IRVING, Texas - Two weeks are left in the NFL season, which means it's time to test one's long division.
Only Seattle (12-2) has clinched a playoff berth in the NFC, which leaves eight teams - including the Cowboys (8-6) - vying for five remaining spots. The possibilities are long and complicated enough to give someone an ice-cream headache.
Head coach Bill Parcells doesn't even try to sort out the potential tiebreakers, he says. He usually asks Rich Dalrymple, the Cowboys' director of public relations, to keep him informed of all scenarios and situations.
But after last Sunday's startling 35-7 loss to Washington, Parcells doesn't need to hear about hypotheticals. He knows what his team must accomplish in its final two games, starting with a quick turnaround Saturday at Carolina (10-4).
"I'm pretty sure we can't afford another loss," he said Monday. "I guess there must be some mathematical way where we might be able to, but I couldn't figure it out myself. I say we're pretty much down to the end here and we'll see what we can do."
Despite losing by their widest margin of the season, the Cowboys still are mathematically in contention for one of the NFC's two wild-card spots. They no longer can challenge for first place in the NFC East, New York (10-4) assured of having a better division record if it came to a tiebreaker and Washington having the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.
Parcells is right. The Cowboys could split their final two games, finish 9-7 and still sneak into the playoffs if everything else broke their way. But that might take some serious divine football intervention, including the Redskins losing twice and Minnesota and Atlanta at least losing once.
"That's the challenge right now is to bounce back from a really tough game where we had some breaks that went the other way and then just kind of got beat up," said quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who was sacked seven times by the Redskins.
A much simpler route for the Cowboys would be to beat Carolina and St. Louis (5-9) on Jan. 1. By finishing the season with 10 wins, the Cowboys wouldn't need as many teams to stumble along the way.
"I think at this point of the season, you've two games and you've got to win both to have a chance," tight end Jason Witten said. "We don't have much of a choice."
Tampa Bay (9-5) currently owns the first wild-card spot, which leaves four 8-6 teams - Washington, Minnesota, Dallas and Atlanta - battling for the sixth seed.
Here's where the Cowboys currently stand in that crowded NFC playoff picture. The following may or may not cause dizziness:
- Tampa Bay will finish the season at home against Atlanta and New Orleans (3-11). If the Buccaneers and Cowboys both finish 10-6, Tampa Bay wins the tiebreaker because of a better common opponents records.
- The Cowboys lost all potential tiebreakers with Washington after the Redskins swept the season series for the first time since 1995. The Cowboys need to win out and hope the Redskins split their final games against New York and at Philadelphia (6-6) since the Redskins advance by virtue of head-to-head in a tie.
- If Chicago (10-4) clinches the NFC North with a win Sunday at Green Bay (3-11), the Cowboys would hold the wild-card tiebreaker on Minnesota based on strength of victory. If Dallas and Minnesota both win out, they would have the same conference record (8-4), and because they only play three common opponents, the next tiebreaker is strength of victory.
- If the Cowboys win out, they will hold the tiebreaker on Atlanta because of their conference record (6-4), which would end up 8-4. The Falcons currently are 5-5 against the NFC with games at Tampa Bay and against Carolina.
- The Cowboys would not win a tiebreaker with the Chicago Bears if they should lose out and Minnesota wins out, which would give the Vikings the NFC North title. The Bears already have clinched a better NFC record than the Cowboys.
- And if the Cowboys should finish in a three-or-more-team tiebreaker that involves the Redskins, they are eliminated immediately, because if teams involved in a multiple-team tiebreaker are from the same division, then the division tiebreaker takes first precedence, and losing both games to Washington aces out the Cowboys before they even stack up against the other teams.
Hanging in there?
All of the above probably becomes moot if the Cowboys can't beat Carolina, which has won three of its last four games and nine of the past 11. The Panthers can clinch at least a wild-card berth with a win Saturday, and they can clinch the NFC South if they win and Tampa Bay loses to Atlanta.
By the way, if you are considering a potential tiebreaker with Carolina at 10-6, which would mean the Panthers would have to lose their final two games, obviously the Cowboys would win the head-to-head tiebreaker based on a victory Saturday.
The Cowboys could have taken control of the NFC East two weeks ago against New York but lost a hotly-contested game at Giants Stadium. They kept Washington's playoff hopes alive this past Sunday by losing for the third time in the last four games.
The players realize they're running out of chances, which makes Saturday's game just the next biggest game of the season.
"It's a huge game for us," said guard Marco Rivera, who looked noticeably stiff from the strained neck he suffered in the fourth quarter against Washington. "We had a chance against the Giants and we didn't do nothing there. We had a chance with the Redskins and didn't do nothing there. Now we've got another chance, and it's basically our last chance.
"Enough talking. Let's just do what we do. Let's go play football and try to win."
Rivera might not be able to play Saturday, but the 10-year veteran and former Super Bowl champion knows what it takes to win in December.
"I'm going to challenge my teammates," Rivera said. "It's do or die."
Even if 9-7 might earn them a playoff berth, "do or die" is how the Cowboys are thinking this week.