The Dallas Cowboys’ slim hopes of catching the Green Bay Packers for the top overall seed dropped to none last Sunday night, when the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings to put the top spot out of reach.
The Cowboys are guaranteed to slot into one of the other top four spots as the champions of the NFC East, but the deck is currently stacked against them rising up beyond the No. 4 seed after the Cowboys’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17.
Still, hope remains eternal in Dallas, and there are a pair of paths that would lift the Cowboys out of the No. 4 slot. Here are the scenarios that could earn Dallas a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NFC Playoffs:
To get any seeds higher than No. 4, the Cowboys need to take care of business Saturday
The Cowboys finish the regular season by playing the second game of the Saturday doubleheader, taking on the Eagles in Philadelphia. That the Cowboys have clinched the NFC East with an 11-5 record is hardly a surprise. It’s their opponent, the Eagles, locked into a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record, that is the unexpected story of this game.
The Eagles are playing their best football of the season at the perfect time, having won four in a row and 6 of 7 to reverse a 3-6 start that included a 41-21 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3.
Dallas is still smarting after the loss to the Cardinals last Sunday that ended their hopes for catching the Packers for the top seed and all but locking them into the No. 4 seed. But if the Cowboys want any chance of moving up to No. 2, where they could get a rematch with the Eagles, or No. 3, they must take care of business on Sunday. Even a victory doesn’t guarantee them a chance to move up, but it would be a start.
The key to moving up in the seedings relies entirely on the outcomes in the NFC West
Should the Cowboys win on Sunday, Dallas would need help from the two games taking place within the NFC West, specifically losses by the Los Angeles Rams and Cardinals.
At 11-5, the Cowboys own the tiebreaker over the Rams (12-4), so Dallas would need the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Rams on Sunday, giving Dallas and Los Angeles identical 12-5 records, kicking in the tiebreaker.
But because the Cowboys just lost to the 11-5 Cardinals, the Cowboys would also need Arizona to lose to Seattle. If the Rams lose and Arizona wins, the Cardinals clinch the NFC West and win the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Cowboys. And if the Cardinals, Cowboys, and Buccaneers all finish tied at 12-5, Dallas again finishes at the bottom of that tiebreaker stack, keeping them locked into the No. 4 seed.
But if the Cardinals and Rams both lose, the Cowboys will move up. How high depends on one final outcome.
The Buccaneers-Panthers game holds the final key to the Cowboys moving up
Week 1 seems like a lot more than 17 weeks ago, but it should be noted that in the very first game of the 2021 regular season, the Buccaneers defeated the Cowboys, and all these weeks later, that outcome is factoring heavily into the final seeding order in the NFC.
Should Dallas win Saturday and the Rams and Cardinals lose, the Cowboys would either finish in the No. 2 seed or the No. 3 slot, depending entirely on what the Buccaneers do against the Panthers.
If the Buccaneers win, they finish 13-4 and are the No. 2 seed in the NFC. But if the Buccaneers lose to fall to 12-5, into a three-way tie with the Cowboys and Rams, the relevant tiebreaker would shift to conference record, and there the Cowboys have a better mark than either the Rams or Buccaneers and that would give the Cowboys the No. 2 seed.