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Cowboys playoff picture: Ranking the four potential 1st-round opponents

A look at which teams would give Dallas the most or least trouble in a possible first-round playoff game.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

By Sunday night we’ll know what’s coming for the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the 2022 NFL playoffs. There’s still potential for Dallas to win the NFC East and even get a first-round bye, but odds are that they’ll be playing next weekend in a wild card game. Beyond that uncertainty, the Cowboys could wind up in any of four possible matchups.

Dallas would be the first seed and get next week off if they beat Washington and get losses by the Eagles and 49ers. But with the Giants reportedly sitting starters this Sunday against Philly, and Arizona barely being competitive even with their starters, the odds of the Cowboys ending up in the top spot are now fantastically low.

At this point, the prudent choice is to plan on Dallas playing in the first round. But various combinations of results could have them either traveling to Tampa Bay for that game or staying home to host one of the Lions, Packers, or Seahawks.

Of those four scenarios, which matchups should we be most hoping for and against? Here’s a ranking of the possibilities in terms of most-wanted to least-wanted, and what Week 18 results would set up each pairing.

New York Jets v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

1. Hosting Seattle Seahawks

To get any of the home game options, Dallas has to beat Washington while the Giants somehow upset the Eagles in Week 18. That gives the Cowboys the NFC East and the second seed, assuming the 49ers do handle their business against Arizona.

Next, Seattle has to win its game against the Los Angeles Rams. But even with that, the Seahawks will have to wait until Sunday night to see who wins the Lions-Packers game. And sadly, since a Seattle win eliminates Detroit, that would crush the Lions’ motivation to go all out and help keep Green Bay out of the playoffs.

It’s especially unfortunate because the Seahawks feel like the easiest of the four potential opponents. They’ve gone just 2-5 in their last seven games and have come up short against nearly every credible opponent they’ve faced all season. While Geno Smith’s mobility and their generally solid run game could pose problems for Dallas’ defense, the Cowboys would still be heavy favorites in this possible matchup.

Given the setup of the schedule, though, it’s also looking like the least likely scenario.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

2. Hosting Detroit Lions

If Seattle loses or ties with Los Angeles then the door opens for the Lions to make the playoffs. The Seahawks have a head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit.

The Lions could certainly beat the Packers if there’s equal motivation on both sides. They already did it once this year back in Week 9, and it was that victory that sparked Detroit’s current 7-2 run. They’re one of the hotter teams in the NFC right now, beating both the Giants and Vikings along the way.

If Detroit beat the Packers on the road in an elimination game this Sunday night, that would only make them a more confident bunch and a scarier potential opponent. Still, Jared Goff is preferable in the first round than either Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but it’s not like Goff hasn’t helped eliminate the Cowboys from the playoff before.

Still, Detroit would feel like the lesser of evils compared to either of the Bays.

NFL: JAN 01 Panthers at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

3. Visiting Tampa Bay Bucs

This is the matchup with the highest odds of occurring. If the Eagles beat the Giants then nothing else matters; Dallas is locked into the fifth seed at that point and heads to Tampa. The Cowboys would also land here if they lose or tie with Washington, regardless of what happens in the New York-Philly game.

As you’ve probably heard before now, Tom Brady’s never lost a game to the Dallas Cowboys. That includes Dallas’ last two season openers. While the 2021 matchup was a dramatic nail-biter, this year’s meeting was a tragic flop by the Cowboys.

While the Bucs haven’t been that impressive throughout this season, they’re essentially getting an extra week to prepare for the playoffs. They’ve already clinched the NFC South and are stuck in the fourth seed, making their Week 18 matchup with the Falcons meaningless.

Do you really want to see this veteran team, and particularly its quarterback, after having two weeks to prepare? Given the odds that it will be Cowboys-Bucs in the first round, you know that Brady and the bunch are already preparing for Dallas more than any other potential opponent.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Kayla Wolf/Getty Images

4. Hosting Green Bay Packers

It may sound odd to prefer the road game in Tampa to any potential home game, but that’s how much hate there is for this matchup. For a variety of reasons, Green Bay is the last team Dallas wants to see in the first round.

Thankfully, the chances of this happening have gone down tremendously in recent days. The news that the Giants intend to rest starters against Philadelphia boosts the probability of the Eagles winning the NFC East, which would put the Cowboys into the wild card spot and the 4/5 matchup with Tampa.

But if New York does upset Philly, then the Packers could easily be coming to Dallas. They have the only “win and you’re in” scenario between themselves, Detroit, and Seattle. Even if the Seahawks beat the Rams, they’d still lose out to Green Bay based on the conference record tiebreaker.

No Cowboys fan wants to deal with Aaron Rodgers in another playoff game. You also have to worry about Aaron Jones potentially running amok on the Dallas defense. Then there are Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay demons and Dez Bryant’s catch. It’s all drama.

Most of all, Dallas doesn’t want to catch a hot team and the reigning MVP at the wrong time. We saw what the Packers did to Dallas earlier this year even when they were still struggling and the Cowboys were coming off a bye week. It conjures up memories of San Francisco last year; a bad matchup for Dallas that would come before the team works out any postseason jitters.

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