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Can The Dallas Cowboys Avoid Another Playoff Flop?

Among die-hard NFL fans, there are really only two ways to feel about the Dallas Cowboys: Either you love them or you hate them. And around this time of year, as we get into the final stretch of the season, both of those sides are itching to be right about how and when the season will come to an end for “America’s Team.”

Cowboys fans have been on the wrong side of that debate in recent years. Despite entering the playoffs with 10 or more regular-season wins seven times since 2002, the organization has yet to make the NFC title game since its Super Bowl XXX win in 1996. And with Dallas sitting at 10-4 this season, the Cowboys could find themselves in a familiar position once again. 

Coming off a 40-34 overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday — a game in which the Cowboys held a 27-10 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter — Dallas needed the New York Giants to beat the Washington Commanders for the Cowboys to clinch a playoff berth. (Which did happen.) It wasn’t exactly the most convincing way to make the case that the league’s most polarizing franchise will finally make it past the divisional round. So why should this year be any different in Big D?

Even following the loss, there are plenty of reasons for optimism for this year’s Cowboys squad. Dallas currently sits in second in the NFC East, the league’s most competitive division this season, and the defense has played a key role in getting the team to this point. The unit is tied for the seventh-best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing just 19.2 points per game, and ranks fifth in defensive efficiency (63.75). The defense also boasts 3.56 expected points added per game, which ranks fourth this season. 

In addition to those top-line numbers, Dallas has recorded 49 sacks, second to only the Eagles, and forced a league-leading 26 turnovers this season. And the team is holding opposing offenses to just 324.6 yards per game, the eighth-fewest in the NFL. (No wonder star linebacker Micah Parsons was so confident during a recent interview with Von Miller on The VonCast.)

The offense has been productive as well, which could be a result of balanced playcalling. The Cowboys’ run/pass ratio has been nearly perfectly 50-50 through Week 15, as the offense has called for only one more passing play (442 pass attempts) than it has rushing plays (441 carries). That balance has helped the unit maintain its status as one of the most prolific offenses in the league. This season, Dallas is averaging the third-most points of any team this season, with 28.1 points per game, and it has the seventh-highest offensive efficiency rating (58.26) according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. That efficiency may be most evident in the red zone. When inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, the Cowboys are scoring touchdowns 71.7 percent of the time, which ranks behind only the Eagles (73.5).

Even with all that appears to be going right for Dallas, the team also has its share of obstacles, which could make the path to breaking its divisional round curse difficult. Perhaps health is the biggest issue Dallas is facing: The defense already has lost multiple starters for the season, in cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. Starting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch also left Sunday’s game with a neck injury, while the offense lost starting right tackle Terence Steele for the season last week due to a knee injury.

Additionally, any assessment of Dallas’s chances should also consider the NFC’s potential playoff landscape. For as good as the Cowboys have been this season, a strong argument could be made that they’re still only the third- or even fourth-best team in the conference, depending on which metric you look at.

Among NFC teams, Dallas trails Philadelphia and the Minnesota Vikings in winning percentage and is behind Philly and the San Francisco 49ers in points-per-game differential. The Eagles have the league’s best record and appear primed to win the NFC East and claim the No. 1 seed in the conference. San Francisco has won seven straight games, and has dropped only one home game all season. The Vikings, despite a 40-3 blowout loss to Dallas in Week 11, still hold the No. 2 seed in the conference and showed the resilience of a team that could be a threat to anybody in the postseason after pulling off the biggest comeback in NFL history last weekend. The Cowboys might be favored in a playoff game against Minnesota or San Francisco, but they wouldn’t be versus Philadelphia — and none of those games figures to be easy either way.

And even though Dallas already has clinched a playoff berth, the team currently holds only a wild-card spot, meaning it would have to go through the NFC South winner (most likely the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) to even get to any of those other NFC foes. 

FiveThirtyEight’s model gives the Cowboys an 8.1 percent chance to win it all, which ranks fifth among all NFL teams. But they have only a 32.5 percent chance to make the conference title game (worst among any team with at least 4 percent Super Bowl odds), in large part because getting out of the first round — and then getting past one of those other heavy hitters in the conference — is no guarantee. That means there’s roughly a 2-in-3 chance that we will find ourselves asking why the Cowboys can’t make it past the divisional round yet again, despite how good Dallas has looked for much of the 2022 season.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.


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