The Dallas Cowboys are 84% to get the 4-seed and the Seattle Seahawks are 94% to get the 5-seed so yes, let’s talk about this matchup briefly. Or at least, let’s talk about the Cowboys.
Dallas is on a five-game winning streak, improving from 3-5 to 8-5 as the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington footballs fail into nothingness this season. This all but assures the Cowboys the NFC East following a win over the Eagles on Sunday. Dallas is also now second in points allowed, fourth in yards allowed, and first in yards per carry allowed as they develop a reputation as the “new dominant defense” in the NFC. This is not me saying that the Cowboys are overrated, this is me asking: Why does FootballOutsiders say that the Cowboys are overrated?
Despite a hot streak, Dallas is still only 17th in weighted DVOA (putting more emphasis on a team’s most recent games) and actually ranked below the collapsing Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants. We should take a closer look at why DVOA would not care much about their winning streak.
First of all, just before the win streak, the Cowboys lost back-to-back games to Washington (on the road) and the Tennessee Titans (at home). The Titans won 28-14 and shutout Dallas in the second half. In that game, Dallas had a negative offensive performance by EPA and their second-worst defensive performance of the season, failing to keep Marcus Mariota from going 21-of-29 for 240 yards and two touchdowns. He consistently tore through the Cowboys secondary in that game and it did come in Dallas.
But the Cowboys haven’t lost since.
Dallas next went on the road and beat the Eagles 27-20, again posting a negative EPA on defense. The game was tied 20-20 late as a 75-yard touchdown drive gave the Cowboys a lead with 3:19 left. Carson Wentz had two more opportunities, but both drives fell short. Note: Dallas did a terrible job of putting the game away on the final drive, losing six yards and running off just :16 seconds as Philly had all three timeouts. The Eagles are 20th in DVOA and 21st in weighted DVOA.
Next, they beat the Falcons in Atlanta, 22-19. They blew a 19-9 fourth quarter lead as Matt Ryan found Julio Jones in the end zone to tie it with 1:52 remaining. Dak Prescott led a game-winning drive (42-yard field goal), but the Falcons are 22nd in DVOA and 20th in weighted DVOA. Atlanta is 4-9, 3-4 at home, and have lost five straight.
On four days rest, the Cowboys next hosted Washington on Thanksgiving. Washington started Colt McCoy at QB, his first start since 2014. We’ll never know how good McCoy really could be this season, it was his only full game, but he had two touchdowns in the first 36 minutes as Washington led 13-10 midway through the third quarter. Then Dallas reeled off 21 straight points and asserted dominance. It got out of hand when Prescott got a 90-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper, then McCoy was picked off two plays later which eventually turned into seven more points for the Cowboys. They closed the gap to 31-20 early in the fourth quarter and I’ll note again that Dallas couldn’t get the game-sealing type drive they wanted: 3 plays, 0 yards, :28 seconds off.
Washington is 26th in DVOA and 27th in weighted DVOA.
Now the game most people will point to: 13-10 win over the New Orleans Saints. And let’s point out one weird thing — this game was also on Thursday. The NFL set up both the Cowboys and Saints for a Thursday Night game with seven days rest in order to try and avoid those awfully short turnarounds they usually force on teams. But I think playing on Thursday could be weird either way. Not to ignore the job they did on Drew Brees, who went 18-of-28 for 127 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Strangely, Brees fell flat again the next week too against the terrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 24-of-31, 201 yards, one touchdown, one interception. It’s fair to ask if something is up with Brees or that offense right now.
Perhaps most importantly, Dallas did a number on containing Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, holding the Saints to a by far season-low of 10 points. Prescott, on the other hand, went 24-of-28 for 249 yards and one touchdown. Still, this was a very close game, and Dallas had one of their worst offensive performances of the season, not even scoring a point in the second half. That’s the dark lining on the cloud, but they beat the team ranked fourth in DVOA and third in weighted DVOA. That’s not to be discounted.
Finally, they beat the Eagles this Sunday, but offensive struggles continued. They managed just six points in the first half (that’s six points and zero touchdowns over a stretch of four quarters if going back to New Orleans) and led 9-6 going into the fourth quarter. Then: scoring. It was 16-9, 16-16, 23-16, and 23-23 after a touchdown pass by Wentz with 1:39 remaining. On the final drive in regulation, they got as close as the PHI 41, but despite two timeouts remaining at the start of the drive, poor ball control (fumble), protection (final play was a sack) hurt Dallas, while a critical defensive holding call gave them a first down.
The Cowboys were the only team to have the ball in OT, using an eight minute drive, a conversion on 3rd-and-9, and a conversion on 4th-and-1 to finally get a game-winning touchdown from Dak to Cooper.
And that’s a review of the five-game winning streak. Oddly, I don’t see a strong defensive performance in any of these games other than against by far the best offense they faced. How do you quantify the value of that? These are five wins over four teams, three of which are bad teams, and one of whom is great. Three of the wins are also at home, where the Cowboys are 6-1 outside of that weird loss to Tennessee. Four of the wins were close enough to go either way, and I actually wouldn’t say Dallas played great fourth quarters in any of them. The offense could have done more in the game in Philly, the game in Atlanta, and at home vs New Orleans, while the defense couldn’t get a stop in the rematch against the Eagles.
This is not me telling you the Cowboys are overrated, this is me going over why DVOA might suggest they are overrated with an evaluation of their five-game win streak. At home they are certainly better and that’s where any wild card playoff game will take place ... which could be the Seahawks, unless maybe the Chicago Bears fall a notch.
That’s a whole different article.