Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Where the Cowboys really stand

With the Cowboys now heading into an off week, let's look at the road ahead for this 5-4 team that would provide the biggest let down of the NFL season if they missed the playoffs.

With seven games remaining (4 home, 3 road), the Cowboys currently have the ninth-best record in the NFC.  Twelve teams in the conference are 4-4 or better.  Only half of those teams can make the playoffs, and they all still are very much alive. With so many solid teams in the conference, the Wild Card teams will have to be 10-6 to make the playoffs. Teams that go 9-7 or 8-8 probably won't get the job done when looking at the fact that 12 of the 16 teams are on pace to go 8-8 or better. For Dallas to go 10-6, they'll need to win five of their remaining seven games, which could prove to be a daunting task. Look at the schedule:

@Washington (6-3)
San Francisco (2-6)
Seattle (2-6)
@Pittsburgh (6-2)
New York Giants (7-1)
Baltimore (5-3)
@Philadelphia (5-3)

The Cowboys ability to win these games depends on if Tony Romo is back in the lineup and healthy. Yes, he's scheduled to return after the bye week, but his pinkie still has to heal. We haven't seen him since he tried to play in St. Louis - a move that still baffles me when considering the fact that after he was deemed unable to play, he still dressed for the game. But let's assume - oh please dear lord - that Romo will be back after the bye.

The game at Washington looks more winnable after their loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night, although did anyone else notice the nice backup QB play the Steelers got from Byron Leftwich? Cowboys fans should be jealous. The games against the 49ers and Seahawks games should be easier contests compared to the rest of the schedule, but the Cowboys can't take them lightly (see: Rams game 10/19). If they win either of those games, the playoffs won't be taking place for Dallas. They need to pile up wins and those two games are ones they MUST have.

The game at Pittsburgh will be one of the tougher games down the stretch, as well as the home game against the Giants the following week. The Cowboys will need to steal one of these two games to help their playoff cause. Maybe they'll be able to catch one of those two teams napping, as each seems to be running away with their respective division races.

The Cowboys should beat Baltimore at home on December 20, the final regular season game at Texas Stadium - and possibly the final game at the stadium depending on if the Cowboys make the playoffs and what they seeding would be. They close the season at Philadelphia, where they have won two of the last three times they've played there. It's winnable but certainly not easy, and both teams will probably be fighting for the same playoff spot.

The combined record of the Cowboys' non-divisional opponents down the stretch is 15-17. Add in the record of their NFC East foes, and Dallas' opponents are a combined 33-24.

The Giants remaining schedule outside the division includes opponents with a combined record of 20-12, by far the hardest remaining non-division schedule of any NFC East team.  The record of Eagles remaining non-divisions schedule: 14-19.  The Redskins remaining non-division opponents: 10-23, by far the easiest.

So while the Skins struggled last night against - albeit on the road in Pittsburgh - they have a cushy schedule ahead of them.  And their 6-3 record gives them an inside track to a Wild Card berth.  Tampa Bay is also 6-3, but thanks to the Cowboys win over the Bucs, if Dallas can finish the season tied with TB, they hold the tie-breaker.  The Eagles are currently a half-game ahead of Dallas, but with a game still to be played against each other, the Cowboys control their own fate against Philly.

One team not to underestimate: the Atlanta Falcons.  At 5-3, they have a half-game lead over Dallas with a schedule that could break in their favor.  Their remaining opponents, including four games against their NFC South Division foes, are combined 33-32 and only two opponents - rivals Carolina and Tampa Bay - have +.500 records.  The Falcons could make a charge to claim a wild card spot.  They have to be taken seriously.

So where does that leave the Cowboys?  Well, that leaves them in their current ninth place.  That's in the bottom half of teams in the conference in a year they were projected in win it all.  The Cowboys are in trouble, no doubt about it.  They need five wins, and they need other teams to falter.  

And, dear lord, they need Tony Romo back.

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