So, the Dallas Cowboys beat the New Orleans Saints.
It was a fantastic defensive performance for the Cowboys, who will undoubtedly be touted as the sleeper of the playoffs when they slide in at 10-6, having won 8 of their last 9 games, or something like that.
My opinions of the Cowboys notwithstanding, they can’t yet be crowned the divisional champs. Technically, both the Cowboys and the Eagles control their own destiny in terms of making the playoffs. As such, let’s take a look at those paths.
The current standings and remaining schedules are:
Dallas Cowboys (7-5, 3-1)
Wk 14: v. PHI
Wk 15: @ IND
Wk 16: v. TB
Wk 17: @ NYG
Philadelphia Eagles (5-6, 2-1)
Wk 13: v. WSH
Wk 14: @ DAL
Wk 15: @ LAR
Wk 16: v. HOU
Wk 17: @ WSH
While the Eagles are 1.5 games back on Dallas, it’s important to note how close their divisional records are. Philadelphia has only dropped one game in the division (v. Dallas), while the Redskins beat the Cowboys earlier this season.
The first tiebreaker for divisional rankings is head-to-head records, but the second is overall divisional record — so while Philadelphia is a bit behind Dallas’ overall record, the Eagles do have a fighting chance to end with a better divisional record. If they end with a better divisional record, they can tie the Cowboys in overall record after the season ends, and win the tiebreaker.
But that’s important to note: the first tiebreaker is head-to-head. So, if the Eagles drop another game to the Cowboys (the Week 14 game), it hardly matters what happens otherwise — they won’t win the division. If the Eagles lose to the Cowboys, the Cowboys will have the tiebreaker (head-to-head record) over the Eagles, as well as an overall record advantage. Philadelphia would need to win out (@ LAR, v. HOU, @ WSH) and Dallas would need to drop all three of their remaining games (@ IND, v. TB, @ NYG) — so basically, beating the Cowboys is everything. It is the whole enchilada. It is both the kit and the caboodle.
Priority 1: Beat the Cowboys in Week 14
Beating the Cowboys in Week 14 handles the first tiebreaker — and that brings us to the second, which is the divisional record. Philadelphia has three games remaining in the division on their schedule — the aforementioned Wk 14 game at Dallas, an upcoming Wk 13 MNF game at home against the Redskins, then Washington again in Wk 17 on the road.
That Wk 17 game will only matter, of course, if Philadelphia’s in fighting position for the NFC East title. That makes the Wk 13 game a bit more important.
If Philadelphia loses to the Redskins in Wk 13, they will be two games behind Dallas, and a full game behind in the divisional record. In order to win the division, then, the Eagles would have to win out and hope the Cowboys either A) lose to the Giants in Week 17 or B) lose to both the Colts and the Buccaneers. (Eagles end with a better overall record.)
Essentially, if they lose to the Redskins, they would need a miracle — not as big as the above miracle, but still a pretty big one.
Priority 2: Beat the Redskins in Wk 13
Philadelphia is expected to beat the Redskins, and rightfully so — backup QB Colt McCoy doesn’t pose much of a threat, and the Eagles are in desperation mode. Winning the Redskins game still would have been important had the Saints beaten the Cowboys (as the world wished it would be), but now it’s imperative.
Had the Cowboys lost to the Saints (and Eagles beat the Skins), Dallas would have come into the Wk 14 match-up with Philadelphia tied in overall record (6-6). As such, if and when Philadelphia won the Cowobys match-up, the Eagles would have been one game over the Cowboys, which would have given them the freedom to drop one of their remaining out-of-division games (@ LAR, v. HOU).
Philadelphia could have lost to the Rams, and even if the Cowboys had won out, the Eagles still would have won the division.
Because the Cowboys beat the Saints, that is no longer the case.
So, let’s take stock: Philadelphia essentially must win their next two division games (v. WSH, @ DAL), which will leave us here:
Philadelphia Eagles (7-6, 4-1)
Dallas Cowboys (7-6, 3-2)
You can see here why the Eagles control their own destiny, despite the Cowboys win: if they win their next two, they will have the divisional tiebreaker to keep Dallas at bay across the final three weeks of the season, regardless of what happens. Obviously, we’re asking an Eagles team who squeaked by the Giants and haven’t won consecutive games this season to string together a six-game win streak — but crazier things have happened.
The other angle you can look at it from is this: after Week 14, the Eagles just can’t lose any more games this season than Dallas does. The Eagles obviously have the Rams (eek!) and the Texans (a little less eek) in a tough back-to-back finish, but let’s say they split those. For one, Houston isn’t as good as their 8-3 record would suggest, and for two, the Eagles will suddenly be on a hot streak with a potential repeat division title within grasp, so we can assume they’re playing a little better.
If the Eagles split those games, they will have to hope Dallas drops one of their remaining three (looking at you, Week 15 at Indianapolis) so as to keep the division tied and remain on top via the tiebreaker (divisional record).
Both Philadelphia and Dallas will have to avoid trap games from the lessers of their divisional rivals which could make things wonky — but because that’s Week 17, let’s just worry about that when we get there.
Priority 3: Keep the tie with Dallas from Week 15 - 17
Now, that was the division: what about the wild card?
The only way Philadelphia has a prayer at a wild card berth is if they beat the Redskins and then lose to the Cowboys — because that will all but knock them out of divisional contention (see Priority 1).
At that point, they’ll be 6-7, and need to win out (9-7) to even have a shot at the wildcard. They’ll have in their way a Carolina (6-5) team that will likely finish at 9-7, a Seahawks team (6-5) that will likely finish somewhere between 9-7 and 10-6, and a Vikings team (6-4-1) likely to finish between 9-6-1 and 8-7-1.
(The Seahawks and Vikings play each other, hence the uncertainty.)
The Eagles would need a lot of help, as well as an improbable end-of-season run, to sneak in as a 6 seed.
Priority 4: Acknowledge the wild card is out of reach
Really, the most likely path for Philadelphia is:
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, 5-1)
Wk 13 v. WSH — W
Wk 14 @ DAL — W
Wk 15 @ LAR — L
Wk 16 v. HOU — W
Wk 17 @ WSH — W
Dallas Cowboys (9-7, 4-2)
Wk 14 v. PHI — L
Wk 15 @ IND — L
Wk 16 v. TB — W
Wk 17 @ NYG — W
It’s a long shot, but it’s there.