It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas; it’s NFL playoff projection season—the time when we figure out all of the magic scenarios that could potentially get the Cowboys into the playoffs. The season has come a bit earlier than usual for the Cowboys, and that’s never a good thing. If your team is involved in a ‘must-win’ game each week starting in Week 13, that doesn’t don’t bode well for their playoff hopes. Nonetheless, let’s look at how the Cowboys could potentially sneak their way into the postseason.
First, take a look at the remaining schedules for the Cowboys (5-6), Redskins (5-6), and Giants (7-4):
Cowboys: Philadelphia, @Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, @Washington
Redskins: New York Giants, Baltimore, @Cleveland, @Philadelphia, Dallas
Giants: @Washington, New Orleans, @Atlanta, @Baltimore, Philadelphia
The question for Dallas really boils down to “Will 9-7 win the division?” Nine wins is the magic number for the ‘Boys, even though it almost certainly won’t land a Wild Card spot. Remember, there are six teams with records as good or better than Dallas that aren’t leading their divisions. The Packers, Vikings, Bucs, and Seahawks all have at least six wins, and you’d think at least two of those squads will be able to reach the 10-win mark or beat Dallas in a tiebreaker (Seattle owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas, while the ‘Boys have it over Tampa Bay). Ultimately, though, 10 wins will almost certainly guarantee a playoff berth, while nine wins probably won’t grab a Wild Card spot. The Cowboys’ playoff hopes ride on winning the division.
Now, what are the odds that the Cowboys can pull off five straight wins? Not great, obviously. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the Cowboys own a 50 percent chance to win each of their remaining games. Based on their play this year and the opponents, that’s probably not too far off. If each game is a coin flip, the odds of winning five straight are right around 3.1 percent. So about 1-in-33. Awesome. With 10 wins, though, we’ll assume the Cowboys will get into the postseason, regardless of the Giants’ fortunes.
Of course, the Cowboys could potentially lose one more game if the Giants struggle down the stretch. A 4-1 record over their final five games would keep the ‘Boys alive. Again, assuming a 50 percent chance of winning each game, the Cowboys hold a 15.6 percent chance of winning four games. Again, not great, but workable.
And what of the Giants? Remember, even with four wins in five games, Dallas needs New York to struggle. A record of even 3-2 will basically guarantee the Giants the division, so the Cowboys need to root for 2-3, at a minimum. With three road games and some difficult opponents, we’ll again make the assumption of a 50 percent win probability for the Giants in each contest, giving them a 31.3 percent chance of losing three games.
Finally, the Cowboys need to beat the Redskins in Week 17. If they handle Washington and win three other games, the Redskins would need to go undefeated the rest of the way just to tie Dallas at nine wins. The chances of that happening are again 6.3 if we assume each Redskins game is a coin flip.
So, the Cowboys’ chances of winning the division basically boil down to winning at least four more games—one of which must be in Washington—and having the Giants go 2-3, at a minimum. The probability of those events happening is 4.9 percent. We can also add in the Cowboys’ chances of going undefeated (3.1 percent) to give them around an 8.0 percent chance of winning the NFC East. That prediction actually fits remarkably well with computer projections of the Cowboys’ playoff probability (NFL –forecast.com has the ‘Boys at 8.9 percent to win the division). At 5-6, that’s not too shabby.