COMMENTARY | By the time the Philadelphia Eagles tee it up on Sunday Night Football against the Chicago Bears at Lincoln Financial Field, they will already know if they're playing to lock up the National Football Conference East title or if the outcome won't matter at all to their divisional and playoff hopes.
Should the Dallas Cowboys defeat the Washington Redskins on Sunday afternoon, the division will come down to an Eagles-Cowboys showdown the following weekend. Neither a win nor a loss against the Bears at Lincoln Financial Field will impact that showdown.
As we speak, Dallas trails Philadelphia by a game in NFC East. If they beat the Redskins and the Eagles, there would be at worst a tie for the division. That would favor the Cowboys by virtue of their two wins over Philadelphia this season.
If the Cowboys beat the Redskins, the Eagles will have to win in Dallas to qualify for the NFL playoffs. If the Cowboys lose in Washington, Philadelphia will clinch the division by beating Chicago. In short, this Sunday night's game could take on the intense atmosphere of a playoff game if Dallas loses.
But what happens if the Cowboys win in Washington? Should the Eagles treat Sunday night as a preseason game and avoid injuries ahead of the huge Dallas showdown? The game will mean a lot to the Bears as we will explain, but how focused can the Eagles expect to be?
Well, depending on how ambitious you want to get about the Eagles' chances of advancing deep into the playoffs, there is one very good reason. Let's spell it all out:
Both the Eagles and Bears will enter Sunday night with 8-6 records. Should the Eagles beat the Bears and then beat the Cowboys (7-7), they will enter the playoffs as the third seed in the NFC with a 10-6 record. The Bears would then finish the regular season at home with the Green Bay Packers (7-6-1). The NFC North division title could be up for grabs depending on what the Packers do this week and the Detroit Lions (7-7) do the next two weeks. But none of those teams could match what the Eagles' record would be at season's end in this scenario.
However, if the Bears beat the Eagles and win the following week over Green Bay, that would mean the Bears would enter the playoffs as the third seed in the NFC, regardless of the Eagles-Cowboys result. Should the Bears and Eagles each wind up as division winners at 9-7, a Bears victory over the Eagles on Sunday gives them the playoff seeding tie-breaker. Two Packers wins in their last two games and an Eagles loss to the Bears would give Green Bay the third seed as well, regardless of the Philadelphia-Dallas winner.
Detroit, which has beaten the Bears twice this season, can win the NFC North with two wins and one loss each by Chicago and Green Bay. In the event a playoff seeding tie-breaker with Detroit became necessary, it would go to the Eagles by virtue of Philadelphia's win over the Lions this season.
Got all that? Now, why does this NFC playoff seeding matter? In terms of the Eagles, there will be only one instance that it will. Here's how that works:
Under the NFL playoff system, the two division winners in each conference with the best records get first-round byes. The other two division winners are seeded third and fourth. They get first-round home games against the two wild card teams, seeded fifth and sixth.
In the second round, the first-round winners play at the home fields of the bye teams. Second-round winners advance to the conference championship games and the right to go to Super Bowl XLVIII.
It matters only if the Eagles and the NFC North champion reach the NFC conference championship round. If the Eagles win out and enter the playoffs at 10-6, they would host that game at Lincoln Financial Field. If they lose to the Bears and beat the Cowboys to enter at 9-7, they may have to travel to Soldier Field in Chicago or Lambeau Field in Green Bay to play for the conference title, all because of losing this game to the Bears.
Considering the other competitors in the NFC playoff picture, those seem unlikely conference championship matchups anyway. But stranger things have happened in this tournament over the years and every advantage helps. If Dallas wins Sunday afternoon, there may be a temptation for the Eagles to mail it in on Sunday night in order to set their sights on playing the Cowboys for all the division marbles.
If it works out that way, they just may be playing in the playoffs long enough to regret it,
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime Eagles follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards.
NFL standings, schedule: ESPN.com
NFL tie-breaking procedures: NFL.com
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