Back in August, you wouldn’t have had to look long to see NFL analysts projecting the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers to both make the playoffs, with several including a deep playoff run in the evaluation. Reaching the Super Bowl was a realistic expectation for both teams in the eyes of many pundits, and the stars certainly seemed to be in place to make those dreams a reality.
But all that changed relatively quickly this season. The Packers started 4-1 but then lost Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone during their Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, easily the biggest injury in an NFL season full of them. Already dealing with injuries at tackle and running back, the Packers have lost four of their next six after the Vikings game, evening their record at 6-6 as Rodgers returns to practice.
Meanwhile in Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension coupled with the loss of Sean Lee and Tyron Smith for a few games has deprived them of three of their top seven players, and Dak Prescott has struggled in their absence. The Cowboys’ young secondary has been lit up repeatedly, and the offensive line that was the strength of the team last year has been much more up-and-down this season.
Which of these talented but injury-plagued 6-6 teams has the better chance at making the playoffs in a loaded NFC?
Let’s look at the NFC teams that are probably in. The Eagles will win the East, the Vikings will win the North, and the Saints have an edge in the South after sweeping Carolina, albeit with both matchups against Atlanta still to be played. If we put those three teams in, the Rams will likely finish no worse than 11-5, putting them in whether they win the division or not. Their remaining opponents are Philadelphia, Tennessee, Seattle and San Francisco. I don’t think they will lose more than two of those.
Seattle’s win over Philadelphia was devastating to both the Packers’ and Cowboys’ playoff hopes, because the Seahawks now sit at 8-4 and in control of the fifth playoff seed. Carolina matches their record of 8-4 and sits in the sixth spot. Here’s how the rest of the NFC playoff picture looks if you consider the Eagles, Vikings, Saints and Rams as division winners:
- 5th seed – Seahawks 8-4
- 6th seed – Panthers 8-4
- Falcons – 7-5 — beat Seahawks, Packers, Lions and Cowboys; lost to Panthers, play Panthers again in Week 17
- Lions 6-6 — lost to Panthers, beat Packers, play Packers again in Week 17
- Packers 6-6 — beat Seahawks, beat Cowboys, play Panthers in Week 15
- Cowboys 6-6 — play Seahawks in Week 16 (with Ezekiel Elliott eligible to play)
Although not officially eliminated, I consider Washington, Arizona and Tampa Bay out of contention at this point with sub-.500 records. Seattle has a tough road to hoe without a ton of key players, with road games against Jacksonville and Dallas and always-daunting NFC West matchups with Arizona and Los Angeles. I’m speculating here obviously, but 10-6 is a realistic outcome for Seattle, which puts the onus on Dallas and Green Bay to win out unless the Panthers collapse.
That’s where things get interesting. The Panthers have 10-2 Minnesota next, before facing the Packers in what could be Aaron Rodgers’ return to action on December 17. The Buccaneers and Falcons follow after that, and if Rodgers returns, the Panthers could realistically finish 9-7 after being 8-3 a week ago. I think they’re poised for a letdown given their offensive flaws, which would open the door for Atlanta and the rest of the 6-6 teams to win the race.
Atlanta is the biggest obstacle in both teams’ way. Both teams lost to the Falcons in the regular season, so they need Atlanta to lose two more games while winning out to get ahead of them. That seems like a lot to ask, but the Falcons have been all over the place as a team this season, and still have to play New Orleans twice as well as the Bucs and Panthers. A Saints’ sweep should be on the Christmas list of every Cowboy and Packer fan.
In short, this is clearly a long shot for both teams. The Packers have lost tiebreakers to Atlanta, Detroit and New Orleans (should it come to that) so far this season, while managing to knock off Seattle before Rodgers went down. Dallas doesn’t have a single useful tiebreaker, losing to the Rams, Falcons and, most notably, Green Bay.
The room for error for both teams is incredibly small, but for Dallas, winning out is only a small part of the puzzle. The Cowboys need the Panthers, Falcons, Seahawks and Packers to slip up while winning out against the Giants, Raiders and Eagles on the road and the Seahawks at home. That’s a treacherous slate.
Green Bay has to go on the road to Cleveland and Carolina in the next two weeks, before returning home against Minnesota two days before Christmas, then finishing the season in Detroit. Because both Dallas’s and Green Bay’s playoff chances are predicated on winning out, and Aaron Rodgers figures to be back by at least the Vikings game, the Packers clearly have a better chance of making the postseason than the Cowboys.
If Rodgers miraculously returns for the Carolina game, I do think Green Bay will win out. He makes that big of a difference. But I’m not sure I see Atlanta falling to 9-7 with all its talent, though I think Carolina will falter down the stretch and miss the playoffs. It’s not unfathomable to see the Panthers lose three of four and the Falcons drop both games to the Saints to finish 9-7, while Green Bay beats the Browns and then wins out with Rodgers, but it is asking for a lot to happen, most notably as it pertains to No. 12’s health.
The hope is slim, but alive, and let’s be honest, we’ve all seen Rodgers and Green Bay pull off some slick maneuvering to win games and land in the playoffs at the end of the season. Don’t count the Packers out just yet, but the Cowboys are close to looking ahead to 2018.