Road to the Wild Card: Mapping Out Dallas’ Playoff Path Following Blowout Loss to Philadelphia

Sunday night was an absolutely brutal game for the Cowboys, falling to the NFC East-leading Eagles 37-9. It was the largest home loss in the history of AT&T Stadium, and it was just the third home loss of 28+ points in the Jerry Jones era. Philadelphia has been the masochist on the other end all three times.

PODCAST LINK: Dallas’ Path to the Wild Card

Any chance Dallas had at repeating as NFC East champions has all but disappeared. The Cowboys trail the Eagles by four games with six to play. With a 4-0 record within the division, Philadelphia has almost locked up the tiebreaker as well.

So with the division likely lost at this point, the Cowboys must turn their sights to the NFC Wild Card, which also appears to be a daunting task at the moment. The numbers have been crunched, and scenarios have been filtered, to give you the clearest understanding of Dallas’ roadmap to a Wild Card berth.

THE CURRENT STANDINGS

The Cowboys are in a tough spot at the moment in the standings. Even before trying to project the next several weeks, the Cowboys are still 10th in the NFC, which means they are the 4th ranked “outside-looking-in” Wild Card team. That’s not an ideal position.

Carolina and Seattle are currently “in” as the #5 and #6 Wild Card seeds. Detroit is lurking just outside at #7, and Atlanta, Green Bay, and Dallas are slightly more off the pace at #8, #9, and #10.

Atlanta and Seattle square off later tonight in a game that will have direct implications on the race. If Seattle wins, they would rise to two games ahead of Dallas, and Atlanta would drop to a three-way tie with the Cowboys and Packers. If the Falcons win, both Atlanta and Seattle would sit a game ahead of Green Bay and Dallas in a three-way tie with Detroit.

TIEBREAKERS

The NFL has a zany checklist of ways that they break ties for the Wild Card. If the two Wild Card teams in question are not from the same division, this is how the NFL breaks the tie…

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
  4. Strength of victory.
  5. Strength of schedule.
  6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
  7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
  8. Best net points in conference games.
  9. Best net points in all games.
  10. Best net touchdowns in all games.
  11. Coin toss.

We’re really only looking at #1-#5 as options. It would take a historic fluke for the Cowboys to get into tiebreakers based on the best net points in NFC games.

DALLAS’ TIEBREAKER HURDLES

The Cowboys are not in the best spot right now relative to tiebreakers.

Dallas will lose any tie with the Packers or the Falcons because of head-to-head losses during the regular season. This means that even though Green Bay is sitting at 5-5 along with the Cowboys, they’re technically a game ahead of Dallas in the Wild Card standings.

Beating Detroit in the tiebreaker isn’t completely out of the question like Green Bay and Atlanta, but it’s pretty close. The Cowboys and Lions won’t play head-to-head, so the default tiebreaker would be W-L% in NFC games. The Lions currently have a one game advantage over the Cowboys in this department, which means Dallas needs to win two more NFC games than the Lions in each team’s final five conference games. If they tie on tiebreaker #2, then it goes to W-L% against common opponents. Detroit is a game ahead of Dallas in that battle with each team having one more common opponent on the schedule, meaning the best Dallas could do is tie a third time. If it defaulted to strength of victory and strength of schedule, Dallas would most certainly lose. The Lions lead in both categories at the moment, and their strength of schedule the rest of the way is stronger than Dallas’, meaning their advantages at the moment would likely hold through the end of the year.

Oddly enough, it might be the two teams with the most separation from Dallas at the moment where the Cowboys could have favorable tiebreaker scenarios.

Seattle is a game and a half ahead of Dallas, and depending on Monday Night Football’s outcome, will be either one or two games ahead of the Cowboys with six to play. The good news is that Dallas will get a direct opportunity to gain a game on the Seahawks and win the ultimate Wild Card tiebreaker with their head-to-head matchup on December 24th. That game also marks the return of Ezekiel Elliott.

The Panthers have sizable leads over the Cowboys in tiebreakers 3-5, and the Cowboys won’t play them this season, but Dallas is fortunate to be in a dead-heat with Carolina on the first applicable tiebreaker between them: conference record. Dallas is currently 4-4 within the NFC, and Carolina is 4-3. Carolina has just one AFC opponent left, which means if Dallas were to make up two games to even bring the tiebreaker into play, the Panthers will have made up the loss column difference.

SO WHAT ARE THEIR ODDS?

I know it’s been a troubling couple of weeks for the Cowboys, but the fact of the matter is that they are still in reasonable striking distance for the Wild Card. They have to play better football down the stretch though.

Dallas is tied with Green Bay at the moment, but the Packers are 1-4 since Aaron Rodgers went down for the year. It’s not difficult to envision the Cowboys winning at least one more game than the Packers in the final six.

Dallas will either be a game back or tied with Atlanta after Monday Night Football, but the Falcons have by far the most difficult remaining schedule of the five Wild Card contenders. Atlanta still has to play Seattle on the road (6-3), Minnesota (8-2) and Carolina (7-3) at home, and then split home and away with the Saints (8-2). Dallas is the only team of the five contenders who has a below .500 strength of schedule the rest of the way. Just like with Green Bay, it’s not terribly difficult to envision Dallas winning more of these final six than Atlanta.

Seattle has lost two of their All-Pro defensive backs recently in Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Add to the fact, as previously mentioned, that the Cowboys will definitely get the chance to make up at least one game’s difference on Christmas Eve, and now you’re just looking for Dallas to win one more game than Seattle over the other five.

Carolina, like Atlanta, has a difficult stretch ahead, with road games against New Orleans and Atlanta, and a home match-up with the Vikings. Remember, Dallas needs the conference record tiebreaker against the Panthers, and Carolina’s final stretch is loaded with difficult NFC opponents.

The one team that appears like it will be a difficult one to pass is Detroit, unless they completely fall apart down the stretch. We’ve looked at how the Lions have the upper hand in many of the tiebreakers, but they also have the easiest schedule next to Dallas over the final six. Detroit is also the only one of Dallas’ four Wild Card rivals who doesn’t play two of its last six games against the Wild Card group. Whereas Seattle, Carolina, Atlanta, and Green Bay could conceivably beat up on each other and allow Dallas to make up independent ground, the Lions only remaining Wild Card opponent is Green Bay in the final week of the season.

WHO TO ROOT FOR

It may sound crazy, but Dallas could potentially lose again on Thanksgiving and feel no real impact on their standing. It wouldn’t be optimal, but the Chargers have no impact on any of the tiebreakers we’re considering here. The truly “must-win” games for Dallas the rest of the season will be the four NFC games against Washington on November 30th, New York on December 10th, Seattle on December 24th, and Philadelphia on December 31st. You can split with the AFC teams and likely be OK, but you have to sweep the NFC for tiebreaker purposes. The Cowboys can’t afford anymore conference losses the rest of the way.

For the other four Wild Card contenders, here are the specifics on what you need from each team in order for Dallas to finish above them:

FOR CAROLINA

In addition to Dallas’ split of the AFC games, and a sweep of the NFC opponents, the Cowboys need Carolina to play .500 football in their final six games. You have to cheer for two (maybe three if they beat the Jets next week) losses in Carolina’s final five games against New Orleans, Minnesota, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta.

If the Cowboys go 5-1 with a clean sweep of NFC opponents, and Carolina finishes 3-3, then both are 10-6 with the Cowboys winning out on conference record.

FOR GREEN BAY AND ATLANTA

It’s pretty simple for these two: you have to win more games than them. Again assuming a 5-1 finish from the Cowboys, you would need the Packers to go no better than 4-2, and the Falcons to go no better than 4-3. Any combination of wins and losses is fine for these two, since Dallas won’t get a strength of victory boost from their records.

FOR SEATTLE

There is an argument to be made that Dallas’ most important game the rest of the way is Christmas Eve against the Seahawks. Win that game, and you just have to make up one game’s difference in the other five. One item to watch would be the NFC West race as a whole. It’s imperative that the Rams hold onto the NFC West, because Seattle catching them would mean subbing Los Angeles into the Wild Card race; a team Dallas lost the tiebreaker to in October.

FOR DETROIT

Again, the Lions might be the most difficult to catch in terms of a tiebreaker standpoint, but it can be done. If Dallas hits the 5-1 mark down the stretch, they would finish above Detroit if the Lions simply lose two against any combination of Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Green Bay. The other two games on Detroit’s schedule would be irrelevant if the Cowboys took care of business against the NFC and split with the Raiders and Chargers.

SO STARTING TONIGHT…

Cheer for the Seahawks. Dallas will get their crack at Seattle, but they’ve already inflicted damage with their loss to the Falcons. The Cowboys need help from Atlanta opponents, and fans should hope that begins tonight with Seattle.

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