Sitting atop the NFC East at 5-4 with a 3-0 record in the division, the Dallas Cowboys are the favorites to be the East’s lone representative in the NFC. But by how much?
It’s difficult to accurately project playoff odds in Week 10 because there are literally millions and millions of different ways everything could play out. Even if games were nothing more than a series of random coin flips, the potential outcomes would be staggering. Throw in that rarely are games true 50/50 match ups and you have the makings of a pretty complex system.
There are a few different ways that we can estimate the Cowboys’ playoff chances with some degree of accuracy, though.
The Coin Flip Scenario
One way to determine the Cowboys' playoff chances is to initially assume that every game is a coin flip. That's probably not all that far from the truth with the nature of this current Dallas team, but either way, it will give us a baseline probability.
In terms of the Cowboys alone, the season could unfold 128 different ways. That's the number of potential win/loss combinations over their final seven games. If we assume the Cowboys' chances of winning each game are 50 percent, this is the distribution of potential outcomes:
You can see this resembles the normal distribution, as we'd expect in any set of random data. The Cowboys are highly unlikely to either win or lose all seven remaining games; there's right around a 1.6 percent chance that happens.
The 'Boys' have a much greater probability of going either 1-6 or 6-1 over their final seven contests, though. If each game were random, it would be around 10.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the odds of finishing either 3-4 or 4-3 are probably in the range of 54.8 percent.
How Many Wins to Get In?
Without a sophisticated computer to judge team strength and run a simulation of the rest of the season, we have to make an educated guess regarding the record Dallas will need to make the playoffs.
There's one fact that makes that easier: it's highly unlikely that the NFC East will support a Wild Card team this year. The odds of that happening are so small that we really just need to figure out Dallas' probability of winning the division to also grasp their playoff odds.
In every imaginable scenario, that record will be either 9-7 or 8-8. That doesn't mean that the Cowboys can't win 10 or more games, but just that it's almost a certainty that they'll need only nine, or perhaps eight.
If it's nine wins, the "random Cowboys" as represented in the above graph would have exactly a 50 percent chance to win the division. At 5-4, there's effectively a 50 percent chance that Dallas can reach 9-7.
If the 'Boys need only eight wins to get in, though, their probability soars to 77.4 percent. That represents the probability that they can finish out the season with at least three wins.
With that said, there's probably a greater chance of 9-7 being the record to reach than 8-8. Even with the Eagles in second place at 4-5, you'd expect one of the Cowboys' three division rivals to get hot and at least reach .500 by season's end. That means the Cowboys' playoff probability is likely weighted closer to 50 percent than 77.4 percent.
It's also worth noting that Advanced NFL Stats has a playoff model that uses expected points to project playoff probabilities, and they have the Cowboys at 53 percent to win the NFC East. That number actually decreased after Dallas beat the Vikings because the Cowboys played so poorly. Either way, both Advanced NFL Stats' model and my "random Cowboys" simulation suggests somewhere between a 50 to 60 percent chance to win the NFC East.
A Look at the Remaining Schedule
Here's the Cowboys' remaining 2013 schedule:
Week 10: @NO
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: @NYG
Week 13: OAK
Week 14: @CHI
Week 15: GB
Week 16: @WSH
Week 17: PHI
That's probably slightly more difficult than the average schedule, especially with four of the seven games on the road. Even if you think Dallas is a slightly above-average team, the schedule probably puts their remaining overall win probability near the 50 percent range.
On a less statistical note, let's just assume the Cowboys need four win to take down the division. Where do they get them?
If you're looking at the games in terms of the Vegas lines, there's only one game in which the Cowboys will undoubtedly be favored (the Raiders). The lines will likely be extremely close when Dallas takes on the Giants, Bears, Redskins, and Eagles; they could be favored in all of them, but it's far from a certainty at this point.
If the Cowboys are favored in only three games and win only the games in which they're not the underdog, you're looking at an 8-8 finish and a much smaller chance of making it into the postseason. Thus, to win the NFC East, it seems likely that the Cowboys will need to win at least one more game in which they are the underdog.