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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

DL Kerry Hyder Helps Solidify A Re-Tooled Defensive Line

Kevin Brady



DL Kerry Hyder Helps Solidify A Re-Tooled Defensive Line

The Cowboys got off to a busy start to week two of free agency on Monday, and capped it off by signing defensive lineman Kerry Hyder to a one year deal.

The former Detroit Lion could be classified as a "one year wonder" of sorts, but when you look closer at his career arc, you see that Hyder can provide upside at multiple positions across the Cowboys' defensive front.

After having 8 sacks and 19 quarterback hits as a defensive end in 2016, Hyder missed all of 2017 with an achilles injury. Last season, under new head coach Matt Patricia, Hyder was moved out of position and forced to play as a nose tackle and 5-technique more often.

So, the last time Hyder was healthy and playing in the role in he will likely fill in Dallas, he was productive. Yes that was a couple of seasons ago but it makes Hyder worth the one year deal he received from the Cowboys.

What exactly is that role, though?

I see Hyder primarily as a rotational 3-technique for the Cowboys. At just 270 pounds Hyder isn't going to play over the center often, and won't be very useful as a 1-technique against the run. He's at his best when lining on the outside shade of an offensive lineman, where he can use his get-off and quickness to create pressure.

Kerry Hyder can also fill in at defensive end if needed, especially when the Cowboys go into a nickel package. Hyder is similar to Tyrone Crawford in his ability to move inside and out, but is a bit better of a pass rusher than Crawford when at his best.

Hyder is a high energy, motor, and character defensive lineman who will fit right in with a Rod Marinelli unit. If it all clicks for Hyder and he regains his 2016 form, the Cowboys will have stolen an impressive pass rushing defensive lineman who can win from multiple positions.

If Hyder is actually a "one year wonder" who is more of his 2018-self with the Cowboys despite being put in a better role to succeed, Dallas can move on rather quickly because he is only on a one year deal.

This is a smart signing by the Cowboys front office as they look to re-tool their defensive line, and avoid being pigeon-holed into over-drafting at a certain position this Spring.

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Star Blog

New Cowboys WR Randall Cobb Announces His Signing With A Fantastic GIF

Kevin Brady



New Cowboys WR Randall Cobb Announces His Signing With A Fantastic GIF

On Tuesday this week it became official the Cowboys would sign former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb to a one year deal worth an estimated $5 million. After his visit Monday morning, speculation around whether and when he would sign was swirling.

Cobb confirmed his intentions to join the Cowboys himself, and did so with some A+ GIF usage on Twitter.

Randall Cobb on Twitter

Randall Cobb on Twitter

In case you don't know, the GIF Cobb tweeted is Woody from Toy Story, emerging confidently and tipping his cap.

This was Cobb signaling that he his a Cowboy, and he appears excited to be joining America's Team. Cobb also received some social media love from his now former teammates in Green Bay, including wide receiver Davante Adams and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Davante Adams on Twitter

Go do ya thang 18. Can't thank u enough for guiding me through this thing and showing us all how to be a pro. Love u brudda I'm excited for your next chapter ✊🏾 #187

RJ Ochoa on Twitter

Aaron Rodgers had some parting words for new Cowboys WR Randall Cobb

Clearly Randall Cobb made an impact in Green Bay, both on and off the field. Let's hope he can replicate some of that in Dallas now that he has joined the Cowboys.

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Star Blog

Malik McDowell Is Well Worth The Risk For The Dallas Cowboys

Kevin Brady



Malik McDowell, Michigan State

The Dallas Cowboys are reportedly brining defensive lineman Malik McDowell into The Star this week for a visit, as they decide whether or not to potentially sign him for the 2019 season.

McDowell is a former second round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, who fell to day two because of what scouts call "off the field" or "character" concerns. McDowell did not last long with Seahawks, as he was released in 2017 following an ATV accident in which he reportedly suffered "extensive brain and eye trauma" according to Charles Robinson.

None of us know much about who Malik McDowell is as a person, or what concerns their really should be with his health. But what I do know is that on tape at Michigan State, McDowell was a top 5-10 player in the 2017 draft class. He was a stud, and has the traits to continue to be a stud in the NFL.

2017 NFL Draft: Scouting Michigan State DL Malik McDowell - Slant Sports

The 2017 NFL Draft is chock full of talented, athletic, and productive defensive linemen. While most of the draft pundits have focused on EDGE rushers thus far, the defensive tackle class also possesses some of this year's top NFL prospects. Arguably the best of those defensive tackles is Michigan State's Malik McDowell.

Back in 2017 I wrote a full scouting report on McDowell, detailing why he earned such a high grade on my board. McDowell is a versatile linemen who is explosive off the ball, powerful and rangy against the run, and a skilled pass rusher who plays with a high motor. What more could you really ask for?

"McDowell is a patient pass rusher at times, setting up the blocker how he likes and then beating them with ease. McDowell’s ability to swipe hands off helps him greatly, but his quick swim is his most effective pass rush move.

On this play he uses that swim to perfection, forcing the center to power down to the right before swimming back to the other side."

nfldraft malik mcdowell 3

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

When the Spartans went to a three man pass rushing front, McDowell moved to the EDGE often and made plays with his quick, active hands and impressive swim move. He was much more impressive on the interior, however, and could be a direct replacement for David Irving as an explosive and powerful 3-technique for the Cowboys.

nfldraft malik mcdowell 4

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

I love that the Cowboys are bringing McDowell in for a free agent visit. His price will likely be low, as he is yet to play in an NFL game over the last two years, but his ceiling remains very high if he is healthy. It's rare for a player with his college production, natural ability, and measurables to completely fail in the NFL.

Maybe all McDowell needs is a second chance to get his head right and prove that he belongs in the league. Maybe he flames out quickly and can't get on the field due to "off the field" stuff. Or, maybe he simply isn't healthy enough to contribute as an NFL player. Regardless, for the price he'll likely command, McDowell is well worth the risk if the Cowboys are willing to take it.

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