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As much as they try, the Cowboys schedule and rivals just won’t let them out of NFC East race

Whether you want to hear it or not, the path to the playoffs for the Cowboys is not that hard.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
It may come down to the rematch with Philly.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The season is over for the Dallas Cowboys. All they have to do is just cruise through the rest of the schedule and take a high, possibly top five, pick into the 2021 NFL draft. Right?

Well, maybe not. It turns out that Dallas has the easiest path to a playoff berth in the landfill conflagration that is the NFC East. With their division rivals all also well below .500, getting a premium pick may be harder than it would seem. That’s because the other challengers face more daunting schedules. Here are the remaining opponents for the worst division in the NFL, in order.

NFC East remaining opponents

Cowboys opponents Giants opponents Eagles opponents Football Team opponents
Cowboys opponents Giants opponents Eagles opponents Football Team opponents
Vikings (4-5) Bye Browns (6-3) Bengals (2-6-1)
Football Team (2-7) Bengals (2-6-1) Seahawks (6-3) Cowboys (2-7)
Ravens (6-3) Seahawks (6-3) Packers (7-2) Steelers (9-0)
Bengals (2-6-1) Cardinals (6-3) Saints (7-2) 49ers (4-5)
49ers (4-6) Browns (6-3) Cardinals (6-3) Seahawks (6-3)
Eagles (3-6-1) Ravens (6-3) Cowboys (2-7) Panthers (3-7)
Giants (3-7) Cowboys (2-7) Football Team (2-7) Eagles (3-6-1)

The Cowboys only have one team remaining on the schedule that has a winning record, the Baltimore Ravens. The New York Giants have a four game stretch against 6-3 teams that are all fighting for playoff spots. For the Philadelphia Eagles, it is even worse, as they have the next five weeks against teams that are 6-3 or better. Only the fighting Washington Football Team has anything close to what Dallas faces, and they still have to get through the Seattle Seahawks and the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of course, the Cowboys haven’t exactly proven that they can overcome teams that are struggling. This week’s matchup with the Minnesota Vikings is shaping up to be a crucial indicator of what they might be able to accomplish the rest of the way. Dallas’ defense has gelled the past couple of games, and how they do against Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and the rest of the Minnesota offense will have a lot to do with whether the Cowboys have a chance.

Then there is the question of quarterback. Mike McCarthy is still mulling over whether Andy Dalton or Garrett Gilbert starts, but neither is at the moment a proven quantity. Yes, Dalton had a lot of wins with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he did not look at all good in his first two starts for Dallas. Gilbert may or may not have been a flash in the pan. But one positive sign is that the offensive line has been gradually figuring some things out. It still has issues, particularly with Terence Steele. Connor Williams also has had his struggles. Still, things are looking a bit better, and Gilbert was only sacked twice against the Steelers, while the running game had 144 yards in a game that came much closer to being a huge upset than we imagined beforehand.

If the QB situation works out, whoever is taking the snaps, then that is not at all a daunting slate ahead, and the Cowboys have a rematch with all three division rivals coming.

The Football Team may be the most challenging. Alex Smith was impressive in his first start since his devastating injury, amassing 390 yards in their narrow loss to the Detroit Lions. He still lives and dies by the short pass, but Dallas has been quite vulnerable to those in the earlier games. They have the fighting Teams up after the Vikings. By then, we will know if they are a real contender to represent the NFCE in the playoffs, even with a weak record, or if we can go back to arguing about trading back or trying to take a highly-ranked draftee.

After the Team, the next biggest threat looks to be the Giants. Daniel Jones is starting to figure out the complex and innovative Jason Garrett offense. (Sarcasm very much intended.) They got their second and third wins of the year, both within the division, before their bye this week, and have already swept Washington. That gives them something to build on. The question is just how badly that will be damaged by that four game stretch after they play the Bengals.

The Eagles are frankly in trouble. Carson Wentz has looked bad, and his performance in the loss to the Lions was perhaps his worst of the season. With the next five games in a row against teams solidly in the playoff mix, they may be just about done by the time they get to the final two division contests.

The last two weeks also have Dallas playing their rivals, Philadelphia in the next to last game, then finishing against the Giants. If they come into that final pair of contests having gotten just a few wins along the way, they could well be playing for the chance to keep going into January.

That would obviously torpedo their shot at a high draft pick. It could hurt their opportunities to stock up on good rookies, but this year’s draft class is shaping up to be weak on blue-chip players. Making the playoffs, even if they are one and done, could still pay some dividends. It would be a remarkable accomplishment with the long, long list of starters lost to injury this season, with Dak Prescott the biggest. That would instill a sense of confidence in returning players, and build faith in what the coaches are trying to do.

It still is ludicrous to be talking about being in the mix for a playoff spot at 2-7. But that is where we are. And in some ways, it does make things much more interesting, whichever way you would prefer the season to end.

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