From one standpoint, the Seattle Seahawks made things incredibly simple for the Cowboys – win, and you're in.
With Philadelphia's loss to Seattle on Sunday, they have the same record as Dallas at 9-4. The winner of Sunday night's NFC East rivalry game will take the lead in the division at 10-4 with two games to play. If the Cowboys go 3-0 through the remainder of the season, they'll make the playoffs as the NFC East champions.
Unfortunately, things get a little convoluted if the Cowboys lose to Philly – or if they lose any of their remaining three, to be honest.
As many of you have noticed, the Cowboys are currently in a three-way tie for wildcard standing with the Seahawks and the Lions. In a three-team tie, head-to-head results aren't used and conference records determine pecking order. Seattle and Detroit are both 7-2 in the NFC, while the Cowboys are 6-4.
Ideally, the Cowboys want one of those two teams to lose – and it'd be better if it were the Lions. Dallas has a head-to-head tiebreaker with Seattle, so a two-way tie would favor the Cowboys by virtue of their 30-23 win at CenturyLink Field in October.
If the Cowboys are going to lose a game down this stretch, the Dec. 21 home game against the Colts would probably be the most forgiving loss. Like I just mentioned, Seattle and Detroit are in strong position because they've been good against the NFC. Four of their combined eight losses are against AFC teams – the Chargers and Chiefs for the Seahawks, and the Bills and Patriots for the Lions.
If Dallas wins its remaining NFC games and loses to the Colts, the Cowboys will finish with a healthy 8-4 mark within the conference. That'd be a far more favorable result than losing to one of their NFC East rivals.
Conversely, a loss to the Eagles this weekend would almost assure that the Cowboys can't win the division. Philadelphia is currently 3-0 in the NFC East, while Dallas is 2-2. By winning the rematch, the Eagles would complete a season sweep of the series, and they'd guarantee themselves a better division record. The only way the Cowboys can win the division if they lose this game is by winning the final two, and having Philly lose to both Washington and New York to close out the season.
Either way, there's still no escaping a pretty scary fact: if the Cowboys lose another game, they'll probably need some help to make the playoffs. The best way for Dallas to make the playoffs at 11-5 would be if either the Lions or Seahawks lose two of the remaining three games.
That's not an extraordinary ask, if you look at the schedules. Detroit finishes its season with a home game against Minnesota, followed by back-to-back road trips to Chicago and Green Bay. Seattle finishes with a home game against San Francisco, a road trip to Arizona and a home finale against St. Louis.
Like the Cowboys, Detroit has two road trips remaining. The Seahawks are at home twice, but both Detroit and Seattle finish their seasons entirely against divisional rivals. Crazier things have happened.
If the Lions and Seahawks aren't willing to help out, the Cowboys could also look toward the Cardinals. Arizona was on a two-game losing streak and was in danger of losing its playoff hold until Sunday, when the Cardinals held off the Chiefs at home.
Now sitting at 10-3, Arizona also has three-straight division games – two of them on the road – and there is some work to be done in order to hold off the surging Seahawks. They play at St. Louis this coming Thursday before a home date with Seattle, and then they finish on the road against San Francisco.
If the Cardinals lose out and the Cowboys finish 2-1 down the stretch, it shouldn't matter what Philadelphia, Seattle and Detroit do – that should be enough to push Dallas into the playoffs.
It's theoretically possible that the Cowboys can also make the playoffs if they finish 10-6, but it'd likely require multiple losses from multiple teams. It's sad to say, but it doesn't seem likely that a 1-2 finish down this three-game stretch will be good enough for this team.
Like I said, it's all irrelevant if the Cowboys win out – that's the easiest scenario of all. If they don't, though, it's going to be an agonizing wait to see who gets in.