The Dallas Cowboys officially closed out the third quarter of their 2012 schedule with a victory Sunday night over the Philadelphia Eagles to bring their overall record to 6-6. Even though the Cowboys season has not played out as had been hoped prior to the start of it, they are still very much mathematically alive for a postseason berth. The Cowboys have two ways to get in, either via winning the NFC East and gaining an automatic berth, or by the being one of the two non-division winning wild card teams.
Currently the New York Giants lead the NFC East with a record of 7-5. The Cowboys and Washington Redskins are one game behind the Giants with identical records of 6-6. The Cowboys and Giants split the season series, so if they ended the season with identical records, tie breakers will come into play. The Cowboys lost their first match-up with the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, so they currently hold the advantage over the Cowboys at this point in time.
The two wild cards births currently would go to the Chicago Bears at 8-4 and the Seattle Seahawks at 7-5. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they lost to both the Bears and Seahawks this season. If the season ends and the records are identical, the Cowboys will lose the tie breaker to both of these teams in this scenario.
With this laid out in front of the Cowboys, this final quarter of the season will be important for the future of the Cowboys. The team has not played particularly well in December and January in recent seasons. With the injury situation on this team currently, the Cowboys may not be able to have postseason success even if they were able to sneak into the playoffs. Fans of the team seem to be split on what they want for the Cowboys in this final quarter. One segment wants the Cowboys to advance to the postseason and hope the team can find success once there. The other segment wants the team to falter down the stretch, lose out and get a top 10 draft pick, and cause Jerry Jones to contemplate if he wants to make serious changes within the entire organization.
With all of this laid out, let’s look at the opponents the Cowboys will face in the final quarter of their 2012 seasons.
Week 14 (@ Cincinnati; 7-5; 583 winning percentage)
Week 15 (vs. Pittsburgh; 7-5; .583 winning percentage)
Week 16 (vs. New Orleans; 5-7; .417 winning percentage)
Week 17 (@ Washington; 6-6; .400 winning percentage)
These opponents current record is 25-23, with a .5208 winning percentage. The game in Cincinnati will be cold, and will be a tough match-up as the Bengals are much improved from past seasons. The Bengals have used high draft picks on their offensive line and thus they have built quality and stability along it. This strong offensive line has led to multiple running backs having success in the running game and also has gave Andy Dalton time in the passing game. AJ Green has become a top 5 receiver in the NFL, and can make big plays in the passing game if given an opportunity. They are fighting for a wild card berth themselves, so they will play the Cowboys very tough. The game in Week 15 against the Steelers is going to be tough as they are currently holding the last wild card spot in the AFC. We all saw how well the Bears fans showed up in Week 4, and expect a similar showing from Steeler fans. Ben Roethlisberger has missed the last few games for the Steelers, but has been practicing this week and should be playing in this game.
New Orleans comes to town the following week, and Drew Brees and the Saints offense is explosive, so this game could become a shootout. The Saints play their best inside in closed stadiums, so the Cowboys will have to probably score at least thirty points to stay in this game. Lastly, the Week 17 matchup on the road against the Redskins will be ugly. NFC East games are usually tightly contested, the weather will be chilly, and the fans hostile. With the Cowboys already losing to the Redskins on Thanksgiving, this could end up being a “must-win” for the Cowboys to be able to get in to the playoffs.
Although the Cowboys have not played up to their potential this year, the team is still fortunate to have the ability to control their destiny. The most direct path for a spot in the postseason will be by winning the division. It will be interesting to see the want and desire of the players on this team as this could be the last run for this team as currently constituted. With multiple high-salaried players taking up substantial amounts on the salary cap, the Cowboys in recent seasons have not shown reluctance to show veteran players the door.
Follow Craig Cortemeglia on Twitter at @ccortemegliaTLH