After a season that began with Super Bowl-high expectations, the Dallas Cowboys, about to play their 14th game of the year, are left to compete for the NFC's booby prize, the sixth seed in the playoffs. Even if the Cowboys manage to beat the odds and get in, they'll face three road games against the conference's best teams on the way to the Super Bowl. Another Jason Garrett-led playoff meltdown is practically inevitable.
That doesn't mean there aren't reasons for Cowboys fans to hope — reasons why no NFC team really wants the Cowboys to get into the tournament. If they do, they'll have running back Ezekiel Elliott, fresh from a league-mandated six-game suspension. Sean Lee, the Cowboys defense anchor, will be around, too, after missing almost half the regular season because of an injury. Given their full complement of players, the Cowboys have as talented a roster as exists in the NFC.
Still, it's clearly a long-shot, thanks to the number of moving parts that need to align. For those who failed calculus in college, figuring out the Pokes' path to the playoffs is a tough one. Perhaps it's best just to put on that lucky jersey and pray for a miracle. For those of you who actually follow this stuff (hey, how's your fantasy team doin'?) here's the details of what needs to go right for the Cowboys to get into the playoffs:
1. The Cowboys need to win the rest of their games, starting Sunday night in Oakland.
Any playoff scenario in which the 7-6 Cowboys don't win the rest of their games is too remote to consider. If the Cowboys win all three, their chances of making the playoffs are about 60 percent, according to this handy simulator created by The New York Times Upshot Blog. If they win only two of their remaining games, their chances range from 1 percent to 6 percent.
Sunday night's contest against the Raiders is the most difficult. While the Raiders aren't as good as the Seahawks and Eagles, their last two opponents, they still have a lot to play for. Despite Oakland's 6-7 record, the team is just a game behind the Chiefs and Chargers for first place in the AFC West.
Sunday also marks the Cowboys' last game without Elliott. He returns Christmas Eve for the team's home game with the Seahawks. If the Cowboys take care of business in Arlington, only a trip to Philadelphia will remain on the schedule. The Eagles, 11-2 and without starting quarterback Carson Wentz, who is out for the season with a knee injury, likely won't have much to play for in week 17, opening the door for the Cowboys.
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2. Somebody in the NFC South needs to crash and burn.
In addition to running the table, the Cowboys also need either the Falcons or the Panthers to lose two of their remaining three games. While expecting two of the three best teams in the conference to drop might seem foolish, the 9-4 Panthers have to play Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday and the 8-5 Falcons on the season's last day. The Falcons visit the NFC South Division-leading Saints in week 16.
3. The Packers and Lions need to lose one game each ... unless.
While the Packers and Lions are tied with the Cowboys at 7-6, both teams will finish ahead of the Cowboys if clubs end with the same record. That means Dallas needs Green Bay and Detroit each to cough up one of their final three games. Green Bay plays the Panthers on Sunday, followed by games against the 10-3 Vikings and the Lions. The Lions have a far easier schedule. They take on the Bears on Saturday afternoon before finishing the season with games against the Bengals and Packers. To muddy the waters further, if both the Falcons and Panthers lose once in the next two weeks only one of the Packers or Lions would need to lose a game over the next three weeks. (Listen, we told you this was hard.)
4. The Rams must stay ahead of the Seahawks.
If the Cowboys win out, they'll finish ahead of the Seahawks, thanks to a head-to-head victory. For that to mean anything, however, the Los Angeles Rams, who lead the Seahawks in the NFC West by one game, have to keep that lead. If the 9-4 Rams give up the division to Seattle and finish with 10-6 record, they'd still get in over the Cowboys because of their victory in Arlington in October.
It's that simple.