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Cowboys playoff tracker: How loss to Panthers affects Cowboys’ playoff chances

Because an NFL season has just 16 games, every game carries an inordinate weight in determining a team’s playoff odds, so starting 0-1 is not a good thing.

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Every year, 12 out of 32 teams make the NFL playoffs. The NFL may up that number to 14 at some point, but for now the number is still fixed at 12. That means that prior to Week 1, each NFL team had a 12 out of 32 chance (38%) of making the playoffs.

With the first week of NFL action in the books, 15 teams are undefeated, 15 teams are winless, and two outsmarted themselves en route to a tie. Does that mean the winless teams should start tanking for a better draft spot? And should the undefeated teams start resting their starters for the playoffs?

Not so fast.

Since realignment in 2002, 130 of the 192 playoff teams (or about two thirds of all playoff teams) won their season-opener. But there were also 62 teams (about a third of all playoff teams) that made the playoffs after losing their season-opener, including the 2014 Super Bowl winning Patriots, who stumbled out of the gate with a loss to the Dolphins in Week 1, 2014.

But because of the brevity of the NFL season with just 16 games, every game carries an inordinate weight in determining a team’s playoff odds. After Week 1, the playoff odds shift significantly from the 38% all teams shared before kickoff weekend. Overall, exactly 51% of the teams (130 of 257 teams) that won their season opener since 2002 also made the playoffs. Conversely, only 24% of the teams that lost their season opener eventually made the playoffs over the same period.

The table below summarizes what the historic playoff odds look like over the first nine games of the season, depending on a team’s record at any given time.

That historic record puts a lot of pressure on the Cowboys and all other 0-1 teams to win their next game. Because the brevity of the NFL season also means that if you follow up a season-opening loss with more losses, you’ll be out of the playoff race pretty fast.

If you’re one of the teams that stumbled out of the gate on opening weekend, your 0-1 record means next week’s game is already something of a must-win game: Start the season 0-2 and your odds of making the playoffs drop to just 11%; three consecutive losses to start the season and for all intents and purposes your season is over.

The Cowboys lost their opener, and are now looking at a 24% historical chance at the playoffs. If they had won, they’d be sitting pretty with a 51% historical chance at the playoffs. To get back to that 50% level, the Cowboys will have to win their next two games.

Losing their season opener was a significant speed bump for the Cowboys on their road to the playoffs, and they’ll have to pick up the pace over the next few games if they want to stay on track in the playoff race.

We’ll continue monitoring the Cowboys’ playoff chances every week, and it would sure be nice if we could talk about a 1-1 record after next week. Not just because it would up the Cowboys’ playoff odds to 42%, but also because it would put the Giants in a position where their Week 3 game in Houston might mean the end of their season after just three games (again).

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