Playoffs? Cowboys' path looks to be through the NFC East only

Clark: Cowboys need to be more creative with Zeke (0:53)

Ryan Clark says the Cowboys need to find different ways to get Ezekiel Elliott touches after losing to the Vikings. (0:53)

FRISCO, Texas -- As he stood outside the Dallas Cowboys locker room, answering questions, owner and general manager Jerry Jones praised the job done by Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, his former defensive coordinator.

Jones wanted to make sure he was paying proper respect to a team that outplayed his own Sunday in a 28-24 decision, but at the end, Jones' feelings came out.

"Disappointed. Disappointed," Jones said, repeating the word for emphasis. "We'll have to pay for this one and hopefully it won't be terminal."

At the moment, the loss to the Vikings is not terminal. Just as the loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 29 wasn't terminal. Just as the loss to the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 6 wasn't terminal. Just as the loss to the New York Jets on Oct. 13 wasn't terminal.

Those losses stacked together, however, are shaping a Cowboys season of more than disappointment. This was a team that entered 2019 with Super Bowl visions. This was a team that looked dominant in the first three weeks, albeit against inferior competition. The first goal the Cowboys have each season is to win the division because that is the simplest way to make the playoffs. Now it might be the only way.

"I still think we're a team that can play with anybody and beat anybody," linebacker Sean Lee said, "but we have to show that more consistently."

The Cowboys have had four major NFC tests this season and passed only one, beating the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 20, which is the only reason the Cowboys are atop their division rival in the standings. Chances of claiming a wild-card spot have taken a hit because of their conference losses, including the head-to-head matchup with Minnesota.

"I just haven't looked at any of that," Jones said of playoff scenarios. "And it's early. It's early."

Is it really?


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The Cowboys' final seven opponents have a combined record of 32-30-1. They have to play at Detroit, at New England, at Chicago and at Philadelphia. They play 6-3 Buffalo on Thanksgiving and the 5-4 Los Angeles Rams at AT&T Stadium.

There are so many questions for a Dallas team in need of more wins: They close the season at home against the 1-8 Washington Redskins, but will that game have any significance? Will quarterback Matthew Stafford be able to play for the Lions on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) because of a back injury? Do you think the Cowboys can win in Foxborough, Massachusetts? How cold will it be at Soldier Field on Dec. 5? Will the Cowboys have answers for a tough Buffalo defense on a short week? Will the Rams' offense continue to struggle?

The Eagles' final seven opponents have a combined record of 27-38. They play New England and Seattle in back-to-back weeks coming off their bye, but those games are at home. Four of their final five games are against Miami (2-7), the New York Giants (2-8) and Washington.

Things change quickly in the NFL, but you can pencil in the Eagles with at least nine wins based on that schedule.

The Dec. 22 meeting at Philadelphia is shaping up as the de facto NFC East title game. The good news: The Cowboys have won four of their past five at Lincoln Financial Field. The bad news: The game might be moot if the Cowboys don't start winning.

The Cowboys' five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 10-27 so far. Their four losses have come against teams with a combined mark of 24-14. The Eagles have not covered themselves in glory this season either, but their best wins have come against Green Bay and Buffalo on the road.

Can the Cowboys win five of their last seven to reach 10 wins? Can they win the correct four games that would give them a 9-7 record and still a division title?

"Coming off that bye, you're in November and you start thinking this is when you need to be playing your best football," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "You can't really worry about playoffs right now. I think you've just got to take it a week at a time and really approach it that way. I know that's a little bit cliché, but you've got to find ways to win each game and you look up and then maybe you got yourself a chance."

The Cowboys were 4-5 last year with seven games to play and won six of their last seven to win the NFC East.

That team found momentum. If the Cowboys are going to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 2006-07 and become the first team since the 2003-04 Eagles to win the NFC East in back-to-back years, they have to find some momentum.

"We still control our own destiny," Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. "As long as we can do that, we can't ask for anything more."