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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!

1 Comment
  • dallas1966

    Jess I can see the Panthers losing their last two games. With the Panthers owner making the announcement that he is selling the team, once the Panthers have played their last game, will be a distraction, because the players on the Panthers will have to address that subject matter, instead of the upcoming games. In addition, to LB Thomas Davis suspension.

Star Blog

Cowboys en Español: Evaluando la Administración

Mauricio Rodriguez



Can we Believe General Manager Jerry Jones?

Entre los aficionados de los Dallas Cowboys, pocas cosas son criticadas tan frecuentemente como la administración de la franquicia que no ha ganado ningún Super Bowl en más de dos décadas. Se ha convertido en un equipo que, a pesar de ser el más valioso en el mundo deportivo, no ha sido nada relevante en el emparrillado. Lo que alguna vez fue una dinastía se ha convertido en una unidad que rompe frecuentemente los corazones de los fans.

Jerry Jones y Stephen Jones, siendo los operadores del ámbito deportivo del negocio familiar, son criticados semana tras semana y en gran parte por justa razón. Pero en gran parte, por cosas no muy válidas.

Cambios de Coach

A mi parecer, lo más criticable para la administración de este equipo viene cuando hablamos de los coaches. Muchos se burlan de los Cincinnati Bengals y de la manera en la que están atascados con el Head Coach Marvin Lewis. Con Jason Garrett al volante, la situación para los Cowboys no es nada diferente.

A mediados de la temporada 2018, no parece que esta narrativa vaya a cambiar. Una vez más, los Cowboys arrancaron de una manera muy inconsistente y ya no sabemos que esperar de ellos. Gran parte de las derrotas, la mayor parte, es el coacheo.

Sin duda el equipo no será exactamente el mismo en 2019, pero ¿serán suficientes los cambios como para decidir quedarse con el mismo capitán que no ha podido mantener el barco navegando por años?

El Draft

A diferencia de como se manejan muchos equipos en la liga, los Jones fungen como general managers de su propio equipo. Con la ayuda de Will McClay han logrado superar varios de los fracasos de los Jones de antaño, pero actualmente, siendo sinceros no han hecho un mal trabajo.

A pesar de las critícas de Abril, Leighton Vander Esch está probando haber valido más que la pena. Siendo objetivos, aparte de Taco Charlton en el 2017, todas las selecciones de primera ronda de los Cowboys han sido valiosas. La línea ofensiva, el corredor, un cornerback que por fin se está perfilando como uno de los mejores en la liga.

En cuanto a la segunda ronda, ha habido varias críticas, muchas con razón. Pero el mejor caza cabezas del equipo, DeMarcus Lawrence, el linebacker Jaylon Smith, Randy Gregory y más están teniendo un impacto muy fuerte en el equipo.

Decisiones difíciles

La administración se ha visto en la necesidad de tomar decisiones bastante difíciles después de una temporada de nueve victorias en 2017. El LB Anthony Hitchens fue liberado, Dan Bailey se fue inesperadamente, se confió en Byron Jones para tomar su opción de quinto año.

Hasta ahora, pura decisión digna de aplaudirse. Pero ninguna como la más reciente de todas: Amari Cooper.

Por más caro que haya salido, los Cowboys merecen bastante crédito por haber mejorado muchísimo su posición de WR. Si el equipo llega a tener una oportunidad esta temporada, será en gran parte por él.

No cabe ninguna duda en mi cabeza de que los Jones han cometido errores a lo largo de los años, el más evidente siendo la resistencia de dejar ir a Jason Garrett. Pero a pesar de esto, la administración ha tomado excelentes decisiones y ha realizado el draft muy bien. En ese aspecto en específico, les aplaudo.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys en Español: Evaluando la Administración" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!

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Star Blog

Sack Numbers Don’t Tell DeMarcus Lawrence’s 2018 Story

Kevin Brady



Breaking Down DeMarcus Lawrence's League High 5.5 Sacks Through Week 4

Coming off of a career year in 2017, many fans expected DeMarcus Lawrence to continue his ridiculous sack production this season. After all, he is once again in a "contract year" due to the franchise tag, and fans are hoping the Cowboys can secure him longterm this offseason.

Through the first four games of 2018, Lawrence looked as ridiculous and unstoppable as ever. He had 5.5 sacks, tied for the league lead, and was dictating the pass protection schemes of every offense the Cowboys were facing.

Since that hot start, though, DeMarcus Lawrence has recorded just 1 sack, falling behind some of the league leaders he was once ahead of. This has some people scratching their heads and wondering if Lawrence's career year in 2017 was just that, a career year. One which he will never replicate again, and one which the Cowboys should factor out when talking contract extensions.

Here's why those people are wrong.

Let's first talk about what makes DeMarcus Lawrence so good, and then we'll get into the full context of the Cowboys defense and how that explains some of the drop in sacks.

Lawrence, unlike some of the league's other top pass rushers, is a complete 4-3 defensive end. He is one of, if not the best run defending defensive ends in football, as shown by his 12 tackles for loss on the season (only Aaron Donald and Danielle Hunter have more).

Much of the year, the Cowboys run defense has boiled down to Lawrence making splash plays, as we saw against the Washington Redskins. Adrian Peterson was gashing the Cowboys during that game, and the only one who did anything to stop him was DeMarcus Lawrence, as indicated by his 3 tackles for loss that Sunday.

There's also the point that 6.5 sacks through half the season is, well, good. It's really good! And when you couple his sack numbers with his solid pressure and QB hit stats, you can see that Lawrence is having a very good season.

Then there is the context of this entire Cowboys defense, specifically their defensive line and pass rush. To put it bluntly, DeMarcus Lawrence has been their only consistent rusher this season. Though we came into the year with high hopes for Randy Gregory, and cautious optimism about first round pick Taco Charlton, neither have been all that impressive this season.

Somebody, anybody, has to step up and become a threat opposite of Lawrence. David Irving could help matters with his interior pass rush ability, but he has been unavailable for basically the entire season.

Without another pass rusher for offense's to even think twice about, Lawrence is getting double teamed and/or chipped by a tight end or running back on just about every rush. It's becoming rare that Lawrence is in a true one-on-one pass rush situation.

Of course, if you are elite, offenses are going to shift protections to you in this way and you still have to find ways to be productive.

And thus far in 2018, DeMarcus Lawrence is doing just that.

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Star Blog

Can QB Dak Prescott Steal Back His Mojo From Atlanta?

Brian Martin



Can Dak Prescott Regain His Mojo Against Atlanta?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dallas Cowboys last traveled to Mercedes-Benz Stadium they were completely throttled by the Atlanta Falcons. It's a game a lot of Cowboys Nation would like to forget, but no one more so than Quarterback Dak Prescott. That game could very well be where his struggles really began.

It's almost exactly a year later and the Dallas Cowboys still find themselves haunted by that brutal beating the Atlanta Falcons handed them in Week 10 of the 2017 season. The Cowboys seemed to lose all confidence in themselves after that game, but it was almost as if it was the exact point in time where Dak Prescott lost all of his mojo as well.

Before that match up against the Falcons, Prescott was still playing at a pretty high level. But since then, he has been in a slump and there have been very few signs of recapturing any of that magic he once had. Heading back to Atlanta maybe the key for him finding and stealing back his mojo.

Things could definitely go a little differently this time around. The Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith in the lineup this week. Zeke missed the game last year due to the league mandated six-game suspension, and Tyron missed due to an injury. Having those two back in the lineup could pay huge dividends, especially for Prescott.

Without his starting left tackle and running back, Dak was pretty much beaten to a pulp by the Falcons defense a year ago. They applied relentless pressure, hitting and sacking him on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, I think that's where he started seeing ghost in the pocket and its haunted him ever since.

Dak Prescott

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

The beating he took at the hands of the Falcons has really thrown off his entire game. His mechanics, accuracy, and effectiveness as a scrambler can all be traced back to that one matchup. He just hasn't been the same QB he was prior to that game.

Prescott's stats prior to the Falcons game:

24 starts
66.7 completion percentage
102.4 passer rating

Prescott's stats since the Falcons game:

17 starts
63.3 completion percentage
83.1 passer rating

As you can see, that's a notable difference. His passer rating has shockingly dropped nearly 20 points since last playing the Falcons and it's really hurt the entire offensive production. It's time for that to change.

Prescott has no choice this week. He has to get back up on the horse that bucked him off and hopefully regain that mojo he left in Atlanta a year ago. Fortunately for him, his confidence might be is as high as it's been since that last meeting after pulling off the upset against the Philadelphia Eagles last week.

Now, he just has to go out and prove it!

Do you think Dak Prescott can regain his mojo against the Atlanta Falcons?

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