It's time to call the NFC East what it is – a two-team race between our Thanksgiving competitors, the Cowboys and Eagles.
Both New York and Washington came oh-so close to pulling off mammoth upsets this past weekend, but they both fell short, dropping themselves to 3-8 records. Either Dallas or Philadelphia is guaranteed to win a ninth game this Thursday, which makes the division title an impossibility for the Giants and Redskins.
With that in mind, I obviously want to turn the focus to this gigantic Thanksgiving tilt. You know the storylines, because you've been looking forward to this game since October. The winner takes the division lead and has an inside track to win the NFC East.
[embeddedad0]But can we talk about the loser for a second? Because, as well as 2014 has gone for these two teams, whoever loses Thursday has a serious workload ahead of them – even with an impressive 8-4 record.
Thanks to the flaming dumpster that is the NFC South, this conference's wildcard pool is already more crowded and convoluted than it normally would be. With five games left to play, there are presently seven teams – Arizona, Dallas, Detroit, Green Bay, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle – vying for a limited number of playoff spots.
The eventual division champions will account for four spots, lowlighted by an NFC South team that looks increasingly likely to have a sub-par record. That still leaves about four teams, all of which look likely to finish with nine or more wins, to vie for just two wildcard spots.
This is a very roundabout way of pointing out the obvious. The Cowboys' easiest path into the playoffs is as the NFC East champion, which would assure them at least one home playoff game. If they allow that to slip out of their control, they're looking at a situation where they're competing with two of the NFC's best franchises for a wildcard spot.
Since the NFL switched to its current, eight-division format in 2002, we've seen 10-win teams get shut out of the NFC playoffs in three of 12 seasons. It happened to last year's Arizona Cardinals and the 2012 Bears, and in 2010 both the Giants and Buccaneers were excluded at 10-6.
Teams that finish 9-7 are cut out of the NFC playoff race about every other year in that same timespan. An 8-8 record is certainly no guarantee of playoff entry, as the Cowboys are well aware.
While no guarantee, 11-5 is a much more comfortable spot. No NFC team with an 11-5 record has ever missed the playoffs, and it's only happened to one AFC team – the 2008 Patriots. That New England team was partially hampered by a watered-down AFC West, which the Chargers won at 8-8.
Any time one of the league's divisions fails to carry its own weight it seems to impact the wildcard race, and not for the best. If the NFC South champion finished with eight or fewer wins, it seems like a decent bet that someone elsewhere with 10 or 11 victories is going to be left out of the party.
The Cowboys can make all of this a non-issue by winning games, of course, but it's rarely that simple in the NFL. It's an issue that's going to immediately surround the loser of Thursday's showdown.