Dallas Cowboys Playoff Picture: How They Can Steal NFC Top Seed From Packers

The Dallas Cowboys had to be saying to themselves on Monday morning that, hey, if you beat a team by 42 points, that ought to count as two victories. In a tight race for the top seed in the NFC Playoffs and the hotly-coveted first-round bye, every win feels like it counts like double. And the Cowboys need all the help they can get if they want to unseat the Green Bay Packers with two weeks left in the regular season.

The Cowboys currently occupy the No. 2 seed, where they began Week 16. All four teams at the top of the leaderboard were victorious Sunday, with the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers joining Dallas in a tie for second-best record, one game behind the Packers.

So, nothing is settled as the season enters Week 17. But the Cowboys could find themselves entering the final week in a tie for the lead, perhaps even a four-way tie. What needs to happen for the Cowboys to ultimately emerge as the top seed. Here are the scenarios entering Week 17:

How things in the NFC stand as the Cowboys prepare to face the slumping Cardinals on Sunday

The Dallas Cowboys can stay in the hunt for the NFC top seed with a Week 17 win
Dallas Cowboys | Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys enter the week at 11-4, tied with the Rams and Buccaneers and one game behind the 12-3 Packers. The Cowboys play their final home game of the regular season on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, who were a prominent player in the race for the top seed just three weeks ago, but have now fallen into a devastating three-game losing streak that leaves them with a playoff berth clinched at 10-5, but on the outside looking in for the top seed.

The Buccaneers should be able to keep pace for another week as they take on the New York Jets, but despite their 4-11 record, the Jets do have pair of home wins this season against AFC playoff-bound Tennessee and Cincinnati. The Buccaneers had no trouble with Carolina despite all their missing parts, so even a plucky Jets team shouldn’t really pose a threat here.

The Rams, who would like nothing more than a Dallas victory to hand the Rams the AFC West title, have to come east to play the desperate Baltimore Ravens, who could possibly get Lamar Jackson back this week. Hardly a gimmie this late in the season out-of-conference.

Thanks to the Packers, the Cowboys will be waiting all day for Sunday night

The Packers still control their own destiny in the conference with a 12-3 record, needing only to beat the Minnesota Vikings at home on Sunday night, then take care of the Lions in Detroit in Week 18 and the top seed and first-round bye are theirs.

But a stumble (or two) in the final two weeks opens the door wide for the Cowboys to steal the No. 1 seed. The Cowboys currently own the conference-record tiebreaker over the Packers, and that advantage can only increase if the Cowboys are to pick up a game on the Packers over the final two. So, a common 13-4 or 12-5 finish would give the Cowboys the top spot.

This would also be the case in a three- or four-way tie involving the Rams and/or the Buccaneers, where the Cowboys’ conference mark would carry the day. There could conceivably be a five-way tie including the Cardinals if Dallas loses to Arizona this week, wins in Week 18 and Green Bay loses both of its games, creating a five-way tie at 12-5. In that crowded field, conference record once again would tip the scale in Dallas’ favor.

Another point in the Cowboys’ favor Is that the Vikings always play the Packers tough. Always. The Vikings are 7-4-1 against Green Bay in the past 12 meetings, including the two most recent meetings. And the Lions have to be feeling that knocking off the Packers and muddying up their playoff positioning would make a miserable season suddenly feel like the 16-0 Patriots in 2007.

The tiebreakers are all coming up Cowboys, except for one pesky scenario

There is one scenario that could actually find the Cowboys with the best record in the conference and the best conference record, and still end up as the No. 2 seed.

At the moment, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tied with the Cowboys at 11-4, and they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys courtesy of a Week 1 victory about a million years ago. But they all count the same and that tiebreaker has a chance to enter into play.

Right now, the Cowboys have the tiebreaker advantage because the Rams are also 11-4 and have not played both Dallas and Tampa Bay in the regular season. In such a scenario, where the three teams tied do not have common games against each other, the tiebreaker shifts down a rung to conference record, and this is where Dallas has the advantage.

There is a scenario where the Cowboys go back to a two-team tie with Tampa Bay and lose out on the top seed. If the Cowboys and Buccaneers go 2-0, the Packers somehow lose to both games to Minnesota and Detroit (on the road) and the Rams split, Dallas and Tampa Bay would both be 13-4, and the Packers and Rams would be 12-5.

That would give the Buccaneers the top seed, move Dallas back to No. 2, drop the Packers to No. 3 and the Rams, because of their loss to Green Bay in the regular season, would fall to No. 4.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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