FRISCO, Texas – It's the burning topic of this holiday week. One way or another, the Cowboys have several paths to punch their playoff ticket this weekend.
The most obvious of those options, of course, is to defeat the Washington Football Team on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium. A win against Washington would give the Cowboys 11 wins on the season, a number that no other NFC East team could match.
"We're fighting for a division title Sunday night," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on Wednesday. "What else can you ask for?"
Not to let the air out of McCarthy's balloon, but that's not necessarily accurate. Yes, the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win on Sunday night, but there are several other outcomes that could hand it to them before they even kick off against Washington.
The easiest among those would be a Philadelphia loss on Sunday. Having just beaten Washington on Tuesday night, the Eagles will host the New York Giants at 12 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Currently sitting on a 7-7 record, the Eagles are still capable matching the Cowboys' win total. A loss would obviously change that, thereby clinching the division for Dallas if the Giants win.
Even if Philadelphia manages a win on Sunday, though, there is still a path to a division title before the Cowboys kick off – though it is slightly convoluted.
It comes down to the strength of victory tiebreaker.
In the event that the Cowboys were to lose all of their remaining games and the Eagles to win all of theirs, both clubs would finish with 10-7 records. They'd also finish with identical 4-2 division records, including a split of their two-game season series – not to mention identical 7-5 records in common games and 8-4 records in NFC play.
Clearly, you can see why this is tricky. In this scenario, it would come down to strength of victory, which is the fifth tiebreaker in the NFL's rulebook.
Strength of victory is essentially the combined records of the opponents that a given team has beaten. That means there are several games this weekend that can swing strength of victory in the Cowboys' favor.
To make it as simple as possible, there are six games that affect the Cowboys' and Eagles' strength of victory – Atlanta vs. Detroit, Minnesota vs. the L.A. Rams, New York Jets vs. Jacksonville, Buffalo vs. New England, L.A. Chargers vs. Houston and Denver vs. Las Vegas.
Two wins from the right six teams would clinch strength of victory, and therefore the division, for Dallas. Wins by Atlanta, Minnesota, New England, the Chargers and Las Vegas – all Cowboys' opponents this season – would help. A loss by the Jets, who were an Eagles opponent, would also help.
To make matters even more simple, the Cowboys need wins from two of these six: the Falcons, Vikings, Patriots, Chargers, Raiders or Jaguars. Victories on Sunday from any two of the six would lock up the division, once again ensuring the Cowboys the NFC East title before their game begins.
Having handled all that, there is also a path to securing a playoff spot, if for some reason the division eludes them this weekend. That could happens as early as Thursday night.
A loss by San Francisco against Tennessee on Thursday Night Football would assure the Cowboys a playoff spot, as would a win by Tampa Bay against Carolina on Sunday or a loss by New Orleans against Miami on Monday.
With any luck, that scenario will take a back seat, because it's looking exceedingly possible that the Cowboys could clinch the NFC East as a late Christmas present on Sunday.