As unlikely as it may sound, the Dallas Cowboys cannot be considered out of the running for the NFC East Championship. Not just yet. Although they currently post only three wins and with only five games left in the season, the Cowboys, with the way the NFC East schedules are structured, could conceivably still make it to the playoffs — and they could do it as Division champions. As implausible as it might seem, it is possible. But they’ll need a lot of help from their NFC East rivals to do it.
This just shows what parity has done to the NFL…
First of all, Dallas has to win all of their games to finish the season at .500 (8-8). Since they have to play three intra-Division games, their Division record would be 4-2. At present, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins have the best NFC East Division records at 2-1. The Cowboys have to play both teams in their remaining five games — and they play Philadelphia twice. Three wins would give the Cowboys the best NFC East Division record at 4-2.
The Philadelphia Eagles (currently 7-4), under the scenario of the Dallas Cowboys winning the Division, could win one game, but that game would have to be against the New York Giants. A tie at the top of the NFC East with Dallas would do them no good, having lost to Dallas twice and having a Division record of 3-3.
The New York Giants (also currently 7-4) give the Cowboys their best bet at winning the NFC East by losing the rest of their games and finishing the season at 7-9. But since they have a 1-2 Division record and one win would still leave them tied with Dallas at season’s end, the optimal win for Dallas would be for the Giants to beat the Redskins. This would still only give the Giants a 2-4 Division record, two games behind Dallas (even though their overall record would be 8-8).
Of course, an intra-Division win and any combination of extra-Division wins by the Giants and the Eagles ends the Cowboys hopes.
The Washington Redskins (currently at 5-6) would help Dallas enormously by knocking of the New York Giants in both of their remaining games, then losing the other three on their schedule.
The aforementioned are best case scenarios for the Dallas Cowboys. Additional wins by any of the NFC East teams either eliminates Dallas (if the team’s overall record should rise above 8-8) or then places the Cowboys in a head-to-head match-up where the Cowboys could lose.
But who would have thought that, with a terrible overall record of 3-8, that the Cowboys would still be in the hunt for a playoff berth? And although it is highly unlikely and nearly inconceivable that the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles could both lose all or nearly all of their remaining games to give the Cowboys the chance of winning the NFC East Division, teams have been known to go on massive losing skids.
But if the Dallas Cowboys scenario is mind-boggling, one needs only to take a look at the AFC West Division to see a similar scenario. Two other Divisions, the NFC West (first and last place separated by two games) and the AFC South (first and last separated by one game) have so many permutations that one would need a statistician and most of a day to figure them all out.
UPDATE: Although the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Indianapolis Colts to move to a 4-8 record on Sunday, Dec. 5, both the NFC East Division leaders, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants won as well, improving their records to 8-4 for the season. Since they still have a division match-up, one of the teams will come out a victor, therefore ending any chance for the Cowboys to make the playoffs this season.
At its best, it was a just a slim glimmer of hope for the truly diehard Cowboys fan. Still, Dallas can play spoiler for the rest of the season, as two of their four remaining games are against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“2010 — NFL Standings,” ESPN.go.com