The Dallas Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East. It’s a moment we never thought would get here because the Philadelphia Eagles went through a stretch where they refused to lose. Starting in late October, the Eagles won four straight games by seven points or less. We all remember those late-game failures by Kansas City and Buffalo that kept the Eagles' winning streak alive. Even the Cowboys themselves were in a perfect spot to beat Philly on the road, but just couldn’t get it done in the final seconds.
But alas, the levee in the Eagles dam of success has finally started to leak as Philadelphia has lost two straight, putting both them and the Cowboys at 10-3, with Dallas currently holding the division record tie-breaker (Cowboys 4-1, Eagles 3-1). It’s important to note that this lead is temporary because if the Eagles win their last two remaining divisional games, they will hold the tie-breaker advantage. This creates a false sense of where the Cowboys are in playoff seeding because they still need help if they are to have a shot at winning the division.
So, what is it going to take for them to win the East? Let’s run through some possible paths that put the Cowboys atop the division.
SCENARIO 1: Cowboys win out, Eagles lose one other game
The simplest way to win the division is for the Cowboys to win their final four games and have the Eagles lose any one of their final games. That is a tough ask for the Cowboys considering their next three games are at Buffalo, at Miami, and versus Detroit. That’s three games against likely playoff teams, including two division leaders who have a 9-4 record.
The second challenge of this scenario is having the Eagles drop another game. While they are not playing their best ball at the moment, none of their remaining four games are against teams with a winning record. Their best chance to get another loss is on Monday night when they travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks. The Seahawks once were believed to be a tough NFC opponent as they were 6-3 a month ago, but have since lost four straight games. The only saving grace is that their opponents are riding hot right now and they’ve played more competitive games against Dallas and San Francisco than the Eagles have over the last two weeks.
Additionally, Seattle is not an easy place to play for visiting road teams. The Eagles are only a 3.5-point favorite at the moment and inquiring minds will be waiting to see if this two-game losing streak is just a hiccup or the beginning of a potential skid.
SCENARIO 2: Cowboys lose to Detroit, Eagles lose one other game
If the Eagles lose another game, any other game, the Cowboys will be given a small margin of error in the form of being able to lose another game as long as it’s to the Detroit Lions. That’s because, in that situation, the Cowboys would win the common opponent tie-breaker over the Eagles. Now, that’s not much leeway, but it’s something. The Cowboys still have to make it through the AFC East road trip unscathed and that’s the tough part.
It’s also worth noting that if the Cowboys did win the NFC East, beating Detroit might still prove important. If the Cowboys end up facing the Lions in the Divisional Round, the winner of their regular season matchup could end up being the tie-breaker that dictates which team is the two-seed and which team is the three-seed, or in other words, which team is at home. So, while that game might not be relevant to winning the East, it still could have some importance.
SCENARIO 3: Cowboys lose one other non-Washington game, Eagles lose to the Giants
If the Cowboys lose to either Miami or Buffalo, all is not lost. There is one final chance the Cowboys have to win the division, but they would need some help from an unlikely ally. Dallas could still win the division via the divisional-record tiebreaker if the Eagles lose one of their two remaining games against the New York Giants. A month ago, that would seem virtually impossible, but the Giants have won their last three games. They are right in the thick of the playoff hunt, trailing the current seventh-seed Green Bay Packers by just one game. They also would hold the tie-breaker over the Pack since they just beat them on Monday night.
The Giants are riding hot right now thanks to Tommy DeVito. DeVito is an undrafted free agent rookie who has been playing well since taking over the starting quarterback job. During the Giants' three-game win streak, DeVito hasn’t thrown a single pick and his only wart was his first career start against the Cowboys a month ago, but hey, we’ll let that one slide. He is coming off a game where he completed over 80% of his passes and rushed for over 70 yards. There could be some Cinderella magic here that has a chance to play an upset special down the stretch.
As we’ve laid out, the events needed for the Cowboys to win the division don’t come with a high percentage of probability. It can happen, sure, but we shouldn’t hold our breath. Relying on other teams to do the dirty work always comes with high risk.
If the Cowboys beat Buffalo on Sunday, we will all be Seahawks fans on Monday as another Eagles loss would then finally give the Cowboys control of their own destiny for the divisional title and hosting the Wild Card game. That would be fantastic.
And, should the Cowboys stay hot and win out, things could get interesting. Who knows, the San Francisco 49ers Monday night matchup against the AFC’s top team, the Baltimore Ravens, in a couple of weeks could be quite interesting as the Cowboys would still have a chance to take home the top seed in the NFC and earn a first-round bye. That might be wishful thinking, but it’s also a possibility.