There aren’t many years in the NFL where a .500 record buys you the top spot in your division after 13 weeks, but 2019 hasn’t been the typical NFL year in many ways. That’s especially true in the NFC East where the 6-6 Cowboys lead the pack. As such, Dallas currently finds itself as the projected fourth seed of the conference entering the playoffs.
The Best in a Lackluster Division
It’s a peculiar spot bolstered by the NFL playoff system and the way things have shaped up in the NFC East this season. The Cowboys are the owners of the lowest winning record of Wild Card probables at this moment. Still, it’s good enough in a division where no other team holds a winning record. In fact, the 2019 NFC East is in the midst of one of the weakest divisional performances in NFL history. The Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins, and Giants are a cumulative 16-32. That’s a .333 winning percentage.
The worst divisional showing on the books belongs to the 2008 NFC West with a combined 22-42 record and .344 winning percentage. Of course, none of that matters come playoff time. It’s a brand new season where a single loss spoils everything. The New York Times gives Dallas a 73-percent chance of winning the NFC East and reaching the postseason. The chance of coach Jason Garrett’s squad advancing and winning the Super Bowl dips to one-percent.
Improbable but not impossible.
The 2011 Giants, with a 9-7 record, was the biggest losing regular-season team to win a Super Bowl. The Cowboys will enter the playoffs with the same record by going 2-2 to finish out the season.
A December to Remember?
A dominant December would solidify the Dallas playoff bid. After opening November with a Monday night win pegged by oddsmakers over the Giants, Dallas finished the month 2-3. Two of those losses came at the hands of the Patriots and Bills, AFC teams the Cowboys could theoretically meet in the Super Bowl. The road ahead features clashes against the Bears (December 5), LA Rams (December 15), Eagles (December 22), and Redskins (December 29). Dallas gets the Bears and Redskins at home while meeting the Bears and Eagles on the road. The LA Rams, currently at 7-5, are the only team on the slate with a better record. Chicago is posting an identical 6-6 stand while division-mates Philadelphia and Washington are 5-7 and 3-9 respectively. It’s the kind of schedule you want to face when a few more wins mean a lot more momentum heading into the playoffs.
Fending Off An Eagle Attack
It also helps when fortunate bounces go your way. The Eagles pose the biggest challenge to the Cowboy’s perch atop the NFC East. Both teams were 5-6 pulling into Week 13. The tide appeared to be turning against Dallas after the team suffered a disappointing 26-15 loss to the Bills on Thanksgiving Day. The Cowboys jumped out to a first quarter lead as Dak Prescott found Jason Witten on an 8-yard touchdown pass. Buffalo answered early in the second quarter on a score from former-Cowboy receiver Cole Beasley. Dallas held scoreless until a too-little-too-late touchdown from Ventell Bryant in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, a flailing Miami team staged a brilliant late-game comeback to upset heavily-favored Philadelphia with a 37-31 win on December 1. The stunner dropped the Eagles to 5-7. Doug Pederson’s side will face the Giants and Redskins in games before the Week 16 meeting with Dallas. The biggest remaining regular season moment in the NFC East could come down to the Cowboys-Eagles matchup. Both teams face similar strength-of-schedule down the stretch. If there’s a tie for first in the division come December 22nd, the game will likely carry serious playoff implications. In the event that the Cowboys and Eagles have matching records to lead the division at season’s end, the NFL’s playoff tiebreaker procedure will come into play.
The first nod in such a scenario goes to the team with the best head-to-head record. Dallas held off Philadelphia 37-10 in Week 7. The Eagles would make that a wash with an upcoming win. In that case, the decision is made by the best won-lost-tied percentage in division games. The Cowboys currently stand at 4-0 against NFC East opponents while the Eagles are 1-1. To test the tiebreaker, Philadelphia needs to win out its remaining schedule, all division games, with Dallas going 3-1.
Now is the Time to Step Up
So, the Cowboys have a real shot at the postseason on paper, but do they deserve it? There’s no question Prescott does. The fourth-year quarterback has been part of the MVP conversation for much of the season. He leads the NFL in passing yards. His 23 touchdown throws are third behind fellow-MVP candidates Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson. Barring an unforeseen injury, Prescott is en route to career numbers. The receiving corp of Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and Michael Gallup have done their part making it possible for Prescott to achieve such a prolific passing campaign.
Ezekial Elliot remains one of the league’s elite rushers. He’s due to cross the 1,000-yard mark for the season against the Bears and will tack on throughout three more games. The lackluster results of late lies with poor special teams and a too-penetrable defense. The Cowboys have dropped six of their last nine games. The defense and special teams must improve quickly if the Cowboys are to win in the Wild Card and beyond.
If the Cowboys sneak into the NFC Divisional Round, they’re likely to face New Orleans or Seattle. Both teams are 10-2 and tied with San Francisco for the best overall record in the conference. Dallas has a high enough wall to climb in the Wild Card. Winning a subsequent round would be scaling a mountain by comparison. Still, the NFL playoffs are a new season and a formidable equalizer. America’s team might just surprise with a run like we’ve seen before and save Garrett from his current position in the hot seat.