Thanks for nothing, New York Giants. It would have been a lot better for the Dallas Cowboys if Eli Manning and company had hung a loss on the Philadelphia Eagles, but they didn’t. In what has become a three team race for the NFC East between Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington, things have tightened up. Here are the current standings and upcoming schedules for the division (h/t to R.J. Ochoa, who I stole this from):
|Team||Week 13||Week 14||Week 15||Week 16||Week 17|
|Dallas Cowboys (6-5)||Saints||Eagles||at Colts||Buccaneers||at Giants|
|Washington Redskins (6-5)||at Eagles||Giants||at Jaguars||at Titans||Eagles|
|Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)||Redskins||at Cowboys||at Rams||Texans||at Redskins|
|New York Giants (3-8)||Bears||at Redskins||Titans||at Colts||Cowboys|
As you can see, the Giants are all but eliminated from things, as they already have eight losses, and it is hard to find any way for them to come out on top of the NFC East even if they win out.
But things are certainly a lot murkier for the teams still in contention. Let’s play out the situation for the Cowboys.
Path to the playoffs if they lose to the New Orleans Saints
Look, I am often a quaffer of the Blue (and Silver) Kool-Aid, but this Thursday is going to be a real challenge for Dallas. They could pull off the upset (more about that in a bit), but first let’s consider what would have to happen for them to overcome a loss.
There is one very real threat that the Cowboys can no longer do anything about, and that is Washington winning out. That may seem very unlikely, given they are working with a backup quarterback in Colt McCoy, a very banged-up offensive line, and a struggling wide receiver group. But the defense is still pretty respectable, and their tight ends have been doing some real damage. If they win all their remaining games, any loss by the Cowboys ends hope for the division crown.
This makes the Eagles the best hope to prevent that, given that they still have both their games against Washington to come. The other teams Washington face are not the most challenging, with no one outside of the Eagles having a winning record, pending the outcome of the Monday Night game between the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. If Philadelphia wins their next game over them, then all the Cowboys have to do to take back control of the NFC East is win their second game against the Eagles, which is in the suddenly-friendly AT&T Stadium. Since the Eagles still have games against the Los Angeles Rams and the Houston Texans, they seem likely to absorb at least one more loss, not counting the game against Dallas.
So if the Cowboys don’t manage the upset on Thursday, then they have to have some help, and that help is most likely going to come from the Eagles. It is not the greatest spot to be in, but it is also at least somewhat likely that they will get that and then can take back control of things.
There is even a chance for the Cowboys to lose one other game and still limp into the division lead, especially if that loss is not to the Eagles. It would depend on Washington and the Eagles both also getting at least two losses, and perhaps could come down to the Cowboys winning both their remaining games in the division. That would give them the first tie-breaker over both Philly and Washington.
A path to a wild card spot
Although it seemed unthinkable just a week or two ago, the Cowboys are now in the mix for a wild card bid, especially if they only lose the Saints game down the stretch. And even two losses might not take them out of it. At the moment, no NFC team is ahead of them for a wild card spot in overall record or in conference wins. The results of the Sunday night game between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings (still to be determined when this is being written) is important here. If the Vikes win, then they have a half-game lead for the first wild card spot. But if the Pack and Aaron Rodgers manage to overcome their own coaching staff and win, both they and Minnesota will trail Dallas in the wild card standings.
A win over the Saints puts Dallas clearly in the driver’s seat
It would be huge. No one could possibly overtake them as long as they keep winning - and dumping New Orleans would be a big indicator that it was possible.
While we may not expect the Cowboys to prevail, it is not unthinkable. The key is if Dallas can successfully play their game, with ball control and efficient offense to keep Drew Brees and his offense off the field, and have some of the timely defensive stops that we saw on Thanksgiving.
Brees is an entirely different level of challenge from McCoy, of course, and he is surrounded by dangerous weapons like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. But the Cowboys defense is a much better unit than we have seen in the past, although they still are getting everything together. And they have their own set of weapons in Demarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Byron Jones.
Now that the Dallas offense has also taken some major steps in finding their rhythm, particularly with Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper as big guns, there is really a chance. It would still have to qualify as an upset, but it would not be the shock that it once would have seemed. The biggest issue at the moment is the offensive line, with Tyron Smith, Xavier Su’a-Filo, and Zack Martin all nursing injuries. Hopefully Smith will not be out again this week, and his linemates can get back into the flow of things after being given a precautionary day off in the first practice of the week.
This is not the “must-win” situation that Dallas has faced the past three weeks, but it is still one that will have a big impact on their chances the rest of the way. The Cowboys just need to keep improving things while continuing the positives they have had so far.
In a few days, we will have a better idea of the hurdles they still face.