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How the NFL’s new playoff format could hurt the Dallas Cowboys

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This is not the year you want to finish second-best.

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Baltimore Ravens v Tennessee Titans Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are projected to be one of the top teams this upcoming season. Their chances of reaching the postseason look favorable, and it got even better when the NFL announced they were moving to a new 14-team playoff format where the top seven teams from each conference get in. Overall, this is a good thing in terms of more teams getting in on the action, but it comes with trade-offs.

For example, let’s say we stacked teams based off the Super Bowl odds for each team. The seeding would then look like this:

courtesy of

Under the old system, the Seattle Seahawks would miss the postseason, and the NFC playoff bracket would look as follows:

Some have the Cowboys projected as the second-best team in the conference behind the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. If things truly panned out like this, it would mean the Cowboys earn a first-round bye and host a Divisional Playoff game. However, under the new playoff structure, the Seahawks get in and the playoff bracket looks like this:

Despite the two-seed, the Cowboys would be playing on Wild Card weekend. Who they would play next isn’t any different that what it would be under the old format. In fact, there is no change for teams finishing anywhere in the no. 3 through no. 6 range. The only real impact is for teams no. 2 and no. 7.

That’s an unfortunate turn of events for the Cowboys in this scenario. It’s a great break for Seattle, or whomever snags that seventh and final playoff spot. Sure, it’s hard to know where Dallas will finish in all this. It’s the NFL, and they may not even make the postseason. If you had to venture a guess, one might speculate that the Cowboys are going to finish as one of the better seeds in the conference. Certainly, the odd-makers believe so. The extra playoff spot is great for someone, but is that something the Cowboys would end up needing this season?

We polled folks over on Twitter what they think about where the Cowboys are likely to finish by just comparing these two options.

Two-thirds of the votes have gone in favor of the no. 2 seed. Based on this data, it would serve to reason that the Cowboys stand more to lose by this playoff format than they have to gain in 2020. While the new structure is great for bubble teams who will still be in contention later in the season, taking away a first-round bye is a hefty cost for the team that finishes second in the conference.

This makes the all-important no. 1 seed a coveted luxury in the playoffs. If it truly did come down to the Cowboys and 49ers, then how does each team rate in terms of difficult games? For the 2020 season, San Francisco has the fourth most difficult schedule in the league (opponents winning % of .527), whereas the Cowboys have the third-easiest schedule (.459). Of course, that’s all based on data from last season and as we all know - that’s all going to change. Here are the opponents of each of those teams this upcoming season:

schedule courtesy of Pro Football Reference

If the top seed in the NFC really came down to these two teams, it would sure make that Week 15 game in December of great importance.

Obviously, any opportunity to gain a higher seed is preferred as it opens the door to play a less formidable opponent or possibly host a playoff game. So, being a second seed is still a good thing, but it just doesn’t have the same advantages as it once did. And this season, it could be the Cowboys would feel it’s effect.