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Running the Numbers: Win Nearly Doubles Playoff Chances

Posted Nov 30, 2012

Last season, the Cowboys squeaked by the Miami Dolphins by the score of 20-19 in the teams’ Thanksgiving matchup. The following week, the ’Boys headed to Arizona to take on the Cardinals, losing a bizarre overtime game. With a 7-4 record and high hopes entering the contest, the loss was the start of a 1-4 finish for Dallas in 2011.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the Cowboys need the exact opposite type of finish in order to salvage their season. A 4-1 conclusion to the year may very well win the NFC East, and it all starts with a must-win contest against the Eagles on Sunday night. Luckily for the Cowboys, the game after Thanksgiving – one that comes following 10 days of rest – has historically been kind to them, 2011 aside.

Dallas owns a .572 all-time winning percentage. After Thanksgiving, though, the Cowboys have been able to post a .627 winning percentage, evidence that they play well following the long break. Whether it’s due to extra game preparation, healing injuries or something else, the Cowboys certainly seem to benefit from their annual Thanksgiving matchup. And while it’s not quite the two weeks off that accompanies a bye, it makes intuitive sense that extra rest and preparation equates to greater success.

Of course, the post-Turkey Day contest hasn’t been so kind to Dallas in the recent past: From 2000 to 2011, the Cowboys managed just a 5-7 record in the game after Thanksgiving. Over those dozen seasons, the Cowboys were a .500 ball club.

Sunday’s game is a bit unusual, though, in that the Cowboys get to stay on their own turf. Since 2000, they’ve had only one other home game the week after Thanksgiving, a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in 2002. Nonetheless, the Cowboys’ long-term history – combined with the fact that teams perform better following the long rest after their bye – suggests that Dallas should provide a strong performance on Sunday.

But what if they win? Will they really be that much closer to the playoffs? Should the Cowboys move to 6-6, they’ll still need to win three of their final four games, at a minimum, to even have a shot at winning the NFC East.

As it sits now, Dallas’ chances of taking the division probably fall somewhere around 1-in-12. Assuming an overall 50 percent chance of winning each of their remaining contests, the odds of the Cowboys finishing at least 4-1 and the Giants losing three of their remaining five games falls right around eight percent. That simple math actually matches up quite well with more complex playoff projection systems.

And if the ’Boys defeat the Eagles on Sunday, it will actually boost their playoff chances fairly significantly. With one win in the books, the odds of the Cowboys finishing at least 9-7 would jump from around 19 percent, where they currently stand, to just over 31 percent. Actually, with a win on Sunday, the Cowboys’ probability of finishing 10-6 and just about guaranteeing a spot in the postseason would double, from 3.1 percent to 6.2 percent (again assuming a 50 percent chance of winning each game).

It all starts Sunday night in an ideal matchup to start a run, coming off of 10 days rest, at home, against a struggling team. The Cowboys’ current playoff hopes are miniscule, but not non-existent. If they can improve to 6-6 in Week 13, Dallas can transform what is currently a glimmer of hope into a legitimate possibility.

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