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2021 NFC Playoff Scenarios: How Week 18 Could Affect Cowboys Seeding

With only one week left in the 2021 regular season, the Dallas Cowboys and several other NFC teams still aren’t sure what they’ll be getting in the playoffs. The Week 18 schedule carries plenty of weight in determining seeding and first-round matchups.

The only thing certain right now is that the Green Bay Packers are the number-one seed and will enjoy all the perks that come with it. But seeds 2-7 are still up for grabs and one outside team, the New Orleans Saints, still has a chance to grab a wild card spot away from the 49ers.

Today, we’re going to break down how the Cowboys can still land in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th seed depending on this weekend’s results. Then tomorrow we’ll dig into the potential wild card teams and what could lead to any of them visiting Dallas in the first round.

Here are the current NFC standings for the top-four seeds playoffs:

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-3 overall, 9-2 vs NFC)
  2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4 overall, 8-3 vs NFC)
  3. Tampa Bay Bucs (12-4 overall, 7-4 vs NFC)
  4. Dallas Cowboys (11-5 overall, 9-2 vs NFC)
  5. Arizona Cardinals (11-5 overall, 7-4 vs NFC)

Also, here are the four games this week that could affect the seedings:

  • Cowboys @ Eagles
  • 49ers @ Rams
  • Panthers @ Buccaneers
  • Seahawks @ Cardinals

So now, let’s dig into each potential seeding for the Dallas Cowboys and what outcomes could cause it.

Cowboys as 4th Seed

This is the easiest one to discuss as it’s where Dallas currently stands. They would host the 5th-seeded Arizona Cardinals in the first round based on present information. But while the 5th seed is certain to be either the Cardinals or the Los Angeles Rams at this point, the Cowboys could still move up the bracket and catch an easier wild card opponent.

The following Week 18 outcomes would lock Dallas in as the 4th seed:

Cowboys LOSS – Naturally, if Dallas loses to Philadelphia on Saturday night then they can’t improve their current seeding. They can’t drop any lower than 4th as a division winner but they would be set in that spot and facing whoever finishes second in the NFC West in the first round.

Cowboys, Bucs, Rams all WIN – The same logic applies if Dallas, Tampa Bay, and Los Angeles all win their Week 18 games. The current standings would hold and the Cowboys would remain in the 4th seed.

Cowboys WIN, Bucs WIN, Rams LOSS, Cardinals WIN – In this scenario, Tampa would ascend to the 2nd seed and you’d have Dallas and Arizona tied at 12-5. Remember that the Cardinals now have a head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas from last week. So even if we finish tied overall, that would give them the edge over the Cowboys.

Cowboys WIN, Bucs LOSS, Rams LOSS, Cardinals WIN – But what if Tampa Bay loses? Even still, you’d now have a three-way between Dallas, Tampa, and Arizona and both the Bucs and Cardinals have head-to-head wins over us. The Cowboys would be last in line and still the 4th seed.

As you can see, this makes the 4th seed the most likely finishing spot for Dallas. Not only could a single loss to the Eagles make it official, but several other mixes of other game results could also lead to that outcome.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott & QB Dak Prescott

Cowboys as 3rd Seed

Cowboys WIN, Bucs WIN, Rams LOSS, Cardinals LOSS – There’s only one sequence of events that could lead to Dallas rising up to the 3rd seed. If the Cowboys and Bucs win their games while both NFC West teams lose, that would give the Rams the division but pull them into a tie with the Cowboys for overall record. Dallas has the better record against the NFC this year so they would win the tiebreaker and jump up to 3rd.

Cowboys as 2nd Seed

Cowboys WIN, Bucs LOSS, Rams, LOSS, Cardinals LOSS – This one’s pretty simple; Dallas has to win and the rest of Arizona, Los Angeles, and Tampa Bay all have to lose. That would pull the Bucs and Rams back down into a three-way tie with the Cowboys and allow Dallas’ superior record against NFC opponents to have power. Even though Tampa has the head-to-head tiebreaker, it’s nullified in a three-way scenario with the Rams.

While this is highly unlikely, and especially with all of these other teams playing at home, you never know who might take their foot off the pedal with playoffs spots already clinched.

~ ~ ~

In conclusion, it’s pretty clear that the Dallas Cowboys will likely be the 4th seed and host either the Cardinals or Rams in the first round. But the games still have to be played and, between COVID and other factors, this 2021 season’s already been full of surprises.

If the Cowboys can move up to 2nd or 3rd, who might they wind up playing between the 49ers, Eagles, and Saints? Come back tomorrow and we’ll dive into the wild card teams.

What do you think?


Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!


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  1. How come there are two identical scenarios with different outcomes? Cowboys win, Bucs, Rams, Cardinals lose. First says 4th ranked and second says 2nd ranked??

  2. Wouldn’t a 3way tie Dal Arz & TB still move DAL to the 2seed? Instead of 4? 3 way tie would move to CONF record. Hence why DAL has been seeded ahead of TB for the past couple weeks. DAL would still have the better CONF record than both ARZ & TB

    • Good question, Ronnie. You’re right that the 3-way tie between Dallas, Tampa, and Los Angeles has nullified the head-to-head that the Bucs have over the Cowboys. However, that’s only because the Rams and Cowboys didn’t play each other this year.

      If the 3-way becomes Arizona/Dallas/Tampa, both the Cardinals and Bucs would have head-to-head wins over Dallas. According to the rules, that automatically knocks us down to third.

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