After every Cowboys game this season, we will post a playoff tracker in which we look at the Cowboys’ latest playoff chances. And we will continue doing this until a playoff berth is secured - or until they are eliminated from playoff contention.
With the season opener out of the way, the Buccaneers are undefeated and the Cowboys are winless. Does that mean the Cowboys should immediately go into tank mode to secure the No. 1 draft pick? And should the undefeated Buccaneers start resting their starters for the playoffs?
Not so fast.
For the second year in a row, the NFL has opened the playoffs to 14 out of 32 teams, meaning the seventh seed in each conference is now also playoff-eligible.
The league moved to its current divisional alignment in 2002. And if we look at the history of the top seven seeds in each conference since then, 266 teams would have been playoff-eligible under the new 14-team playoff format. Of those 266 teams, 175 (or about two thirds of all playoff teams) won their season-opener. But there were also 91 teams (about a third of all playoff teams) that would have made the playoffs after losing their season-opener.
So all is not lost for the Cowboys. But their odds of making the playoffs did not improve with the loss in the season opener.
If we add up the playoff teams and the seventh seeds over the last 19 seasons, 58% of the teams winning their season opener would have made the playoffs under the 14-team playoff rules. Conversely, only 30% of the teams losing their season opener would have made the playoffs.
The table below summarizes what the historic playoff odds for making a 14-team playoff 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 that will start the season 0-1) 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.
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 14%; 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 30% historical chance at one of the top seven seeds. If they had won, they’d be sitting pretty with a 57% historical chance at the playoffs. To get back to that level, the Cowboys will have to win their next two games against the Chargers and Eagles.
Of course, if the NFC East remains in a similarly desolate state to what it was last year, the Cowboys’ best route to the playoffs may simply be to win the division and not worry about where they rank in win totals versus the rest of the NFC.
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.