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Nick at Nite

Nick at Nite: Mapping out potential playoff scenarios


FRISCO, Texas — It's just about that time. As the calendar turns to December and Matt LeFleur continues to somehow win games in Green Bay, watching the division and conference standings becomes almost an entirely different sport in its own right.

For the Cowboys, that sport has been an entertaining one for most of Mike McCarthy's tenure as head coach, and that's no different in 2023. His squad is once again comfortably in position to make the playoffs, but things get a little dicey when talking about where exactly the Cowboys will fall at season's end.

With five games to go, let's take a look at potential playoff scenarios and what it would take for Dallas to reach certain playoff thresholds once week 18 is concluded.

First off, let's talk clinching a playoff spot. With five games to go and a 9-3 record, the Cowboys are three games above all other NFC wild card teams as Minnesota, Green Bay, Los Angeles and Seattle all sit at 6-6 and are fighting for the two remaining spots.

With a win against the Eagles on Sunday, the Cowboys could theoretically clinch a spot in the playoffs, but it's more realistic that it happens in week 15.

Now, winning the division is going to be a tricky battle. Even if the Cowboys win on Sunday against the Eagles, both teams will move to 10-3 with four games remaining, and while Dallas will hold a brief tiebreaker advantage with a 4-1 divisional record versus Philadelphia's 3-1 record, the Eagles would eventually be able to pull even in that tiebreaker category.

That would trigger the second tiebreaker category which would be common games. Once again, the two teams would theoretically tie at the end of the season (if both were to win out) at 10-2. That would then trigger the third tiebreaker category which is conference record, which would give Philadelphia the advantage with only two losses against Dallas' three.

Confusing and tedious to follow, I know. Let's map it out more easily. If Dallas were to defeat Philadelphia on Sunday, what should Cowboys fans be rooting for down the stretch?

Obviously any Philadelphia loss would be massive, but a loss in one of their two matchups against the New York Giants would be huge in helping push Dallas to a comfortable edge in first place. Not only would the Cowboys have a one-game advantage in the division, but they would have leeway to lose one more game down the stretch (as long as it's not to Washington) since they would own the first tiebreaker which is divisional record.

Can Tommy DeVito or Tyrod Taylor shock the world and pull an NFC East upset on Philadelphia? That might be Dallas' best hope towards taking the divisional crown.

As far as conference tiebreakers go, San Francisco would hold the obvious head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys should Dallas find a way to win the NFC East and earn a home playoff game. With that, unless the 49ers lose a game down the stretch and Dallas wins out, San Francisco would earn the one seed and Dallas would earn the two with a win over Detroit in week 17.

But first thing's first. The game against Philadelphia this weekend can send Dallas in one of two directions. With a win, all of these possibilities above vault into play and things get fun down the stretch. With a loss, you can pretty much Sharpie in the Cowboys as the NFC's five seed and a wild card road trip to the winner of the NFC South.

In that division, Atlanta (6-6) holds a one-game lead over Tampa Bay and New Orleans (both at 5-7) with five games to play and each team playing the other once down the stretch. From a matchup perspective, Tampa Bay probably serves the weakest challenge, but Dallas would have to feel confident going into any three of those matchups – even if it is on the road.

However, if you were hoping that Dallas could avoid having to go through Philadelphia and San Francisco in the playoffs, that challenge becomes nearly impossible with a loss to the Eagles on Sunday.

Both teams are solidifying those top two seeds a little bit more with each week that passes, and Detroit is firmly behind San Francisco in the tiebreaker category and would need the Niners to drop a game at some point to leapfrog them.

Sunday night's game against the Eagles is easily the most anticipated matchup of the season. Just take in all of the storylines: the history of the rich divisional rivalry, the MVP battle, Shaq Leonard signing with Philadelphia. They're endless.

But when you take into account the playoff implications of Sunday night, there's not a game on the entire 17-game schedule that will be more important than this one.

Buckle up and let's have some fun on Sunday night.

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