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Complete Breakdown of Cowboys Playoff Scenarios

Jess Haynie



A Cowboys Win vs Giants Can't Be Taken For Granted 1
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With two weeks left in the regular season, the 8-6 Dallas Cowboys are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Despite all of the turmoil that has hit the Cowboys in 2017, they could still sneak into the tournament and end the year on a surprisingly positive note.

Before we dive into all of the scenarios, here is the current playoff picture in the NFL. Our focus today will of course be on the NFC, where the Cowboys play. I'm sure we'd all agree that if Dallas could actually play another AFC team this season, we'll be damn happy with whoever we get.

NFC Playoff Picture


Today, we're going to get into every possible scenario that would allow the Cowboys to make the playoffs. Our focus will be on the other NFC teams that have to lose for Dallas to make it in. Just know that the Cowboys have to win their next two games (vs Seahawks, @ Eagles) to even be in the mix for a playoff spot.

These scenarios aren't that complex, really. The Cowboys need for at least one of the three contending teams from the NFC South, New Orleans, Carolina, or Atlanta, to go 0-2 in these final two weeks. We'll look at each teams' remaining schedule for just how likely any of that is.

That's not all. Dallas also needs for the Detroit Lions to lose one of their final two games. Both are currently tied at 8-6 overall and, if they remain tied at the end of the year, would also have identical 8-4 records in the conference. That means it goes to the "common games" tiebreaker, and we'll explain shortly why that's not good for the Cowboys.

Drew Brees

New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees

Scenario 1: Saints Go Marching Out

  • WK 16 -- Atlanta Falcons
  • WK 17 -- @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It's hard to fathom New Orleans losing both of these games. They will be looking for revenge after losing to Atlanta a few weeks ago. And if they were to lose that games, the Saints would be playing for their playoff lives the following week against a weak Bucs team. They have too good a coach and quarterback to just completely collapse with so much on the line.

However, if the unthinkable happened, the Saints would be 10-6 and 7-5 against NFC teams. If Dallas wins out, they will also be 10-6 but have an 8-4 record against the NFC. With no head-to-head tiebreaker to worry about, the Cowboys would move ahead of New Orleans for playoff seeding. In this scenario, Dallas would likely be the 6th seed with Carolina winning the NFC South and Atlanta taking the 5th-seed Wild Card.

Cam Newton

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton

Scenario 2: Panthers Plummet

  • WK 16 -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • WK 17 -- @ Atlanta Falcons

I don't trust Carolina quite as much as New Orleans, but they get the benefit of playing the Buccaneers at home rather than in Tampa. While last night's game showed the Bucs are still willing to fight even with nothing to play for, the Panthers have won six of their last seven games.

If the Bucs can pull off the upset this week, that Week 17 game in Atlanta becomes a matter of survival for the Panthers. If the Falcons were to also lose this week in New Orleans, which seems likely, then it essentially be a "Loser Leaves Town" match as one of them would miss the playoffs.

Pressure goes one of two ways in sports; it either drives or distracts you. Cam Newton has a great play when things are running smoothly, but he doesn't always respond well to adversity. That could give the Cowboys the opening they need.

Matt Ryan

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan

Scenario 3: Falcons Collapse, Again

  • WK 16 -- @ New Orleans Saints
  • WK 17 -- Carolina Panthers

This is, by far, the most-likely scenario for Dallas to get into the playoffs. The Falcons will have a hard time sweeping the Saints with the second game in New Orleans. The Saints can clinch a playoff spot with their 11th win and push for one of the top two seeds in the NFC. They will be plenty motivated.

After what we saw last night in Tampa Bay, and for most of this year, the Falcons are clearly not the same team every week. Which version shows up to these final two games? There is an Atlanta team that can absolutely beat the Saints and Panthers, but there's one that could easily lose out and slide right out of the playoffs.

If Atlanta splits the two games, that doesn't help the Cowboys. They have that head-to-head tiebreaker from beating Dallas in Week 10 and that would keep them on top. They have to lose both for Dallas to pass them in the playoff standings.

Matthew Stafford

Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford

Detroit Lions & Common Games

  • WK 16 -- @ Cincinnati Bengals
  • WK 17 -- Green Bay Packers

So yeah, even if Dallas catches a break and one those NFC South teams goes 0-2, we also need the Lions to drop a game and get out of the way. If they win out, Detroit would match Dallas in overall record (10-6) and conference record (8-4). That would bring the common games tiebreaker into play, which work in the Lions' favor.

This year, Dallas and Detroit share the following opponents: Arizona, Atlanta, Green Bay, NY Giants. In this scenario, Dallas will have gone 3-2 against those teams and Detroit will have gone 4-1. The games against division rivals (NY for the Cowboys, GB for the Lions) do count twice.

Dallas lost to both Atlanta and Green Bay. The Lions will have one loss from the Falcons but will have swept the Packers and beaten the Cardinals and Giants. Therefore, Detroit would get the common games tiebreaker.

What's worse, Detroit has a pretty easy road ahead of them. This week they get a Bengals team who just announced that their head coach is a lame duck. Maybe Cincinnati's veterans fight hard to send Marvin Lewis out in style, but they're 5-9 and haven't beaten a good team all season.

If they get that win, the Lions then head home to welcome what should be a Brett Hundley-led Packers team. After losing last week and being eliminated from playoff contention, Green Bay will likely put Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve. I'm sure they'll still play for pride against a hated rival, but the Lions are the better team this year and will have way more motivation.

So again, three things have to happen for the Dallas Cowboys to still make the playoffs:

  1. Dallas has to win out and finish 10-6.
  2. Either the Falcons, Panthers, or Saints has to go 0-2 in the final weeks.
  3. Detroit has to lose one of their final two games.

Now, there is one other fantastic scenario where both the Panthers and Saints go 0-2 while Dallas and Detroit win out. That would put all four teams at 10-6 with the Cowboys and Lions having the better records against NFC teams. That means Dallas and Detroit are your Wild Cards while Atlanta wins the NFC South. This is so unlikely, though, that it's barely worth consideration.


Can the Cowboys still get in even if they finish 9-7?

Unfortunately not. The Saints and Panthers already have 10 wins. Even if the Falcons finish 9-7 as well, they have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys from their Week 10 victory. Dallas has to win out and finish 10-6 to have any shot at the playoffs.

Is there any scenario where Dallas can clinch a playoff spot in Week 16?

None. At best, Dallas can jump from #9 to #7 in the NFC if they beat Seattle and the Lions also lose. But even if Carolina and Atlanta both lose this week, they would still hold on to their Wild Card spots thanks to better records (Panthers) and tie breakers (Falcons).

Why didn't we just win one or two more games this year and avoid all this mess?

This year is a great reminder of why every game counts in an NFL season. If just a couple of plays had gone differently against the Rams or Packers in Weeks 4-5, Dallas would not only be in the driver's seat for a Wild Card spot but could even be pushing the Eagles to still take the NFC East.

But alas, we have the situation we have. All Dallas can do is keep winning and hope the other playoff contenders don't do the same.

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!


Star Blog

Dak Prescott Impresses, Draws Compliments All Minicamp Long

Kevin Brady



Dak Prescott and Coaches Both to Blame for Cowboys Offensive Woes
James D. Smith via AP

Dak Prescott stood before the media Thursday in a Stetson Cowboy hat, answering questions about his upcoming contract extension.

“I’ve got my cowboy hat on, so I’m a Cowboy, we’ll say that.”

Prescott has cemented himself as the franchise quarterback of America's Team, and now it's time for the franchise to pay him like it. Set to earn roughly $34 million per year (according to recent rumors/reports), Prescott is going to be a very rich and comfortable man in the near future.

But, for now, he still plays under his fourth round rookie contract. You wouldn't be able to tell by watching him on the field, however. Though it was just minicamp, Prescott was impressive as ever over the last couple weeks of practice, earning praise from all levels within the organization.

Veteran Jason Witten complimented both Prescott's anticipation and accuracy, saying his throws have been "off the charts" at minicamp. Prescott himself said that this is the best he's felt since he's entered the league, and it certainly makes sense for this to be the case.

"Is it three years under my belt or just seeing defenses a whole lot more clear, being quicker and faster in everything I want to do, having great teammates around me? Who really knows the answer, but I feel great. I feel confident, and my teammates do, as well.” - Prescott to

If Prescott was ever going to be comfortable, hungry, and ready to go, this is likely the time that it would happen. He has three relatively successful seasons under his belt, and ended 2018 on the best stretch of his career. He is the unquestioned starting quarterback for this team, and has the backing of every key decision maker in the building.

Prescott now has an offensive coordinator who he has not only worked closely with (in some capacity) since he entered the league in 2016, but is also being lauded for his creativity as an offensive mastermind. His quarterbacks coach, Jon Kitna, has been receiving similar praise for how he can coach up Prescott and get his footwork consistent, to help him "throw it through a Fruit Loop."

The time is now for Dak Prescott, and it's encouraging to see how he is responding to this increased pressure and responsibility. Then again we should have no doubt that he will respond positively, as he as throughout his entire young career.

Whenever faced with adversity, Prescott has answered the bell. Now he has all the supporters he needs, and just needs to prove them right.

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Star Blog

Does RB Ezekiel Elliott Have A Chance At NFL MVP?

Kevin Brady



Ezekiel Elliott

Who is the Cowboys best player?

A question debated seemingly daily on social media, most fans seem to center their arguments around the same few names. Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Ezekiel Elliott.

As a running back, it's quite possible that Elliott is both the best of that bunch and the least important to the team's overall success.'s Adam Schein disagrees with the latter statement, however, placing Ezekiel Elliott among his top ten contenders for 2019 NFL MVP.

"I think the Cowboys are going to challenge for the Super Bowl in 2019 -- and I think Zeke fuels this team. When Elliott runs for 95-plus yards, the Cowboys are 19-4; when he falls below that benchmark, they're 9-8." - Adam Schein

Schein's prediction will no doubt make Cowboys Nation swoon, but does Elliott really have the opportunity to compete for an MVP award?

For one, this would require the Cowboys be among the best teams in the league this season. It's quite possible, as they did win 10 regular season and 1 playoff game a year ago, but it will have to happen once again for Elliott to be considered.

Next, Ezekiel Elliott would have to put up incredible numbers. Well, it's safe to assume this will likely be the case if condition one is met. Elliott is going to get a lot of opportunities to touch the ball each game, and finding himself among the league's rushing leaders has never been an issue for the young running back. Especially if the team has a lead and is running the ball to kill clock.

Even if both these conditions prove true, though, Elliott will still have trouble getting himself in the real MVP discussion. These awards tend to go to certain positions, and running back is not among that list. If Dallas has such a successful 2019, and their offense is clicking, it's more likely Dak Prescott will be the one contending for that MVP honor.

I know to some it sounds crazy, but Prescott will likely need to be closer to MVP level than Elliott if the Cowboys are to contend in the way Adam Schein suggests in his article.

So, likely, Schein should have named Prescott among his top ten MVP contenders, not Elliott.

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Star Blog

Amari Cooper Says He’s Focused On Football, Not His Next Contract

Kevin Brady



Report: Cowboys Waiting Until After Season for Amari Cooper Contract Talks 1

It seems like all anyone has talked about this offseason is who the Cowboys should re-sign, and how they can go about doing so.

Wide receiver Amari Cooper, of course, is heavily involved in those conversations. The Cowboys used their 2019 first round pick to trade for the Pro Bowl wide out last season, and Cooper's emergence helped to turn their struggling offense around immediately.

In just 9 games with the Cowboys last season, he caught 53 passes for 725 yards and 6 touchdowns. He quickly gained the trust of quarterback Dak Prescott, and exhibited a chemistry with the young passer that no one else really has to this point. Outside of maybe Cole Beasley in 2016, perhaps.

While the football world seems to be focusing on what Amari Cooper's contract will look like after 2019, the receiver himself claims to be solely focused on the upcoming season. Cooper spoke with ESPN's Todd Archer about this very subject, emphasizing where his mind lies at this time.

"I just handle my business...I'm more anxious about camp and actually playing football." - Amari Cooper.

Amari Cooper has just one year left on his contract as he plays under the fifth year option from his rookie deal. Cooper will make $13.9 million this season, putting him behind some of the league's other WR1s like Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, and DeAndre Hopkins.

There had been speculation around whether any of the Cowboys left with just one year on their contract would hold-out through parts of offseason activity, but Cooper alluded that it never seemed to cross his mind.

"I just want to get better and I love football. That's why I'm here" - Cooper.

Of course, Amari Cooper will play a huge role in the Cowboys offense in 2019. Combining him with a second year version of Michael Gallup, and new versatile threats like Tony Pollard and Randall Cobb, will help make the Dallas passing game as multiple as it's been in years.

The Cowboys will eventually need to get Amari Cooper locked up long term, but for the time being it seems like both he and the franchise are more focused on what will happen on the field in 2019 than in the negotiating room next Spring.

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