The Dallas Cowboys have only mission this week; defeating the San Francisco 49ers in their first-round playoff game. But the greater goal of advancing in the tournament and winning the Super Bowl is on everyone's minds, and that brings all other NFC wild card action into relevance.
Because of the NFL's playoff format Dallas doesn't really know what comes next if they get the job done against the 49ers. Depending on what happens in the other two wild card games, the Cowboys could wind up hosting the Arizona Cardinals or the Los Angeles Rams or having to go on the road to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For those who may not be very familiar with how the NFL playoffs work, let's dig into the scenarios a bit.
This isn't like March Madness or many other tournament brackets you may have seen in other sports and leagues. The road to the championship isn't laid out from beginning to end; there are far more variables at work based on reseeding in the second round (aka “divisional round”).
The most important element to this discussion is the constant rule that the highest seeds always host the lowest seeds. This is how the current week's schedule is established and the same rule will create the divisional round matchups.
For reference, here's a quick reminder of the final seedings for the NFC in 2021:
- Green Bay Packers
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Dallas Cowboys
- Los Angeles Rams
- Arizona Cardinals
- San Francisco 49ers
- Philadelphia Eagles
As you should already know, the seedings led to Bucs-Eagles, Cowboys-49ers, and Rams-Cardinals as your first-round matchups. The Packers await the results of those games to see who travels to Green Bay in the second round.
By moving up to the third seed, Dallas ensured that they won't be one of those teams. Someone else between the Cardinals, Rams, or Eagles is guaranteed to be a lower seed in the second round than the Cowboys.
If the higher-seeded home teams handle their business, that would send the Rams to Green Bay (#4 vs #1) and put the Cowboys back in Tampa Bay (#3 vs #2) for a rematch from Week 1.
If the Eagles can surprise the Bucs, seventh-seeded Philadelphia would be the lowest surviving seed and would play the Packers next. Assuming Dallas defeats San Francisco, they would get another home game in the second round and host the winner of Rams-Cardinals.
Really, the key game here is Philadelphia at Tampa Bay. A Bucs win ensures that the Cowboys would have to go to Tampa in the divisional round. Hosting either Arizona or Los Angeles in the second round is only on the table if the Eagles pull off the upset.
Interestingly enough, Philly and Tampa will play right before Dallas with the early kickoff on Sunday. That means we'll know that result either before or very early into the Cowboys-49ers game. If the Eagles can overcome the odds, then we'd have to wait for Rams-Cardinals on Monday night to find out who our next playoff opponent would be.
Of course, all of this is moot if Dallas doesn't get the job done in their own first-round game. But nobody, from Jerry Jones all the way down to even the casual Cowboys fans, is content with a win over the 49ers this Sunday. Our collective sights are set higher, putting the entire NFC playoff picture on our radar until the mission is complete.