IRVING, Texas – The NFL giveth and the NFL taketh.
That's life in the big leagues.
One week the Cowboys sit idle and pick up a half game on each NFC East foe, including the Philadelphia Eagles, allowing them to pull into a first-place tie in the NFC East, both teams at 8-3.
Two weeks later nothing goes the Cowboys' way, including the inability to take care of themselves, losing to Philadelphia, meaning the Eagles won, pulling a full game ahead of the Cowboys. Also winning were Green Bay, Detroit and Seattle, while Arizona lost – all bad news for the Cowboys.
So with four games remaining, let's grab some perspective on these 8-4 Cowboys, who one week were in the NFC playoffs if the season had ended after 11 games and a week later are not after 12. A nice team, not a bad team, but certainly not a great team, yet good enough to finally end this four-year playoff drought, the franchise's longest since 1986-90, when they missed five years in a row, still the longest since the first six seasons in franchise history (1960-65).
That is, if they can take care of themselves.
As Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said on Sunday afternoon, since playing Thursday night at Chicago meant the Sabbath really was a Wednesday in the Cowboys' NFL body clocks, "It's about winning this game, taking the next step toward where we want to go," when the loss to Philly and the accustomed December struggles were broached after practice.
"This is the biggest game we're going to play this year. We need to go get a win at Chicago."
But while there now seems to be a sense of panic out there after the 33-10 loss to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day, let's just remember there still are four games to play – a quarter of the NFL season – and for more perspective, if this were the NBA that would mean 20 or MLB 40 more games. A veritable lifetime.
And while 33-10 certainly is not an encouraging indicator, Dallas still has to play the Eagles again in two weeks, though up there in Philly, where the Cowboys have won three of the past four times and are the only undefeated team on the road left in the NFL (5-0).
Just win, and little else matters. Win 'em all and finish 12-4, guarantee you the Cowboys qualify for the playoffs. Win three of the four, guarantee you the Cowboys are in the playoffs. Split the final four, and tiebreakers will decide, about as dicey as going to court to be judged by a jury of your peers.
As of today, as they like to say, if the playoffs were to begin after 12 games, yep, the Cowboys would not qualify for the playoffs. They are currently the seventh seed in the NFL, quite problematic since only six teams qualify – four division winners and two wild-card entries.
Sounds as if there is some confusion out there why Seattle would qualify as the first wild-card entry and then Detroit the second, since those two teams and the Cowboys all are 8-4 today.
Here's the deal: Yes, the Cowboys do own the head-to-head advantage over Seattle, beating the Seahawks, 30-23, earlier in the season. But the head-to-head tiebreaker only applies in a two-team tiebreaker or in a three-or-more-team tiebreaker if one team has defeated all the others or has lost to all the others.
And since that's not the case between Dallas, Seattle and Detroit, we move to the next tiebreaker among three or more teams: best conference winning percentage. That, unfortunately, is not a friend of the Cowboys, at 5-4 in the NFC with three games to go, all four of their losses this season to NFC opponents. On the other hand, Seattle and Detroit are 6-2, so that kicks the Cowboys out. And then in the two-team tiebreaker, no head-to-head and identical conference record, Seattle edges Detroit for the top wild-card berth on the basis of a better record against common opponents … so far.
Which brings us to this axiom, somewhat parroting the religious one we've heard for so long: The NFL helps those who help themselves.
The rest is on you, Cowboys. Just got to win, baby.
And really, don't have to win them all, but would help if at least they split or win more than they lose with four games remaining. And here is why: There are games to be lost this final quarter of the season.
Let's start with Philadelphia. The Eagles play Seattle this coming Sunday. Someone has to lose, assuming there is no tie. That means after next Sunday either Seattle will have five losses or Philly will have four. And then, of course, someone has to lose Week 15 when the Eagles and Cowboys play.
Seattle also has to play Arizona, currently the NFC West leaders at 9-3. So one of those teams has to lose in Week 16. At this point, the Cowboys would rather not get into a two-team tiebreaker with Arizona, since they would lose the head-to-head, where as we mentioned earlier, the Cowboys would win the two-team tiebreaker with the Seahawks since they beat them.
Also, Arizona and Seattle still have to play San Francisco, the Niners just one game behind the Cowboys, Seattle and Detroit at 7-5.
And with Detroit, the rest of the way is none too easy, having to play home games against Tampa Bay and Minnesota, and then on the road against Chicago and Green Bay, currently the NFC North leader at 9-3, a game better than Detroit and, of course, the Cowboys.
As for the Packers, now 6-3 in the NFC, they finish the season against Atlanta, at Buffalo and Tampa Bay and then the home game against Detroit.
So there is at least six losses to be had among the top eight teams in the NFC.
Oh, and when it comes to the Eagles and Cowboys at this point, it's imperative the Cowboys beat Philadelphia a week from Sunday, unless the Eagles just implode over the final four games. That victory at least would give the Cowboys a push on head-to-head and at least give the Eagles their first loss in the NFC East, since division record is the second tiebreaker within a division tie. Obviously the Cowboys would have to beat Washington to finish 4-2 in the East and either the Redskins or Giants would have to beat the Eagles to even the two team's division record at 4-2.
That then would send a Cowboys-Eagles tiebreaker to the third item: Best record among common opponents, and currently the Eagles lead that category 7-2 to the Cowboys' 7-3, the Eagles having yet to play Seattle, Washington and the NY Giants, and the Cowboys left with Indianapolis and Washington.
Oh, and if that still doesn't break a tie, conference record then comes into play to separate a division tie, and currently it's the 5-4 Cowboys in the NFC and the 5-3 Eagles.
So, as you can see, these tiebreakers are convoluted and far too dependent on what other teams do.
My advice had been to win two of the three games the Cowboys had to play within this 12-day span, meaning beating the Bears on Thursday is a must to accomplish that. Then, it would behoove the Cowboys to win two of the final three, the two preferably over the Eagles and Redskins, since a loss to Indianapolis in Game 15, while hurting the overall record and record against common opponents with the Eagles, would not hurt the division or conference record.
But first things first: Chicago.
"It's a very important game for us," said Cowboys COO Stephen Jones during his Monday radio segment on 105.3 The Fan. "It's the biggest game of the year."
He's right. Romo's right. And I'm right.[embeddedad0]
Just go win, baby.