If you're a Cowboys fan, Sunday night reinforced that there's at least one team you don't want to see in the postseason this year.
Dak Prescott & Co. may be the best team in football, but the NFL is a league in which matchups can be more important than overall team quality, and the Giants appear to be the antidote to Dallas' winning formula. Even with Ezekiel Elliott gaining some measure of revenge for his slow start to the season against the Giants in the opener, Big Blue shut down the Dallas passing attack, and a patented Odell Beckham Jr. slant to the house was enough to secure a critical win for the Giants.
The loss doesn't change the long-term outlook all that much for the Cowboys, who still have a 95.7 percent chance of winning the division and a 92 percent chance of finishing with the top seed in the NFC, per ESPN's Football Power Index. The only problem is that long-term outlook could very well involve a third matchup with the Giants, who have a 76.4 percent chance of making the playoffs as a wild card. If the Giants win their wild-card game, they would likely be the ones to face the Cowboys in Dallas in the divisional round.
Dallas isn't the only team with a boogeyman lurking on the distance. Everybody with a meaningful shot of making the postseason has somebody they don't want to see coming their way in the bracket, even if they haven't lost to them already this season. Granted, there are teams who are bad fits for everybody -- the Giants would probably rather play the Lions than the Cowboys, even after those two wins -- but let's run through the 13 teams who FPI thinks has at least a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs and try to identify the team each contender wants to avoid come January.
Team to avoid: New York Giants
Let's start with the obvious one. The Giants beat the Cowboys on Sunday night, but it wasn't exactly the same way they pulled it off in Week 1. During the opener, they shut down Zeke, held up in the red zone, and protected Eli Manning. On Sunday night, Elliott ran for 107 yards on 24 carries and Manning spent most of the night running for his life, turning the ball over three times and nearly tossing in a couple of more picks for good measure.
Instead, the Giants shut down the Dallas passing attack, held the Cowboys to a ridiculous 1-of-15 on third down, and came away with the game's biggest play to seal a narrow victory. Ben McAdoo also managed the game better than his counterpart, with Jason Garrett mismanaging the clock just before halftime to end up with a field goal attempt that was narrowly out of Dan Bailey's range, and punting on a fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter with the league's best offensive line and running back.
Are the Cowboys doomed against the Giants? Of course not, but this is still a matchup that plays to New York's relative strengths: They're quite good on defense (one that played without Jason Pierre-Paul on Sunday night) and don't allow many big runs, while the Cowboys don't have anybody who can cover Beckham and don't have the sort of defensive line that can truly take over a game. This was one of their better performances of the year in terms of pressuring Manning, but it wasn't the sort of Vikings-esque game in which you wonder whether Eli's going to write a detailed essay on the texture of the MetLife Stadium grass.
The good news if you're a Cowboys fan, I suppose, is that losing twice to the same team is hardly a guarantee that a third loss is coming in the postseason. I went back through the 1990 season and identified every time a team swept an opponent in the regular season and then played them a third time in the playoffs. Those teams were 11-5 in the postseason when they played a third time, which is a good sign for Giants fans, but hardly a guarantee. Fans of both organizations may remember the 2007 campaign, when a Tony Romo-led Cowboys team beat the Giants in the opener and again in Week 10. The Giants subsequently traveled to Dallas in the divisional round and won 21-17 en route to their Super Bowl win over the Patriots.
New York Giants
Team to avoid: Seattle Seahawks
The good news for McAdoo's team is there aren't many teams with dominant pass rushes on the NFC side of the bracket that are likely to make the postseason. The Packers (fifth in the league in pressure rate) and Vikings (sixth) could get after Eli, but they miss the cutoff for our definition of playoff contenders, with Green Bay's chances at 37.9 percent and Minnesota's at 20.2 percent after they both won Sunday. The Broncos would be a terrifying matchup against Ereck Flowers and the rest of the Giants' offensive line, but I suspect the Giants wouldn't mind if it meant a guaranteed trip to Houston.
The worst-case scenario would then be the Seahawks, who are eighth in the league in pressure rate at 29.1 percent despite missing Michael Bennett for five games with a knee injury. Bennett still isn't 100 percent; he doesn't have a quarterback knockdown since returning against the Panthers in Week 13. But the devastating interior rusher should be closer to his usual self by the time the playoffs roll around. The Giants will get standout guard Justin Pugh back soon, which would help against Bennett, but the combination of Bennett and Cliff Avril would be enough to give an inconsistent Giants offensive line fits. The weakness in the New York pass defense is also against tight ends, against whom they were 27th in DVOA heading into Week 14. Jimmy Graham could fit nicely into that hole.
Team to avoid: Dallas Cowboys
Washington has played the Cowboys tough in their two matchups this season but has come up short both times, losing 27-23 in Week 2 before falling 31-26 during the rematch on Thanksgiving Day. The first game was much closer than the second; Washington had a 94.5 percent chance of winning the Week 2 game with 11:36 to go, per the pro-football-reference.com model, while Dallas' win expectancy on Turkey Day never dropped below 66.8 percent.
The Cowboys attack a major Washington weakness and hold up well against a major strength, although Jay Gruden's team has had its moments. Washington was 30th in run defense DVOA heading into Week 14, during which the relatively dismal Eagles running game carried the ball 26 times for 95 yards despite losing Wendell Smallwood early on. Washington did limit Elliott to 83 yards on 21 carries in Week 2 while shutting down Dallas' secondary backs, but in the sequel, the Cowboys ran the ball 30 times for 163 yards and three touchdowns.
Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn't have a ton to work with, but he has built a defense that has done a decent job of taking away deep passes. Against throws of 16-plus yards this year, which is the NFL's definition of a deep pass, the Cowboys are fifth in QBR. However, Kirk Cousins has had some success against Dallas on deep throws: In two games he has been 8-of-16 on those passes for 279 yards and a touchdown.
Team to avoid: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers? Yes, Tampa is in the mix after the Bucs extended their winning streak with a narrow victory over the Saints on Sunday, bringing their playoff chances up to 47.4 percent ahead of a difficult game on the road against the Cowboys. There's also a reasonable shot these two teams might face off in the wild-card round, given the Lions have a 47 percent chance of finishing with the third or fourth seed in the NFC, while the Buccaneers' chances of making the big dance as a wild card are 26.1 percent.
Detroit's offense is built around short, accurate throws from Matthew Stafford, whose average pass travels just 6.94 yards in the air, tied for the third-lowest rate (with Carson Wentz) among NFL regulars. Stafford has taken well to Jim Bob Cooter's system, but nobody chews up short passes like the Bucs. Tampa has posted a league-best 28.8 QBR against throws within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, with Philadelphia standing as the only other team in the league with a QBR under 40 against those same passes. Mike Smith's surging Bucs D has picked off seven such passes this season.
The Lions don't do much right on defense, where they were 31st heading into their game against the Bears this week and needed a series of holding penalties and drops to save Matt Barkley from spoiling their latest fourth-quarter comeback. Height has to be a concern for the Lions, who would line up 5-foot-11 Darius Slay and 5-foot-9 Nevin Lawson against mammoth Bucs wideout Mike Evans. Detroit's defense was also 29th in DVOA on throws to both tight ends and running backs heading into the week, which would be a problem against a Tampa team with breakout tight end Cameron Brate and returning pass-catcher Charles Sims, who had three catches for 33 yards against the Saints after being activated off injured reserve this week.
Team to avoid: Detroit Lions
Remember what I said about the Bucs being great against short passes? Guess who isn't all that impressive on short throws: the Falcons, who are 30th in QBR against those same Stafford throws within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage. They were also 30th in the league in DVOA against short passes heading into this week. Atlanta's numbers are also unlikely to improve much after losing star cornerback Desmond Trufant for the rest of the season last month.
On offense, it's again hard to find a way any team matches up poorly with the Lions, but the one thing you can say about their defense is that they have competed with No. 1 wideouts, thanks to the efforts of Slay. Julio Jones is still an incredibly athletic specimen, but Slay has a better shot at covering him, given that he's giving up only 4 inches to the 6-foot-3 former Alabama star. Heading into this week, Detroit was eighth in the league in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers while limiting them to 66.2 receiving yards per game. If Jones' turf toe problem carries over into the postseason, the Falcons would also be giving his targets to Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, neither of whom are anywhere near as physically imposing as their star wideout.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Team to avoid: Atlanta Falcons
Tampa's five-game winning streak has been built upon a mountain of takeaways. After intercepting Drew Brees three times on Sunday, the Bucs have 14 takeaways across those five wins. The difference in Tampa's turnover margin between their wins and losses is stark. During their five losses, the Buccaneers have a minus-8 turnover margin (12 giveaways, four takeaways). During their eight wins, however, the Bucs have a plus-14 margin (seven giveaways, 21 takeaways). Every team's turnover margin is better in wins than it is in losses, of course, but it's particularly extreme for Dirk Koetter's squad.
Naturally, the Bucs wouldn't want to play a team that avoids turnovers. Enter the Falcons, who have a superior turnover margin (plus-8) while turning the ball over on just 7.0 percent of their offensive possessions this year, the fifth-best rate in the league. The Buccaneers need takeaways to thrive on D, as their three-and-out rate is just 22nd in the league at 28.9 percent.
Atlanta's defensive weakness, meanwhile, is its run defense. The Falcons were 27th in the league heading into Week 14 in DVOA against the run, but the Bucs are unlikely to exploit that ailment. Tampa has been without free-agent guard J.R. Sweezy all season, and was missing its top two running backs for part of the campaign with Sims and Doug Martin both hurt. The Bucs were a dismal 30th in rushing offense DVOA through 13 weeks. Including Sunday's win, Tampa's rushing offense has cost the team 44.5 expected points in ESPN's EPA model, which is the second-worst figure in the league, ahead of only Minnesota. Tampa did beat Atlanta 31-24 in the opener, but the Falcons won 43-28 in the rematch on Nov. 3.
Team to avoid: Atlanta Falcons
Again? I would pick the Packers here if they had slightly better playoff odds, but they're not in the picture at under 40 percent as of this writing. Seattle fans know just how heartbreaking the Falcons can be in the postseason, and while the Seahawks pulled out a 26-24 victory over Atlanta at home in Week 6, it took a nine-point comeback from the home team in the final five minutes to seal the win. Matt Ryan struggled mightily in the first half, but when the Seattle pass rush slowed down, Matty Ice looked like an MVP candidate against what is perennially one of the league's best pass defenses in its home den.
There's another problem with using that game as a comp: The Seahawks had a future Hall of Famer in the lineup that day who won't be appearing in the playoffs. Earl Thomas is done for the year with a broken leg, and the Falcons would be able to take advantage of his absence by throwing downfield. Ryan and his team have posted the league's best QBR (99.1) on deep passes this season while completing 44 such throws, the fourth-highest total in football. I'd be worried about getting in a shootout with Ryan without having Thomas lurking.
New England Patriots
Team to avoid: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Patriots handed the Steelers a 27-16 defeat in Pittsburgh earlier this season, but that was with Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines and Landry Jones starting at quarterback. If Roethlisberger gets hurt again, the story changes, but I'd be worried about the Patriots' pass defense holding up against Antonio Brown & Co. The Pats are 25th in pass defense DVOA heading into Monday night's matchup with the Ravens, posting a below-average DVOA against receivers at every single position.
It's always dangerous to bet against Tom Brady in the playoffs, but this would also be a bad matchup in some ways for the New England offense. The Steelers have the league's best red zone defense, allowing just 3.7 points per trip inside the 20. The Patriots were great inside the red zone in Week 7, scoring three times in three trips, but that was with the devastating matchup threat of Rob Gronkowski, who is done for the year. There's no way around it: His absence fundamentally changes what New England can do in the red zone, and it's an area where Pittsburgh already excels.
It remains to be seen whether a clearly injured Martellus Bennett will be able to make up for Gronk's absence in the red zone, and kicking field goals in a game against Roethlisberger and this offense seems dangerous.
Team to avoid: Denver Broncos
The Broncos knocked a Steelers team missing Brown out of the postseason last year, and even assuming Brown will not be laid out by a cheap shot before a possible rematch this time around, the incredible Broncos pass defense lurks as a unit capable of slowing down Mike Tomlin's offense. Chris Harris Jr. thankfully appears to be OK after Harry Douglas' cheap shot during Sunday's loss to Tennessee, and while Brown gave Harris fits in the slot during a regular-season victory over the Broncos last year, you would still bet on the Broncos' pass defense showing up in a postseason game.
Pittsburgh's defensive philosophy, meanwhile, is to go after shorter cornerbacks and teach them to play up against bigger receivers. The Steelers can try, of course, but in a unit in which no cornerback is taller than 6-foot, I would be worried about stopping Demaryius Thomas, who scored two touchdowns during last year's regular-season loss. The Steelers are allowing just over 95 receiving yards per game to No. 1 wideouts this season, one of the worst figures in football.
Team to avoid: Kansas City Chiefs
Also simple! The Texans can't hide Brock Osweiler, but their best-case scenario would be to face teams that struggle to create takeaways, let alone accept the gifts Osweiler provides to opposing defenses on a weekly basis. Kansas City is hardly that team, given that the Chiefs are tied for the league lead with 25 takeaways this season, and the defense seems built to churn out more, with a combination of a sometimes unstoppable pass rush and very good hands in the secondary. Osweiler threw two picks to No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters in their Week 2 tilt.
Houston won that game, but there are a couple of mitigating factors. One is that Houston was lucky in regard to turnovers, given that it forced three fumbles and recovered each of them. Those fumbles turned into 10 points, which made the difference in a 19-12 contest. The other element the Texans enjoyed in that game is even less likely to recur: the presence of J.J. Watt, who had his only monster game of the year by racking up 1.5 sacks, two knockdowns and a fumble recovery.
Team to avoid: Oakland Raiders
The best way to beat that vaunted Broncos defense is to control the line of scrimmage and run against it, which is exactly what the Raiders did during their 30-20 romp over the defending champions in Week 9. Oakland jumped out to an early lead and ran the ball 43 times for 218 yards, with Latavius Murray scoring three touchdowns. Von Miller picked up a sack and two quarterback hits by the first half of the first quarter, but went silent the rest of the night as Oakland gave its tackles help against the Defensive Player of the Year favorite.
Oakland's defensive weakness is also stopping the run, given that it was 28th in the league in DVOA after Week 13, but the Broncos aren't running the football well at all and are unlikely to threaten teams with their rushing attack down the stretch. It's not out of the question that Justin Forsett could suddenly connect in Gary Kubiak's familiar scheme, just as C.J. Anderson did down the stretch and into the Super Bowl last season, but Forsett has been cut by two teams already this year. Forsett also fumbled away his first carry with Denver on Sunday and finished with just 17 yards on six carries.
Kansas City Chiefs
Team to avoid: New England Patriots
The Chiefs were knocked out of the playoffs last year by the Patriots, losing 27-20 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score, with Charcandrick West punching it in with 1:13 left to set up an unsuccessful onside kick. Both teams would look different in a sequel; the Patriots are without Gronkowski, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, while the Chiefs had to blitz heavily on third downs to try to compensate for the absence of Justin Houston last year. Houston's back, but Derrick Johnson's now done for the year with an Achilles injury.
The problem for Kansas City is that the Patriots don't give them the lifeblood the Chiefs feed on in turnovers. As a frequent product placement spokesperson, Brady's naturally shy toward giveaways, which extends to the field. The Pats have a league-low eight giveaways this year heading into Monday night's game against the Ravens, with just four turnovers over Brady's eight starts. The Chiefs also don't have the passing attack to give the Patriots problems in the secondary, although Tyreek Hill gives them a downfield weapon they haven't had against Belichick-led defenses in years past. Belichick's teams are also excellent on kickoff and punt coverage, ranking in the top five in each category according to Football Outsiders' numbers through Week 13, which limits Hill's likely impact as a return man.
Team to avoid: Dallas Cowboys
I'm going to cheat and throw the Cowboys in as a bad Super Bowl matchup for Oakland here. There's a 4.3 percent chance of the Cowboys and Raiders meeting in Houston on Feb. 5, and I don't think it would represent the best opponent for the most surprising team of 2016. I've compared these organizations a lot this season by virtue of their emphasis on the offensive line, and indeed, the only thing that would make offensive linemen happier than a Cowboys-Raiders Super Bowl would be if umpires were returned the defensive side of the line of scrimmage.
The Raiders don't want to see an NFC opponent that can run the ball and stop the run. The Cowboys can do both. Dallas was eighth in DVOA against the run heading into Sunday night's loss to the Giants, who ran the ball 33 times for just 93 yards. Dallas doesn't generate much of a pass rush, but it made an astute addition to help out its run defense this offseason by adding Cedric Thornton, while Sean Lee has been both healthy and productive flowing to the ball as a run defender this season. He's tied for ninth in the league with seven tackles for loss on running plays. And with Oakland's run defense remaining a major concern, the Raiders could provide a huge game for Elliott. It would be exciting for Raiders fans to make it back to the Super Bowl, but it would also be no fun to see the Cowboys do what Oakland has done to opposing teams all season when it mattered most.