By the time the Cowboys kicked off their Sunday night home game against the Washington Football Team, we already knew that they had won their division and would also be unable to move into the NFC’s top seed this week. That didn’t matter to the Cowboys, who absolutely throttled last year’s division champion to the tune of 56-14 in front of a nationally televised audience.
Lost in the insanity of the lopsided score was the fact that Dallas notched their fourth consecutive victory and went undefeated in December for the first time since the 2014 season. Three of their four December victories came on the road, with two of them in cold weather and the other in the notoriously rowdy Superdome against a defense that shut out Tom Brady a week ago.
That game, a loss for the Buccaneers, was part of what set the Cowboys up in great position to claim the top seed in the conference and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. Coupled with the Cardinals’ loss to the Lions that same week, it dropped the Cowboys into a three-way tie for second-best record in the conference, at which point the Cowboys’ superior conference record (now 9-1) gave them a tiebreaker despite a head-to-head loss to the Buccaneers.
When the Cardinals again lost this past week, it threatened to break up the three-way tie, but the Rams’ win over the Vikings kept it in place while the Bucs throttled the Panthers. That meant the Cowboys’ huge win over the Football Team kept them in position for the two seed. And if Dallas can win their two remaining games against NFC teams while the Packers lose one of their last two games, it would put the Cowboys in the top spot based on their conference record.
Long story short: it’s possible, but not probable. The Cowboys host the Cardinals, who are looking to break their current free-fall, before traveling to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. Both teams are currently on track for the playoffs but have plenty to play for. Meanwhile, the Packers host the Vikings - who beat them in Minnesota earlier this year and are just outside of the playoff bubble - before traveling to Detroit to take on a Lions team that’s upset both the Vikings and Cardinals in Ford Field already.
Green Bay is likely to be favored in both games, making the Cowboys’ path to the first-round bye a little difficult.
That really shouldn’t matter, though. Obviously, the best possible outcome for the Cowboys is getting that first-round bye; having to win one less game to get to the Super Bowl is always best. But it’s not the factor in getting to the big game. Both of Eli Manning’s Super Bowl years came without a first-round bye, with one of those years seeing the Giants play every playoff game on the road. Last year’s Buccaneers team did the same thing until the Super Bowl, where they became the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium.
Mike McCarthy has firsthand experience with this, too. His lone Super Bowl season in Green Bay saw the Packers make the playoffs as the sixth seed. They proceeded to win three straight road games before beating the Steelers in AT&T Stadium to take home a Lombardi Trophy.
Compare that to this current Dallas team. Their 6-2 record on the road this year demonstrates the Cowboys’ ability to win on the road, and the Chargers, Patriots, and Saints games show that this group is built to win even the toughest road challenges. They don’t blink and they don’t flinch in the face of adversity, which was a key element of McCarthy’s 2010 Packers team too.
With the NFC East clinched, the lowest seed the Cowboys can have now is the fourth seed. That guarantees them at least one playoff game at home, where they’ve looked unstoppable almost all year long. That also guarantees no more than two road games in order to reach the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, and with Dallas currently winning 75% of their road games that gives them scary good odds with or without the first-round bye.
Obviously, these are not reliable numbers. This is the NFL, and this season more than most has reminded us of just how unpredictable things are. There are no guarantees in this business, which is why playing one less game in the playoffs is such a big deal. The point, though, is that this Cowboys team has done all they can at this point in the season to prove they’re not only capable of winning the Super Bowl, but they don’t even necessarily need that top seed to get it done. Just keep that in mind in the event that the Packers don’t help out their former coach’s new team in the next two weeks.