To say the Cowboys have had a rough 2017 NFL season would be an understatement.
Last season going into Week 13, Dallas was 10-1, cruising to an NFC East title and a No. 1 playoff seed. Now rival Philadelphia has become that “it” team with the same record at the same point of the season.
The Cowboys, at 5-6 and down five games to the Eagles with five games left to play, have zero shot at repeating in the division. Currently in the NFC’s No. 10 position, they need to make up two games and jump four teams to qualify as the NFC’s second wild card.
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As difficult as that sounds, nothing is impossible in an unpredictable league from season to season, week to week. As bad as things have seemed of late for Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and Dak Prescott, the Cowboys do have the advantage of an ace in the hole for later: running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott won’t return from his six-game suspension until Week 16 against the Seahawks, and the Cowboys have gone 0-3 so far without him — and mostly without linebacker Sean Lee.
Dallas needs to dig deep and find a way to win out, first and foremost, but the remaining schedule before (vs. Redskins, at Giants, at Raiders) and after Elliott’s return provides a sliver of hope.
Here’s what also needs to happen in front of them for the Cowboys to sneak back into the NFC tournament at 10-6.
Packers need to lose once
Dallas has lost to two of the teams it is chasing, No. 9 Green Bay and No. 6 Atlanta. A two- or three-way tie with those teams at 10-6 would keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs, so they need to finish ahead of both.
The Packers (5-6) won’t get Aaron Rodgers back until Week 15 at the earliest, for a tough game at Carolina. They finish with Minnesota and Detroit, tricky division matchups regardless of Rodgers’ presence. Before then, on paper, they should beat the Buccaneers and Browns with Brett Hundley, but he’s still an inconsistent young backup finding his way.
The Cowboys might wish they had gotten the Packers without Rodgers while they were down Elliott. Now they’ll need to wish for the Packers to stumble just once vs. someone else.
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Lions need to lose twice
Detroit sits at No. 8, having beaten Green Bay earlier in the season. It also holds a slightly better conference record (5-4) than that of Dallas (4-4). The Lions will be underdogs at the Ravens in Week 13, but it gets much easier, as they travel to the Buccaneers and Bengals before hosting the Bears and Packers in the final two games.
Here’s the rub: If the Lions lose only once, and it’s either to the Ravens or Bengals, they would finish 10-6 with an 8-4 conference record. The Cowboys at best can only match both marks, and then will need to rely on other tiebreakers to break in their favor. Detroit falling to 9-7 or worse is the only guarantee that Dallas is ahead at the end should it win out.
Seahawks need to lose once before Week 16
The Cowboys need a ton of help from other teams to have a chance. But No. 7 Seattle is the one team against which they control things directly. Before the Seahawks (7-4) meet the Cowboys with Elliott in Week 16, they just need to lose to either the Eagles, Jaguars or Rams — a likely scenario. That would give Dallas a chance to both pull even with and get the head-to-head edge over Seattle.
The worst thing, however, would be the Rams slumping and falling to 10-6 from their current 8-3, while the Seahawks jump up to take the NFC West by finishing 3-2 with a second win over the Rams. That’s because Los Angeles, like Green Bay and Atlanta, beat Dallas earlier in the season.
Falcons and/or Panthers need to free-fall
The Cowboys should root for the 8-3 Saints to pull away in the NFC South, and for either the 7-4 Falcons or 8-3 Panthers to completely collapse down the stretch.
The Panthers still need to play at New Orleans and Atlanta. They also draw the Vikings and Packers (maybe with Rodgers) at home as part of their final five games. Four losses are unlikely, but still possible, which would drop them to 9-7.
The Falcons still need to play the Vikings at home, the Saints twice and then the Panthers in Week 17. There’s a potential for three losses there so the Cowboys can finish ahead of the Falcons.
New Orleans can play a huge part in those results, and either Atlanta or Carolina could do Dallas a huge favor by knocking the other out in the season finale.
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Eagles need to clinch everything before Week 17
This is big for Dallas, too. Philadelphia has the division on lockdown but holds only a one-game lead over 9-2 Minnesota for the top playoff seed. The Eagles need to keep winning and need a little help from Vikings’ opponents so they can be up two games after Week 16, before the rematch with the Cowboys.
If you recall, the Cowboys rested players when the teams met in last season’s finale in Philadelphia, allowing the Eagles to post a 27-13 victory. The Cowboys will hope for something similar, only with something to gain by the Eagles saving up for the divisional round of the playoffs. A full-strength Eagles team with something to play for would be the biggest hurdle to the Cowboys winning out and taking care of their part to get into the playoffs.