at things a little more closely though, it looks like a win by them will be more vital than things appear.

The Panthers and Falcons game in Week 17 could end the Cowboys before it even kicks off

When perusing the Twitter machine on Wednesday morning, I came upon a midnight clear (that’s a Christmas thing, right?) thanks to our friend Tod.

Listen to Tod, people. The sequence of it all here is critical.

  • Panthers beat Buccaneers in Week 16
  • Saints beat Falcons in Week 16
  • Saints beat Buccaneers in Week 17
  • Saints win division, Panthers are stuck with the #5 seed

Should the Carolina Panthers win on Sunday they will get to 11 wins. No team that they are in wildcard contention with (Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, and Atlanta if they lost in New Orleans) can mathematically get there.

What this then means is that in the hypothetical we’re living in where the Buccaneers lose out, not so hypothetical really, the Saints would wrap up the NFC South with a win in Tampa Bay in Week 17. The Panthers would be firmly entrenched in their playoff spot, unable to move up or down, giving them no incentive to play hard.

This would be disastrous for the Cowboys as they would, assuming they did also get a Lions loss, be counting on a Falcons loss to the Panthers in conjunction with a win on their own in Philadelphia (assuming they also beat Seattle). If the Panthers take their foot off the gas, it’s a much easier draw for Atlanta.

Right now this is all really in the hands of the NFL

As of this moment, both the Saints/Bucs and Panthers/Falcons games in Week 17 are slated to kick off at noon. This is ideal for the Cowboys as the Panthers would still not know their fate and would likely play at full strength throughout the contest.

It’s an annual tradition for the league to not schedule a game in Week 17’s Sunday Night Football slot as they wait to know the game that has the largest level of playoff implications riding on it, and it is the one that they choose. We know this well.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, there really aren’t that many games in Week 17 with playoff implications for both teams (current kickoff time):

  • Carolina at Atlanta (1pm ET)
  • Jacksonville at Tennessee (1pm ET)
  • Buffalo at Miami (1pm ET)
  • Dallas at Philadelphia (1pm ET)
  • Oakland at Los Angeles Chargers (4:25pm ET)

Imagine you’re in charge or programming at NBC and have to choose one of these for your most-watched time slot, in its most critical week to date. What better matchup is there than the two former NFC Champions with the last two MVPs?

Of course, NBC could shy away from that because the Panthers could know they have nothing to play for before the game begins (if the Saints win as we said), but even then the game seemingly has more appeal than any other due to similar circumstances with those teams.

If you were really feeling the Christmas spirit I suppose you could make an argument for the Cowboys and Eagles to be in that late slot, but considering Philadelphia’s fate is well-known, that it’s Nick Foles not Carson Wentz, and that Dallas could be eliminated before the game begins... it’s simply not really that likely.

All of this means that the Cowboys must get help from the Buccaneers

The hypothetical that we just devoted over 800 words to involves the Buccaneers losing out, which is honestly what odds and probabilities suggest will happen; however, any Bucs win changes this status quo significantly.

Should the Buccaneers win this Sunday in Carolina, the Panthers will undoubtedly have something to play for, and even then a loss from them would get Dallas in (again assuming a Lions loss and that Dallas wins out).

On the other side of the coin, should the Buccaneers defeat the Saints the Panthers will have the NFC South to play for. Additionally, if the Bucs took down New Orleans a week after the Saints lost to the Falcons then the Cowboys would also be in (again... assuming they get the other required things).

Of all the things the Cowboys need, many have dismissed getting help from the Bucs because it seems so impossible. The reality of the situation though is that it is overwhelmingly likely that Tampa Bay is going to need to win one of their final two games because if they lose out, Carolina will likely not play to full force in a game that is likely flexed to Sunday Night Football against the Falcons in Week 17.

All of this is why some Cowboys fans were cheering for the Packers to win in Carolina last week. Had Green Bay won, the Panthers would not be in this position of power to make themselves uncatchable for the field. Dallas would still need a Packers loss against Minnesota this week, but those were odds that some were willing to take for the sake of this potential greater good.

It’s been four weeks and we’re still waiting, but at some point the Buccaneers have to help, right? Right?

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