The playoff chase in the NFC is going to come down to the wire, especially with teams playing a 17-game schedule for the first time in NFL history. And when the division races and top-seed chase are so hotly contested as they are with three games remaining, the byzantine nature of the tiebreaker protocols will start producing some strange brews.
So it is that the Dallas Cowboys find themselves perched in the No. 2 slot behind the Green Bay Packers for the top overall seed and a first-round bye in the NFC Playoffs. And that undoubtedly had folks looking at the current standings a bit askew. We know it feels like a lifetime ago, but didn’t the third-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Cowboys back in Week 1? Should those standings be flip-flopped accordingly?
Actually, and obviously, no. We can explain.
Three is a crowd, and that’s good news for the Cowboys
The Detroit Lions did a lot of teams a huge favor by beating the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday for just their second win of the season. The Los Angeles Rams were probably the biggest benefactor of their former quarterback Jared Goff’s winning performance on Sunday.
But the Cowboys also got a huge break as a result of the Lions’ victory. By dropping the Cardinals into a three-way tie with the Cowboys and Buccaneers after Sunday’s games, Tampa Bay’s head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over Dallas goes away, by virtue of the Cardinals having not played both the Cowboys and Buccaneers, as well.
That forced the trio to drop down one rung on the tiebreaker ladder to conference record, and that is where the Cowboys picked up their advantage. Dallas enters Week 16 with an 8-1 record in the NFC – the lone loss coming to the Buccaneers – while Tampa and Arizona both dropped to 6-4 with their losses on Sunday.
The Rams made it a four-way tie at 10-4 with their victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Tuesday night, but that only solidified Dallas’ grip on the No. 2 seed. As long as the Cowboys and Buccaneers remain tied, with at least one other team tied with them, the Cowboys will continue to hold the advantage as long as their conference record remains the best of the bunch. But come Week 17, something is going to have to give.
The NFC East title is now one win (or one Eagles loss) away
While the Cowboys are No. 2 in the conference, they are very much No. 1 in the NFC East. At 10-4, the Cowboys lead the Philadelphia Eagles, the only team with any mathematical chance of catching them for the division title, by three games with three to go. The Eagles took out the only other real threat, the Washington Football Team, on Tuesday night.
The simple version requires Dallas to win or tie just one of their final three games, and if they lose all three, the Eagles would have to win their final three just to force a 10-7 tie. Both teams would also have identical division (4-2) and NFC (8-4) records, sending the teams to a strength-of-victory tiebreaker that is heavily favoring the Cowboys heading into Week 16. It’s nearly a lock.
The NFC East title would guarantee the Cowboys a home game in the Wild Card Round of playoffs. The second seed would assure them of a second home playoff game in the Divisional Round. But the real prize remains theirs to take, with a little help.
How the final three weeks shape up for Dallas in its quest to catch the Packers
The Cowboys and Packers did not play each other in the regular season, so the Cowboys’ 8-1 record in the NFC could prove pivotal in their quest for the top overall seed.
The 11-3 Packers are 8-2 in the conference, with an AFC game this Saturday against the Cleveland Browns before finishing the season in the NFC North against the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.
The Cowboys, a game behind the Packers, end their season with home games against Washington and Arizona before a date with the Eagles in Philadelphia that the Cowboys hope only means something to them.
Should the Cowboys win out and the Packers stumble just once, the Cowboys would claim the top overall seed, and would still stay protected from their head-to-head loss to the Buccaneers should Tampa also win out. In fact, the worst-case scenario for Dallas would be the Packers losing twice while Dallas and Tampa win out and the Rams lose once, leaving Dallas and Tampa alone tied with 13-4 records, and the Buccaneers regaining their tiebreaker advantage.
We’ve still got a long way to go.