It’s a small sample size, but a telling one.
This is the 12th season since the NFL re-aligned its divisions in 2002, moving Arizona to the NFC West and comprising the NFC East out of Dallas, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
In that timespan since the Cowboys began playing six division games a year, they have managed a winning division record four times: 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2013.
You’ve probably put this together by now, but just in case you haven’t: on the three prior occasions, the Cowboys reached the playoffs. The 2003 Cowboys grabbed a wildcard berth in the NFC behind 12-4 Philadelphia. In 2007 and 2009, the Cowboys won the division and managed a 4-2 mark.
Dallas made the playoffs with a 2-4 division record in 2006, thanks to a 7-3 performance in its other games. But that is the only occasion since realignment the Cowboys have reached the postseason without handling business in the division.
It remains to be seen what becomes of the 2013 edition of the team, which in itself is surprising. Sunday night’s win against New York improved the Cowboys’ division record to 4-0, which means they’re guaranteed a winning record against NFC East teams – regardless of how they fare in the rematches with Washington and Philadelphia.
But the playoffs are no guarantee right now, at least not yet – a 2-5 mark against non-division opponents plays a role in that. The Cowboys could theoretically go 6-0 against the NFC East and still fail to earn a winning record this season.
Obviously, division success doesn’t guarantee a strong season. There are too many other variables involved. But it’s usually a telling microcosm. The last time the Cowboys jumped out to a 4-0 start in the NFC East was 2007, when they finished a franchise-best 13-3 and earned a playoff bye week.
It’s a bit tougher compare, because of the change in format. But I went back to the creation of the NFC East in 1970, when it was the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Cardinals (then in St. Louis), vying for the division title.
Since 1970, the Cowboys have missed the playoffs 17 times – 10 times from 1970 to 2001, and seven times from 2002 to 2012. Only once in that span have they missed the postseason with a winning division record.
The 1986 Cowboys went 5-3 in the NFC East, largely thanks to a 6-2 start on the season. The season spiraled out of control in Week 9 when Danny White broke his wrist in a loss to New York, however. Dallas lost seven of its last eight games and ended the season on a five-game losing streak.
Those Cowboys actually stumbled to their 5-3 division record, after opening the year 5-0 against their division rivals.
So history is on the Cowboys side, at any rate. It’s hard to imagine this team failing to reach the playoffs at 6-0, 5-1 or even 4-2 in the NFC East. Though the teams remaining on the schedule certainly don’t care about history lessons with the postseason on the line.