It doesn’t make sense. After 13 weeks, a Dallas Cowboys team that began reeling in Week 2, spent nearly the next three months spiraling into oblivion, yet somehow staying alive like a stubborn cat on its eighth-and-a-half life all because of the simple, incontrovertible fact that one of the four teams in the NFC East has to win the division, should have finally expired on Sunday evening in Green Bay, after a 28-7 loss that was as ugly as the eight that preceded it. But they didn’t. The Cowboys are still alive. The 4-9 Dallas Cowboys are still very alive.
Here’s how the NFC East standings sit on Sunday night (New York plays Monday night):
It jumps out at first. Wait: If the Cowboys win out and the other teams lose out, Dallas wins the division outright! But that’s not the case. The ‘Skins and Eagles play in Week 16, so one of those teams is finishing with a minimum of seven wins, but that has no effect on this bizarrely practical scenario in which Dallas wins the East, becomes the first 3-8 and 4-9 team to ever make the playoffs and hosts a wild-card game, likely against the two-time reigning NFC champion Seattle Seahawks:
1. Cowboys win out (vs. Jets, at Bills, vs. Redskins).
2. No other NFC East team gets to eight wins, which means neither Washington nor Philadelphia finish the season with a 2-1 record and the Giants don’t finish 3-1. (Remaining schedules: Washington: vs. Bills, at Eagles, at Cowboys; Philadelphia: vs. Cardinals, vs. Redskins at Giants; New York: at Miami, vs. Panthers, at Vikings, vs. Eagles)
AND THAT’S IT! That’s all that has to happen. It’s not as if every team has to lose out. Washington, Philadelphia and New York just can’t finish above .500 and that’s not a problem because none of those teams are over .500 right now!
Okay, so what’s this voodoo that gets Matt Cassel into the postseason? It’s all about tiebreakers. In the event Dallas were to tie one other team at 7-9, the following would happen: In a two-team tie, the tiebreaker is head-to-head record. The Cowboys would oust the Redskins this way, having swept Washington with this theoretical Week 17 win. They’ve split with the Giants and Eagles, so things would jump to the next tiebreaker, which is division record. That tiebreaker is won by Dallas at 4-2. Neither the Giants nor the Eagles would be any better than 3-3.
What about a three- or four-way tie? In that situation, the first tiebreak is head-to-head records. It’s the same deal, basically: Dallas ousts Washington and beats New York and Philadelphia because of its 4-2 division record.
Since Dallas is 4-9, most people thought the Packers loss was it. NBC didn’t even include Dallas on its list of playoff contenders in the Sunday Night Football pregame show! (Three years ago, when the Redskins were making a similar improbable run with Robert Griffin III, the same thing happened — the networks weren’t even considering the team as a potential postseason participant.)