Predicting the Playoffs: Cowboys May Have Won, but They Shouldn't Get Too Comfortable

This isn't a good year to try to limp into the playoffs.

In most years, a 9-7 team has a very solid chance of making it to the playoffs. Since 2000, at least one team with a 9-7 or worse record has made the playoffs in five of the eight seasons. But this year, with four AFC and four NFC teams that are not leading their divisions sitting at 7-4 or better, it looks likely that 9-7 will not be enough to earn a wild card spot. To get in with a mediocre record, you need to be lucky enough to play in the AFC West.

So 5-5-1 Philly? The Eagles? Say sayonara. Not only did they get spit out by the Ravens and Andy Reid sparked a quarterback controversy by benching Donovan McNabb, but they have only one gimmee (a home game against Cleveland) left on the schedule. With the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins to play, the Eagles will help determine who wins the NFC East, but it won't be them. The Dolphins, Ravens, Patriots and Bills are all sitting at 6-5 or better, but it's likely that three of those four will be home for the playoffs, and even an 8-3 team like the Steelers can't be assured that its playoff ticket is waiting at will call.

But with five weeks left in the season, things are starting to clear up. Obviously it's too soon to feel very confident about what 12 teams will make it, but looking at everyone's upcoming schedule, here's a prediction as to how the playoffs will shape up. Now after some upsets over the next week, there will probably be a change or two next week, but this prediction was made by looking at each team's final five games on the schedule.

1. Tennessee133
2. New York Jets124
3. Pittsburgh115
4. Denver
5. Indianapolis115
6. New England
1. New York Giants
2. Tampa Bay
3. Arizona106
4. Chicago
5. Washington115
6. Carolina

What jumps out when analyzing the potential outcomes of the final five weeks is how difficult it will be to make it as a wild card this year. Looking at the remaining schedules, it's highly possible that a 10-6 Dolphins team could lose out on a playoff spot, as could a 10-6 Falcons team, a 10-6 Ravens team and a 10-6 Cowboys team.

So here's how it stands with five weeks to go:

Print the Playoff Tickets

Tennessee (10-1, .450)
Yeah they may have lost to the Jets, but the Titans are still cruising to the No. 1 seed. With the Lions on Turkey Day followed by the Browns and the Texans, Tennessee should be deciding by by mid-December whether they want to rest their starters or keep up momentum for the playoffs.

New York Giants (10-1, .611)
The Giants face four playoff contenders (Redskins, Panthers, Cowboys and Vikings) in the final five weeks plus the rival Eagles, so it's there's not really a easy game left on the schedule. But the Giants have shown that there's not anyone who really scares them, and with a three-game lead in the division, the Giants should still roll to the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals (7-4, .492)

Yeah, they lost to the Giants. Who cares? With the 49ers also losing, the Cardinals could clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Eagles this week and a 49ers loss to the Bills. For the Cardinals to not make the playoffs, they would have to go 0-5, while the 49ers would have to finish with a five-game winning streak, which won't happen.

Looking Good

New York Jets (8-3, .533)
By beating the Titans, the Jets finally proved to their skeptical fans that they are legit. They also gave themselves a very outside shot of finishing with the No. 1 seed in the AFC. If the Jets could catch the Titans, which is highly unlikely because of the Titans' easy schedule, the Jets would have the tiebreaker because of their head-to-head win. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, the Jets aren't a sure bet to win their division yet. With a slumping Broncos team, the 49ers and the Seahawks left on the schedule, bet on the Jets to win the division and they likely will end up as the No. 2 seed because of the Steelers' tougher schedule.

Denver Broncos (6-5, .491)
Yeah, they're pretty putrid as they proved with a blowout loss to the Raiders, but who's going to catch them? The Chargers could have climbed back into the division race by beating the Colts, but that loss left them them still 2 1/2 games behind with five to play. In a nightmare scenario for the NFL, the Broncos could be 7-8 (thanks to games against the Jets, Panthers and Bills in the next four weeks) and playing the 6-9 Chargers for the division title in Week 17 while a 10-6 team or two fails to make the playoffs as a wild card.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3, .491)
The Steelers' remaining schedule is pretty brutal. With the Patriots, Cowboys, Ravens and Titans coming up, it's still possible that the Steelers could finish the season 9-7 and wind up sitting at home. But considering that they are 2-2 against potential playoff teams this year, it's more realistic that the Steelers will split those four games, beat the soon-to-hire-Bill Cowher Browns in the finale and finish a solid 11-5.

Indianapolis Colts (7-4, .352)
In past years, the Colts have gotten into trouble because they rested their starters in the final weeks after wrapping up playoff spots early. While they won't have that problem this year, getting to finish the season by facing the Browns, Bengals, Lions and Jaguars may make the Colts feel like they are getting to take some time off. The Titans are the only remaining winning team on the schedule, and that game comes in Week 17, when the Titans will likely have wrapped up the No. 1 seed and will have nothing to play for. It's highly possible the Colts will finish at 12-4, while 11-5 looks extremely likely.

Washington Redskins (7-4, .448)
For a 7-4 team in a tough division, the Redskins are in pretty good shape. Their biggest asset is their schedule. The Redskins have the Giants and Ravens in the next two weeks, but if they can win one of those two games, they have a clear path to 11-5 thanks to wrapping up with the Bengals, Eagles and 49ers. Even if they do go 0-2 over the next two weeks, they still have a solid shot at a playoff spot because of a solid conference record.

In the Hunt

The NFC North teams: Chicago (6-5, .455), Minnesota (6-5, .545) or Green Bay (5-6, .400)
Only one team will make it out of the NFC North, but it's very hard to figure out which team that will be. The Packers would have put themselves in the driver's seat with a Monday night win against the Saints, but after their blowout loss, their schedule of cupcakes may not be enough. Green Bay has a likely loss this week against the Panthers, and a key game in Week 16 against the Bears, but they also have the Texans, Jaguars and Lions. The Bears have a one-game advantage and they control their own fate with games left against the Vikings (who they could wrap up a tiebreaker advantage with a win) and the Packers. The Vikings have the toughest path, as they still have the Falcons and Giants on the schedule.

New England Patriots (7-4, .473)
If the Patriots had lost to the Dolphins last week,. they likely would have been nearly finished. But thanks to that crucial win, New England is still in the thick of the race. This week's matchup against the Steelers will be crucial, but if New England can win that, the Seahawks and Raiders give New England a nice breather. The Cardinals and Bills finish up the schedule. All of those games are winnable, but if the Patriots could pick out a loss, going 4-1 with a loss to the Cardinals would be vastly superior than going 4-1 with a loss to the Steelers or especially the Bills, as conference and especially division losses could be costly in deciding tiebreakers.

Miami Dolphins (6-5, .364)
Yes, they have an easy remaining schedule, but at this point, it may be too late. Miami has gimmes against the Rams, 49ers and Chiefs, along with division games against the Bills and the Jets. The Jets game is helpfully in Week 17 where they can hope that New York has already wrapped up its playoff seeding. All that being said, the Dolphins are a game back of the Patriots and need New England to slip up at some point. But while the Dolphins are in a difficult spot, if they win out, they would still likely edge the Patriots for a wild card spot. In a head-to-head matchup, if the Dolphins win out (and assuming that the Patriots go 4-1), they would edge New England in the common games tiebreaker if Arizona beat New England or in the conference record tiebreaker if the Steelers beat the Patriots.

Dallas Cowboys (7-4, .593)
The Cowboys did what they were supposed to do by beating the 49ers, but that doesn't really do much to change their uphill battle. With the Steelers, Giants and Ravens on the schedule in the next four weeks, Dallas needs to play its best football of the season over the final month. The Redskins have an easier path to a playoff spot, but Dallas has the Seahawks next week and the Eagles in the finale, so it's not a hopeless cause by any stretch of the imagination.

Baltimore Ravens (7-4, .500)
The Ravens easy win over the Eagles was a key step in keeping them in the playoff race. Baltimore still has a decent shot of winning the AFC North if they can beat the Steelers in three weeks (especially since the Steelers have the Patriots and Cowboys to play before that), but if they don't beat Pittsburgh, they could end up struggling to make the playoffs at all. The Cowboys and Redskins give Baltimore two more difficult games. Win only one of those three and the Ravens still have a shot, but it would get down to tiebreakers that are too complicated to figure out this far out.

The NFC South Teams: Carolina (8-3, .636) and/or Tampa Bay (8-3, .509) and/or Atlanta (7-4, .473) and/or New Orleans (6-5, .515)
It's possible that three teams will make it out of the South, and it's likely that at least two will. New Orleans clearly is the longshot here, even if Drew Brees is threatening Dan Marino's passing yardage record. With games left against the Packers, Bears, Bucs, Falcons and Panthers, the good news is that if the Saints can somehow win out, they will have handed all three teams ahead of them in the NFC South a loss, but considering they are 6-5 right now, it's hard to believe that can happen.

How rough is it to be a Falcons fan? After all the crap they dealt with last year, now there is a chance they could have only the fifth double-digit wins season in franchise history and it may not be enough to get them a playoff spot. With the Rams and the Chargers still on the sked, the Falcons have a very solid shot at nine wins, and they have a chance to catch the Bucs with a game left against them. A road game against the Vikings and their second game against the Saints are both winnable as well, but Atlanta will have an uphill battle.

The Panthers looked to be in great shape just a week ago, but the loss to the Falcons gives the team a reason to worry. With the Packers, Bucs, Broncos, Giants and Saints ahead, there are five games against teams battling for playoff spots--it's tied with the Steelers for the toughest schedule to end the season. An 8-3 record makes it still likely Carolina can land a wild card spot, but if the Bucs beat Carolina in two weeks, it's unlikely they'll end up winning the division.

Tampa Bay is in very good shape thanks to some help from the Falcons' beating the Panthers. Tampa beat Carolina in their first matchup, so it can wrap-up the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win over the Panthers in two weeks. The schedule is rough for the next three weeks, with the Saints, Panthers and Falcons, but finishing off with the Chargers and Raiders gives Tampa a little margin of error the other NFC South teams don't have.

Still a Pulse

San Diego Chargers (4-7, .455)
The Chargers have no business being even mentioned, but with the Broncos continuing to fall apart, there is still a glimmer of a chance for San Diego to sneak into the playoffs. The Chargers have difficult games against the Falcons and Bucs sandwiched around easy games against the Raiders and Chiefs. If San Diego can win all four of those, they still have an outside chance to play the Broncos in Week 17 for the division title. But realistically, a 4-7 Chargers club isn't likely to run off a five-game winning streak.

Buffalo Bills (6-5, .545)
Life's not fair, which explains why the Bills have not much better of a shot at a playoff spot than the Chargers. The Bills have a very difficult schedule to end the season, but the good news for them is that they also have their fate somewhat in their own hands. With the Jets, Dolphins and the Patriots left on the schedule, the Bills could jump back into the playoff hunt with an amazing turnaround, but it's hard for anyone but the most diehard Bills fan to see that happening.

Predicting the Playoffs: Cowboys May Have Won, but They Shouldn't Get Too Comfortable originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Tue, 25 Nov 2008 14:00:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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