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Cowboys playoff tracker: Odds look good for 3-1 Cowboys

Playoff odds keep looking better for the Cowboys.

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

After four games, the Cowboys lead the NFC East with a 3-1 record. As such, it should not come as a great surprise that the Cowboys’ playoff odds look good.

Since realignment in 2002, 148 teams started the season with three wins and one loss. 104 of those teams (70%) would have made the playoffs under the new 14-team playoff format. The table below shows what the playoff odds have looked like over the last 19 seasons by W/L after the fourth game of the season.

Odds to make 14-team playoffs based on Wk4 records, 2002-2020
Record after Week 4 4-0 3-1 2-2 1-3 0-4
Total Teams 59 148 198 142 61
Playoff Teams 52 104 81 28 1
Percentage 88% 70% 41% 20% 2%

The Cowboys now have a 70% chance of making the playoffs after four weeks, even if some Cowboys fans and all Eagles fans would have you believe this is owed exclusively to the weak opposition faced so far. Because by their infernal logic, teams the Cowboys beat can’t have been good in the first place.

So how good are the 3-1 Cowboys really?

Thankfully, we have more than the opinions of few disgruntled Cowboys fans and continuously discombobulated Eagles fans to rely on. Which is why we once again turn to the trusty Pythagorean Formula to better understand where the Cowboys currently stand and what their chances look like going forward.

We’ve used the formula often before (for more details, go here) to measure overall team strength, on the hypothesis that a team’s true strength could be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses.

The 3-1 Cowboys have scored 126 points and allowed 97. Plugging that into the formula results in a 11.5-win projection for the Cowboys (based on a 17-game season), which may initially seem a bit low if you’re still on a euphoric high from Sunday’s win against the Panthers.

But after four weeks of play, there is already quite a strong correlation between the Pythagorean projection and the eventual results at the end of the season. Of course, with every additional week of data, the formula gets better, but after about Week 4 the improvements are gradual, and not as steep as in the first few weeks. For the Cowboys, with a few exceptions, the projection has been reasonably accurate for the last 10 years.

Week 4 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Win Projection 7.8 5.6 9.4 11.0 8.5 14.4 7.7 6.7 12.9 6.0
Actual wins 8 8 8 12 4 13 9 10 8 6
Mean absolute error 0.2 2.4 1.4 1.0 4.5 1.4 1.3 3.3 4.9 0.0

The metric we use to measure the accuracy of the Week 4 projections is called mean absolute error (MAE). This is the average of the absolute difference between the Pythagorean win projection in Week 4 and the final win total of that year. If the MAE for a projection is 1.0, it would mean the projection was off by 1.0 win in either direction. Obviously, the smaller the MAE, the better the projection. And as you can see, for six out of the ten years (marked in green) the Week 4 projection was pretty accurate, coming in below 1.5 MAE.

There are three obvious exceptions:

  • 2015, when Tony Romo played the first two games, but then missed 12 of the remaining 14 games, thus rendering the early projections moot.
  • 2018, when the mid-season trade for Amari Cooper coincided with a marked upturn in the team’s fortunes, also not part of the early projections.
  • 2019, when the Cowboys stormed out to a 6–4 record and the NFC East lead in Week 11, only to squander that as they lost four of the last six games for a final record of 8-8, which also marked the end of the Jason Garrett era in Dallas. No way the early projection could anticipate that meltdown.

The historic odds suggest the 2021 Cowboys have a 70% chance of making the playoffs, and the Pythagorean formula suggests they should finish the season with around 11 to 12 wins, which should be good enough for a playoff spot and the division crown.

And this is not far off where other sites currently see the Cowboys:

Emboldened by those similarities, we can use the Pythagorean formula for the remaining 31 teams to get a good idea of the emerging 2021 playoff picture. With that in mind, here’s how the projected wins stack up after Week 4 for all 32 NFL teams:

Pythagorean Projected Wins by NFL team, Week 4, 2021

AFC .. NFC
AFC EAST W L PF PA Proj.Wins NFC EAST W L PF PA Proj.Wins
Buffalo Bills 3 1 134 44 15.1 Dallas Cowboys 3 1 126 97 11.5
New England Patriots 1 3 71 70 7.6 Washington Football Team 2 2 101 122 7.1
Miami Dolphins 1 3 62 109 3.7 Philadelphia Eagles 1 3 94 106 6.6
New York Jets 1 3 47 94 3.1 New York Giants 1 3 83 95 6.5
AFC North W L PF PA Proj.Wins NFC North W L PF PA Proj.Wins
Cleveland Browns 3 1 100 67 12.4 Green Bay Packers 3 1 95 100 9.1
Cincinnati Bengals 3 1 92 75 11.0 Minnesota Vikings 1 3 94 92 7.7
Baltimore Ravens 3 1 105 92 10.5 Chicago Bears 2 2 64 91 5.9
Pittsburgh Steelers 1 3 67 93 5.1 Detroit Lions 0 4 81 119 3.7
AFC South W L PF PA Proj.Wins NFC South W L PF PA Proj.Wins
Tennessee Titans 2 2 95 111 7.3 Carolina Panthers 3 1 97 66 12.3
Indianapolis Colts 1 3 83 97 6.3 New Orleans Saints 2 2 94 69 10.8
Houston Texans 1 3 67 116 3.8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 1 122 105 10.6
Jacksonville Jaguars 0 4 74 115 3.4 Atlanta Falcons 1 3 78 128 4.1
AFC West W L PF PA Proj.Wins NFC West W L PF PA Proj.Wins
Denver Broncos 3 1 83 49 13.1 Arizona Cardinals 4 0 140 85 14.0
Las Vegas Raiders 3 0 90 72 11.8 Los Angeles Rams 3 1 115 99 10.6
Los Angeles Chargers 2 1 67 60 9.9 San Francisco 49ers 2 2 107 102 8.9
Kansas City Chiefs 2 2 134 125 9.0 Seattle Seahawks 2 2 103 100 8.7
Green Division winner Yellow Wildcard

If all teams continue playing exactly the way they did over the first four weeks of the season, the Cowboys will be playoff bound and in contention for one of the top seeds in the NFC.

Of course, a lot of things can and will change between now and then, but for now, the Cowboys are on the right trajectory.