NFL Nation: nfl playoff machine

Cowboys wild card possibilities

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
10:10
AM ET
There is this rush on Twitter, where everything is always rushed, to assert that Saturday's late afternoon game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles would become "meaningless" if the New York Giants beat the Jets in their early afternoon game. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the Cowboys would use this as a chance to rest players in advance of a Week 17 game against the Giants for the division title.

But while the game would, if the Giants beat the Jets, become "meaningless" to the Eagles (who would be eliminated) and to the NFC East race (which would be decided the following week at MetLife Stadium), it would in no way become "meaningless" to the Cowboys, who could still get into the playoffs as a wild card team if they beat the Eagles this week and lose to the Giants next week.

Is it a slim chance? Sure. It requires a lot of things. The Cardinals and the Seahawks each would have to lose at least one more game, for example. And the Falcons would have to finish 0-2. But while those things might -- on their own or in combination with each other -- seem unlikely, they are all possible, and as long as the possibility exists, why should the Cowboys or their fans discount it?

I used the Playoff Machine a little bit today to see what exactly had to happen in order for the Cowboys to be a 9-7 wild-card team. (The Giants cannot be a wild-card team, by the way. If they get to 9-7, they're division champs. And with Atlanta and Detroit each having already won nine games, there will be no 8-8 wild-card team in the NFC). There are a couple scenarios for the Cowboys to be a 9-7 wild-card team. Play around with it and let me know what else you find. But the point is a simple one: There's no reason for Dallas not to try and win Saturday, no matter what the Giants do in their game, and I don't understand why everyone's in such a rush to declare the game "meaningless" when it's not.

The NFC East playoff scenario post

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
9:47
AM ET
With two weeks to go, things are a little simpler than they were a week ago. But the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants and, incredibly, the Philadelphia Eagles all remain alive in the hunt for the NFC East title. The fact that the Cowboys play the Eagles in Week 16 and the Giants in Week 17 means there are fewer possible outcomes than there would be if the teams were playing outside the division, and I think we actually have the lockout to thank for that. But that's a story from the past, and we're focused on the future. Specifically, the next two weeks.

If you run all of the possible outcomes through the Playoff Machine, you can figure out how each team can win the division. That's what I did, and while it's still possible for the Cowboys to make the playoffs as a 9-7 wild card, it's not likely, so I just focused on division scenarios (and excluded the possibilities of ties, because come on), and I ran all of them.

Some key things to know:

1. If the Cowboys beat the Eagles OR the Giants beat the Jets in Week 16, the Eagles are eliminated.

2. If the Eagles lose either one of their final two games -- Week 16 in Dallas or Week 17 against the Redskins -- they are eliminated.

3. If the Cowboys and Giants both win in Week 16, the winner of the Week 17 Cowboys-Giants game will be division champ.

4. The Cowboys are the only one of the three teams that can clinch the division in Week 16. The Giants and Eagles could both be eliminated by Week 16 results. The Cowboys cannot.

With that in mind, here are all of the remaining possibilities:

If the Cowboys and Jets win in Week 16, the Cowboys clinch the division. The Week 17 Cowboys-Giants game would be irrelevant in this case, since the Cowboys would be two games ahead with one to play.

If the Cowboys and Giants win in Week 16 and the Cowboys beat the Giants in Week 17, the Cowboys win the division with a 10-6 record, two games ahead of the Giants.

If the Cowboys and Giants win in Week 16 and the Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17, the Giants win the division because they will own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys, having gone 2-0 against them.

If the Giants and Eagles win in Week 16 and the Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17, the Giants would be division champs at 9-7, no tiebreakers necessary.

If the Giants and Eagles win in Week 16 and the Cowboys beat the Giants in Week 17, the Cowboys would be division champs at 9-7, no tiebreakers necessary.

If the Eagles and the Jets win in Week 16 and the Cowboys beat the Giants in Week 17, the Cowboys would be division champs at 9-7, no tiebreakers necessary.

If the Eagles and the Jets win in Week 16 AND the Eagles win in Week 17 AND the Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17, the Eagles would be division champs at 8-8, winning the three-way tiebreaker with the Cowboys and Giants due to their 5-1 division record.

If the Eagles and the Jets win in Week 16 AND the Redskins beat the Eagles in Week 17 AND the Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17, the Giants would be division champs. They and Dallas would both be 8-8, and the Giants would own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Eagles would finish 7-9 in this scenario.

If the Eagles and the Jets win in Week 16 AND the Redskins beat the Eagles in Week 17 AND the Cowboys beat the Giants in Week 17, the Cowboys would be division champs at 9-7, two games ahead of both New York and Philadelphia.

That's it. As long as there are no ties, those are all of the possibilities. The odds appear to favor Dallas (as you'd expect, since they have a one-game lead with two games to play), but everything changes week to week around here. And if you're wondering about Dallas as a possible 9-7 wild card, you need to root against Atlanta. The Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Cowboys, but Dallas seems to hold the tiebreakers over Atlanta. Too much to figure out there, though, since the Bears and either the Cardinals or Seahawks could still finish 9-7. The most likely scenario is just the one playoff team from the NFC East this year. The way all of these teams have played, that seems about right.

Could NFC East have two playoff teams?

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
10:49
AM ET
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.

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