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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Could NFC East have two playoff teams?

By Dan Graziano

Mike Sando's getting a little cocky now, in my opinion, drawing up scenarios in which his division could have three playoff teams one year after no one in it won even half of their games. While I think the NFL would get a huge kick out of that, it seems farfetched. But it's not impossible, and neither is a scenario in which both the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs out of the NFC East.

Yeah, I know. The idea of two playoff teams from the East is silly. The Cowboys and Giants are tied for first at 7-6 right now, and it'd be something like a miracle if either of them got to 10 wins. But if Sando can speculate about two 6-7 teams getting in, we have every right to speculate about what it would take to get two 7-6 teams in.

So, it's back to the Playoff Machine. And while I wasn't able to run all of the permutations the way I did Monday in looking at the scenarios for the division championship, I did play around to see what it would take for the Cowboys or Giants to make it in as a wild-card team. The short, simple answer is that it would be much easier for a 9-7 Cowboys team to win a wild-card spot than it would for a 9-7 Giants team to do so. The Giants' poor conference record hurts them here. They are 4-6 against NFC teams, which means the best conference record they could have would be 6-6. But they'd get there by beating the Redskins and Cowboys, and if they did that they'd be division champs anyway and this wild-card stuff wouldn't matter.

The key thing to remember is the Cowboys and Giants can't both get to 10 wins, because they play each other in Week 17. They can't both go 3-0 the rest of the way. But if they both go 2-1 the rest of the way and the Giants win the division on tiebreakers, the Cowboys would be fighting with the Falcons, Bears and Lions for a wild-card spot. The Falcons and Lions are both 8-5 at the moment and the Bears are 7-6. In order for an NFC East chance to have a shot at a wild card, no more than one of those three teams can finish with 10 wins. So you'd need either Atlanta or Detroit to finish no better than 1-2 and the Bears to finish no better than 2-1.

The Falcons' final three games are against the Jaguars, Saints and Buccaneers, so a 2-1 finish and a 10-6 record look attainable for them. The Lions finish with the Raiders, Chargers and Packers, so they could go 2-1 and get to 10-6, though their road looks a bit harder than Atlanta's does. And the Bears finish with Seattle, Green Bay and Minnesota, so a 3-0 finish and 10-6 record is a long shot for them.

If all five teams -- New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit -- finished at 9-7 and the Giants were NFC East champs on tiebreakers, the Cowboys could get in as a wild card, but only if Atlanta's second (i.e., non-New Orleans) loss was to Tampa Bay and not Jacksonville. This is because of that conference-record tiebreaker, and the fact the Jaguars are an AFC team.

But Atlanta's the team to watch if this stuff is going to matter. If Atlanta gets to 10-6 and there's only one spot over which to fight, things get tougher for the Cowboys. They would lose the tiebreaker to the Lions because they lost to them, and the Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Bears. So if the Cowboys, Lions and Bears all ended up tied for that final wild-card spot, it would go to Detroit and Dallas would be out.

So for the Cowboys to get in as a wild card if they lost to the Giants in Week 17, they'd need to win their next two and hope Atlanta loses to the Saints and Buccaneers in Weeks 16 and 17. That wouldn't automatically do it (what if the Bears went 3-0 the rest of the way and finished 10-6, for example?), but if you're wondering which way to root, the answer is "against Atlanta."

For the Giants to get in as a wild card ... pretty much everyone else has to lose. In the scenarios I ran, a 9-7 Giants team lost one-on-one tiebreakers to the Falcons, Bears and Lions, and they lost all of the multiple-team ones too. A 9-7 Giants team likely isn't making the playoffs unless it's as a division champion. So if you're a Giants fan, you're just rooting for your team to win its remaining games against Washington and Dallas, and then you don't have to worry about any of this.

Again, I didn't run all of the scenarios, and if somebody has one where the Giants make it as a wild card team without everybody else in the race finishing 0-3, shoot it my way and I'll do a post on it. But this should give you a sense of where that stands, which is what many of you were asking for.