In Houston, they’re hanging on to difficult phrases like “not mathematically eliminated,” even though de facto starter Case Keenum wasn’t on the team five days ago and fans wonder if the Texans would have an easier time trading for RG3 or Jay Cutler in the offseason. Over in Dallas, meanwhile, the Cowboys prepare to play their most relevant late-season football in half a decade. 

It’s rare for a 10-4 team to be in the position that the Cowboys are in right now. The NFC is bunched into a jumble of five teams competing for four open playoff spots (the Arizona Cardinals, at 11-3, have already clinched an appearance; and the undetermined winner of the miserable NFC South, which will not post a winning record this year, is guaranteed one of the six total slots). That means that the team is capable of both taking the top seed in the entire conference, securing that the path to the Super Bowl will go through Arlington, or of missing the playoffs entirely.

No one in the NFC will be resting starters or looking ahead to the playoffs over the final weeks of the year. The Cowboys aren’t alone in being able to either win the conference or miss the playoffs—they’re joined in that unusual position by the Seahawks, Packers, and Lions. But those three teams have it relatively easy: Each of them needs to only win one more game against the truly crappy Rams, Bucs, or Bears, respectively, to guarantee they’ll be playing in January. The Cowboys, meanwhile, face a tough matchup against the 10-4, division-leading Indianapolis Colts if they want to remain in control of their own playoff destiny, and even then may need to go to Washington to take on a team that beat them at home earlier in the year in order to not be the odd-team-out at 11-5. 

In some ways, it’s an unenviable position for the Cowboys to be in: A tough schedule in a tough conference could leave them only the 4th 11-5 team in NFL history to miss the playoffs. On the other hand, Dallas is playing relevant football the Sunday before Christmas, so what is there to complain about? Let’s take a look at the potential scenarios for the ‘Boys. 

They Miss The Playoffs

The Cowboys are fortunate to control their own playoff destiny at the moment, but that can change on Sunday if the Colts—who’ve struggled in their previous two wins—come to Dallas and pull off a win. The Cowboys are currently favored by 3.5 points, and the Colts, who’ve already clinched their division and a playoff spot, have less to play for than Jerry’s boys do. But Indianapolis would presumably like to add a decisive victory to their late-season run, and quarterback Andrew Luck is hard to stop when he gets going. 

If the Cowboys lose to the Colts, they’re not eliminated from playoff contention (though they couldn’t earn the top seed anymore), but they’d no longer be in control of the NFC East. If Philadelphia, who plays losing teams in their final two weeks with Washington and the New York Giants their opponents, win both games, then the Cowboys would be unable to catch them. The Cowboys would miss the playoffs if they lose to the Colts, the Eagles win their next two games, and the Seahawks, Lions, and Packers each win at least one more time. That’s hardly an unfathomable scenario—indeed, if the Cowboys do lose to the Colts, it’s fair to wonder if they’d get the help they need from the crappy Giants, the crappy Bucs, the crappy Rams, or the crappy Bears to qualify. Which means that for Dallas, Sunday’s game is absolutely vital. 

They Win The NFC East, But Not The Conference

The most likely playoff scenario for the Cowboys has them qualify for the postseason by finishing the year on a four-game winning streak, having already clobbered the Bears and the Eagles in primetime. If they beat the Colts and then win in Washington, they’re guaranteed the #3 seed in the NFC, good for a first-round home playoff game. In that scenario, it doesn’t matter what happens with Philadelphia. 

The Cowboys would also potentially have the opportunity to give Tony Romo’s aching back and Demarco Murray’s surgically-repaired hand a chance to heal up before the playoffs, depending on what happens on Sunday. If they beat the Colts and the Eagles lose in Washington, then they clinch the NFC East with one game to go. If the Cardinals beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, meanwhile, and the Lions and the Packers beat the Bears and the Bucs, then the Cowboys will have no chance of landing a first-round bye, which means they’ll be locked into the #3 seed. In that scenario, Week 17 at Washington will have no outcome on the ‘Boys playoff future, which would give the team a mini-bye heading into the post-season.

Ultimately, though, much depends on Philadelphia. If the Eagles lose to Washington and to the Giants over the next two weeks, then the Cowboys don’t even need one win to take the NFC East crown. You wouldn’t necessarily want to gamble on that working out if you’re a Cowboys fan, but you’d probably also be pretty pumped to see reeling Philly starter Mark Sanchez under center for both games. All of which is to say: The Cowboys can win the NFC East if they’re good, or if the Eagles are bad. If both things happen, they might even score a week to rest some starters out of the deal. 

They Get A Wildcard

It’s unlikely, but possible, for the Cowboys to make the postseason even if the Eagles win out and they lose to either Indianapolis or Washington. The two wildcard slots in the NFC are still in play, and the Cowboys could secure one of them. In fact, the Cowboys can end up with a wildcard even if they lose both of their next two games. 

The scenario that makes that possible is, to put it gently, very unlikely: It would involve a collapse on the part of the surging Seattle Seahawks, who would need to lose to both Arizona and the St. Louis Rams. If that happens, the Cowboys would possess the head-to-head tiebreaker against Seattle that would grant them entry to the postseason. That probably won’t happen for a few reasons, not the least of which is that Arizona is starting some kid named Ryan Lindley at quarterback on Sunday, while the Rams have six weeks on the year. Other scenarios would involve the Cowboys securing at least one more win, then getting help from either the Bears or the Bucs against the Lions or the Packers. 

In other words, while there’s a path to the playoffs even if the Eagles win and the Cowboys lose, you don’t want to have to count on that happening.

The Cowboys Win The NFC Outright

Speaking of unlikely-but-possible, here’s something that could potentially happen: The Cowboys could take the top seed in the NFC, securing a first-round bye in the playoffs and homefield advantage throughout. 

The situation that would have to play out looks something like this: Because the Cowboys hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Seahawks, if both teams finish 12-4, the Cowboys would get the top seed over Seattle. So the Seahawks would need to win both games against the Cardinals and the Rams, to ensure that Seattle is the NFC West champion. (If they lose to the Cardinals, Arizona wins the conference, and the Cowboys don’t have a tiebreaker advantage against them.) Additionally, either the Lions would need to lose to Chicago on Sunday, or the Packers would need to lose to Tampa Bay. Both teams play each other in Week 17, so whichever team lost on Sunday would need to win the following week, ensuring that neither team reaches 12 wins. (If both teams lose in Week 16—and it’s worth noting that they’re both double-digit favorites on the road—then it doesn’t matter who wins the following week.) Alternately, the Lions and the Packers could each win in Week 16, then tie in Week 17. 

Ties are rare in the NFL; so are 10+ point underdogs who upset teams with playoff hopes at the end of the season. That means that buying NFC Championship Game tickets at AT&T Stadium in Arlington is probably not a sound investment, in case you were wondering.

All told, that’s a lot of complicated ways to look at information that boils down to “Win, or hope the Eagles lose.” But it’s gotta be better than the playoff scenarios the Cowboys have faced down the past five seasons, which were much simpler: “Wait till next year.” 

(AP Photo/James D Smith)