2021 NFL Playoff Picture, Standings: Cowboys face Washington on Sunday Night Football, look to clinch division title


The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team are set to face off in a division matchup that has important implications on the NFL playoff picture. The Cowboys could clinch the NFC East before kickoff on Sunday night (more on that below) or with a win over Washington at AT&T Stadium. Live coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. ET with Football Night in America. The match-up will also be available via live stream on Peacock.

The Cowboys clinched their first playoff berth in three years on Thursday, thanks to the Tennessee Titans’ 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The Cowboys’ 8-1 conference record ensures that they will not fall below the seventh seed.

Not only have the Cowboys not won their division since 2018, but they have not advanced beyond the divisional round of the postseason since 1995 – the same season in which they won their last Lombardi Trophy. Dallas is tied for second in the NFL in Super Bowl victories with five, but owner Jerry Jones wants to end the 26-year drought sooner rather than later.

Entering this season, the Cowboys were NFC East favorites and as the season has progressed, Dallas has fought its way into Super Bowl conversations. With a 10-4 record, the Cowboys occupy the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind the 11-3 Green Bay Packers. Clinching the No. 1 seed is crucial because it is the only spot in the playoff rankings that guarantees a first-round bye. In order to secure the top seed, the Cowboys not only need to keep winning but they need the other teams that share a 10-4 record – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams to drop some of their next three contests.

When the season began, Dallas was expected to have an upper hand because of its offense. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who missed the majority of last season with an ankle injury, returned healthy and he had numerous elite receivers to throw to in CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper. But as the season has progressed, it has been Dallas’ defense that has stepped up in unexpected ways.

RELATED: NFL playoff clinching scenarios for Week 16

The unit, led by new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, has held opponents to 20.9 points per game, which is seventh-best in the league. Last season, the defense allowed 29.6 points per game for 28th in the league. The unit has its weaknesses as it is still allowing 356.9 yards per game this season, which is 22nd in the league. But the defining characteristic of this defense has been its ability to force turnovers. The Cowboys are tied with the Indianapolis Colts for the most turnovers in the NFL with 31, including a league-leading 23 interceptions. Star cornerback Trevon Diggs has 10 interceptions alone, which is more than 13 NFL teams.

After the Cowboys defeated the New York Giants last week, Diggs said “We’re the best defense for sure.” The sentiment was echoed by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones who said of the defense: “I don’t know that we’ve ever, we’ll say in the last 10 years, had the players we’ve got.”

Meanwhile, the 6-8 Washington Football Team – which put together a four-game winning streak throughout Weeks 10-13 – has been hit hard with positive COVID-19 cases and injuries. Prior to the team’s crucial game against the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15, Washington had up to 26 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke and backup QB Kyle Allen. Due to the outbreak, the NFL moved Washington’s game against the Eagles to Tuesday. In the game, Washington was also missing key offensive weapons Logan Thomas and J.D. McKissic due to injuries.

Though Heinicke has since been cleared to return from COVID-19 and can play on Sunday night, Washington’s loss to the Eagles on Tuesday pushed the Football Team into the No. 10 seed in the NFC and effectively dimmed their playoff chances.

NBC News political correspondent Steve Kornacki is back on Football Night in America to trade election result breakdowns for NFL playoff picture scenarios. Kornacki will join the show for the remainder of the regular season and will be a part of NBC Sports’ coverage of Super Bowl LVI from SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 13.

RELATED: When do the 2022 NFL playoffs start: Dates, schedule, TV channels, live streams, format

Week 16 Division-Clinching Scenarios for Dallas Cowboys

As mentioned above, the cowboys could clinch the division before even taking the field on Sunday night. Below are the other scenarios in which Dallas can win the NFC East with the help of other teams.

  1. The Giants beat the Eagles OR
  2. Two or more of the following teams win:
    • MIN (vs LAR), LAC (at HOU), NE (vs BUF),
      JAX (at NYJ), ATL (vs DET), LV (vs DEN)

If two or more of the above teams win, that would give Dallas the strength of victory tiebreaker over Philadelphia should both teams finish at 10-7.

If none of the above happens, the Cowboys also control their own destiny and can clinch the NFC East with a win over Washington on Sunday night.

Week 16 NFL Picks and Power Rankings

Mike Florio and the team at ProFootballTalk have broken down their picks and power rankings for Week 16. They have Aaron Rodgers and the 11-3 Green Bay Packers at the top of the list. Click here to see where the rest of the league falls as the playoff race tightens.

RELATED: With three weeks left, 27 teams are still alive

Current 2021 NFL Playoff picture

2021 AFC Standings

Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)

Tennessee Titans (10-5)

New England Patriots (9-5)

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)

Buffalo Bills (8-6)

On the bubble:

Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1)

Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

Miami Dolphins (7-7)

Cleveland Browns (7-7)

Denver Broncos (7-7)

2021 NFC Standings

Green Bay Packers (11-3) – clinched division title

Dallas Cowboys (10-4) – clinched postseason berth

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4)

Arizona Cardinals (10-4)

Los Angeles Rams (10-4)

San Francisco 49ers (8-7)

Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

On the bubble:

Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)

New Orleans Saints (7-7)

Washington Football Team (6-8)

Atlanta Falcons (6-8)

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