For a 5-5 team, things are looking better than average for the Dallas Cowboys. Their division is a train wreck. The Giants are lilliputian, the Eagles are grounded, and Washington is without its starting quarterback. The Cowboys, somehow, are the ones who seem to have the best shot of making the playoffs.
We’ll know a lot more after Dallas and Washington play in a Thanksgiving showcase on Thursday. Washington is 6-4, but has a far lower Elo than Dallas (1504 vs. 1542), and Washington’s quarterback is now perma-journeyman Colt McCoy after Alex Smith gruesomely broke his leg in his last game. The Cowboys are still only 46 percent likely to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, but a win against Washington would go a long way. That the playoffs are even within sight is a stunning reversal of fortune from earlier this month, when a home loss to the Titans dropped Dallas to 3-5 and had observers calling for head coach Jason Garrett’s head. Making matters worse, star linebacker Sean Lee injured his hamstring again in the Titans loss. The last time that happened, Dallas’s defense went down with him.
Dallas tried to guard against another Lee injury by fortifying their linebacker corps in the 2018 draft. Their first-round pick, Leighton Vander Esch, was expected to be too inexperienced to adapt quickly to the NFL game, but has turned into easily the best linebacker at the top of his draft.
|Rookie Linebackers||Team||Draft Position||Pro Football Focus Grade|
|Tremaine Edmunds||Bills||16th||49.6||Below average|
|Leighton Vander Esch||Cowboys||19th||84.1||Good|
Vander Esch has not only replaced Lee, he has arguably surpassed him. Last year, Dallas lost four of their five games without Lee, giving up 13 more points per game 1 and 46 more rushing yards. But this year, with Vander Esch replacing him as starter for five games, Dallas is better — allowing 30 fewer rushing yards per game and 2.4 fewer points. Dallas is now 4-1 when Lee hasn’t played, and Vander Esch single-handedly changed the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Vander Esch is the second Dallas blue-chip defender that general manager and owner’s son Stephen Jones has found relatively cheap in the draft. 2017 Pro Bowl defensive end and sack-master Demarcus Lawrence was grabbed in the second round in 2014.
Lawrence’s ability to generate pressure allows the Cowboys to blitz infrequently, just 20.8 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. This may limit big defensive plays — the Cowboys have just four interceptions this year — but it seems to prevent big plays by the opponents, too. They have one of the most efficient units in football as measured by yards opposing offenses must gain to score a point.
Much of that stat is driven by red zone success, which is viewed by many as random. But Dallas combines efficiency in the red zone with an ability to stop teams from getting there at all. The Cowboys rank near the top of the league in opponents’ red zone possessions per game.
Dallas’s defense has to be efficient because the offense lacks explosiveness. The offense has put up just 34 plays of 20 or more yards this season, tied for 25th in the league, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Even after the addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper, who cost Dallas a 2019 first-round pick, Dallas’s passing game is stuck mostly in neutral. Prior to Cooper joining the Cowboys in their eighth game, Dallas was 28th in yards per pass play. Since then they are improved slightly, but still rank 23rd.
The most important change to the Cowboys passing offense hasn’t been Cooper but a player who was already on the roster — running back Ezekiel Elliott.
This season, Dallas has figured out that Elliott can be featured as a receiver, too. His role in the passing game2 has more than doubled since his rookie season and is up dramatically from 2017, too. This has been especially the case the past two weeks when Elliott’s running and passing has accounted for 388 of Dallas’s 733 scrimmage yards (53 percent)
Of course, the Cowboys are just one ill-timed stinker away from wrecking their season, too. Using our ELO projections, only one game in Week 12 holds more importance for the playoffs than Washington-Dallas:
|Playoff %||Playoff %|
|Team A||Current||Avg. Chg*||Team B||Current||Avg. Chg*||Total Change||Game Quality|
Dallas already lost to Washington in Week 7 on the road, 20-17. And if they somehow lose to McCoy (career 7-18 as a starter including 1-3 for the Redskins when he last started in 2014), Dallas would be two games back and Washington would control the first tiebreaker with only five games remaining. In that improbable scenario, the Cowboys would find themselves suddenly all-but removed from playoff contention and hurtling instead to an offseason of probable tumult and coaching change.
But according to our projections, Dallas has a 65 percent chance of winning on Thursday and avoiding all that.
FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers
Be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings using our NFL prediction interactive. It simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times, helping you see how likely each team is to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. And if you want to prove you can pick better than Elo, you can also face off against the algorithm in our prediction game. In addition to bragging rights, you’ll be playing for the chance to climb up our giant leaderboard.
Using data from the prediction game, here are the matchups in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:
|OUR PREDICTION (ELO)||READERS’ PREDICTION|
|PICK||WIN PROB.||PICK||WIN PROB.||Result||READERS’ NET PTS|
|WSH||62%||HOU||51%||HOU 23, WSH 21||+11.9||
|ARI||68||ARI||65||OAK 23, ARI 21||+2.4||
|TEN||55||TEN||51||IND 38, TEN 10||+1.9||
|LAC||80||LAC||78||DEN 23, LAC 22||+1.3||
|ATL||62||ATL||60||DAL 22, ATL 19||+0.7||
|PIT||68||PIT||70||PIT 20, JAX 16||-0.5||
|NO||74||NO||76||NO 48, PHI 7||-1.0||
|LAR||54||LAR||53||LAR 54, KC 51||-3.7||
|CHI||54||CHI||52||CHI 25, MIN 20||-3.9||
|NYG||52||TB||51||NYG 38, TB 35||-4.4||
|BAL||67||BAL||60||BAL 24, CIN 21||-6.9||
|CAR||57||CAR||64||DET 20, CAR 19||-9.9||
|SEA||67||SEA||56||SEA 27, GB 24||-11.2||
Elo beat the field again in Week 11, picking up 23.3 points on the average reader to give the algorithm its 10th win of the season. The readers were right to think Deshaun Watson and the Texans would beat Washington, but they were dealt blows by the Lions (who beat the Panthers) and Seahawks (who beat the Packers). Readers have now lost 37.7 points on average by picking the Panthers this season, which is the second-most of any team behind the Patriots.3
Congrats, however, are in order to Voris Struck, who led all identified users in Week 11 with 93.4 points, and to the wonderfully named Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who took the season-long lead with 778.4 points. Thanks to all 12,421 of our players — and if you haven’t played yet, you can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo this week.
Additional reporting by Neil Paine.
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