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Cowboys Week 18 rooting guide: Multiple paths to the #2 seed in the NFC

The Cowboys don’t need help this week, but insurance never hurts.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Recent events in the NFC have left the Cowboys just a victory away from winning the NFC East and being the second seed in the upcoming playoffs. While Dallas doesn’t need any help to achieve those goals, they could get some insurance through other outcomes in the Week 18 regular-season finales.

Between Dallas’ victory over the Lions and the Eagles’ stunning loss to the Cardinals last weekend, the Cowboys now hold tiebreakers over both Detroit and Philadelphia. As long as Dallas defeats the Washington Commanders this Sunday, they’ll be division champions and the number-two seed behind San Francisco, who’s already clinched the top spot.

If the Cowboys don’t get it done in Washington, a slew of other possibilities emerge. Dallas could still win the division but wind up as the third seed, or drop back into the fifth seed as a wild card. There’s also a wide range of potential first-round opponents; four teams who remain variables in the wild card race and three others from the undecided NFC South.

Here are the NFC playoff standings ahead of Week 16:

  1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4 overall, 10-1 vs NFC)
  2. Dallas Cowboys (11-5 overall, 8-3 vs NFC)
  3. Detroit Lions (11-5 overall, 7-4 vs NFC)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8 overall, 6-5 vs NFC)
  5. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5 overall, 7-4 vs NFC)
  6. Los Angeles Rams (9-7 overall, 7-4 vs NFC)
  7. Green Bay Packers (8-8 overall, 6-5 vs NFC)

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Assuming both Dallas and Philadelphia win their finales, the Cowboys would be NFC East Champions based on the conference record tiebreaker. Their head-to-head win over Detroit would put them in the number-two spot if they both finish tied. Even if the 49ers lose this Sunday and are tied with Dallas and/or Detroit overall, they hold tiebreaker advantages and have already clinched.

The Buccaneers are hanging on to the NFC South right now by the thread of a common games tiebreaker over New Orleans. The Packers are the seventh seed with a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over Seattle and a better conference record than the Saints. Both Tampa and Green Bay have “win and you’re in” scenarios this week. Of the teams below 10 wins, only the Rams have clinched a playoff spot so far.

As we get into the rooting guide, two different thoughts are prevalent. What helps Dallas secure its own playoff positioning, and what creates the best possible opponent for the first round?

Giants over Eagles
Vikings over Lions

Again, the Cowboys don’t need these outcomes to achieve their goals. All they have to do is beat Washington and what happens in these games doesn’t matter. Dallas would be #2, Detroit #3, and Philadelphia #5.

However, if the Commanders pull off something unfortunate, Dallas could still win the division and even be the two-seed if the Eagles and Lions both fall. Their conference record tiebreaker over Philly would still apply, as would the head-to-head over Detroit. Obviously, we’d prefer the Cowboys to earn their achievements on their own merits. But we’ll gladly accept an alternate route if needed.

Minnesota beating Detroit would also create the potential for the Vikings to make the playoffs as the seventh seed. More on that shortly.

Rams over 49ers

While this would do nothing to change San Francisco’s playoff spot, it would lock up the sixth seed for Los Angeles. That’s not inconsequential to Dallas; it would keep one of the hotter teams in the NFC right now away from the Cowboys until no earlier than the NFC Championship Game.

The Rams’ current surge makes them a dangerous postseason team. As the sixth seed, they could potentially knock out Detroit and then go meet San Francisco again in the Division Round. If they could help keep the 49ers out of the Cowboys’ lives this postseason, that would be greatly appreciated.

Buccaneers over Panthers
Falcons over Saints
Bears over Packers
Cardinals over Seahawks

This combination of outcomes would create a playoff bracket that should suit Dallas well. It would give them a potentially easier opponent in Minnesota, who’s battling significant issues at quarterback, while setting up some tough competition for the rest of the field.

You’d have #4 Tampa Bay, the NFC South winner, hosting the #5 Eagles in the first round. If the Cowboys and Lions win their first-round games, the winner of this one would go on to play the 49ers. You have to like Philly’s chances of upsetting San Francisco better than most teams. And if the Bucs were to beat the Eagles, they feel like the most solid team out of the NFC South. It’s a slim margin, though, between them and the Saints at this point.

If the Packers beat the Bears then nothing else matters in the wild cards; then it’s just about who is the 6th and 7th between them and Los Angeles. At this point, depending on how the 49ers decide to handle their finale against the Rams, it’s a toss-up between Green Bay and L.A. for who would be the 7th seed and Dallas’ likely first-round opponent.

In the end, of course, Dallas needs to beat whoever’s in front of them. But NFL history is full of teams who only raised a trophy because they got the right matchups along the way. There’s nothing wrong with hoping that the Cowboys get an ideal path.

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