After the Dallas Cowboys’ loss to the Chicago Bears on Dec. 5, team owner Jerry Jones felt compelled to guarantee the media that he wouldn’t fire head coach Jason Garrett before the team’s next game. Not only did Garrett coach the Cowboys against the Rams, he coached them to a 44-21 blowout win.
Now, the biggest question facing the Cowboys isn’t when or whether Jones will fire Garrett, but where this version of the Cowboys has been all season. And the answer is, surprisingly … right there?
Anyone who hasn’t looked deeper than the win-loss column will be scratching their heads; even after this statement victory, the Cowboys have only just now clawed their way to .500. But as ESPN’s Brian Burke showed back in 2007, the actual distribution of wins and losses in the NFL is consistent with 52.5 percent of the games being decided at random. It makes sense: If wins and losses perfectly captured teams’ relative performances, nobody would be interested in analysts’ opinions after the fact.
Luckily for analysts, that funny-shaped ball takes weird bounces.
That’s why we look at a number of different measures of team strength, from total offensive yards and offensive yards per play (the Cowboys rank No. 1 in the NFL in both), to total yards and yards-per-play allowed (No. 7 and No. 8, respectively). Or even simpler metrics, like overall point differential (The Cowboys are No. 6).
More advanced models also show the Cowboys have been playing like one of the NFL’s strongest teams. Also back in 2007, Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Doug Drinen described a model for expected win-loss record. It’s what a team’s record “should have been,” given its point differential. The Cowboys’ expected W-L after Week 15 is 9.2-4.8. If Dallas actually had nine-plus wins, it would be getting a lot more consideration as a Super Bowl contender right now.
Wait, Super Bowl contender?
That’s right: Plenty of other team-strength measures indicate that Garrett’s squad is well-positioned to make a deep postseason run.
Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ranks the Cowboys eighth in the league in recency-weighted team efficiency and fifth in the NFC. Aaron Schatz of that same site found that the Cowboys were the 11th-strongest team by DVOA ever to start their season 6-6. ESPN’s Power Rankings rank the Cowboys 13th in the league and seventh in the NFC. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rankings also slot the Cowboys 13th overall and seventh in their conference, with a small-but-nonzero chance to win it all.
But perhaps the most relevant metric is Drinen’s take on the Simple Rating System, a predictive model built on point differential and strength-of-schedule. After Week 15, the Cowboys’ SRS rating is +5.1, the seventh-highest in the NFL — and behind only the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints in the NFC. Unlike most other metrics, SRS is predictive, as it correlates more strongly with what’s going to happen next than with what’s already happened.
So if the Dallas Cowboys really are the fourth-strongest NFC team going into Week 16, how can they capitalize? Their path through the playoffs is rocky, for sure, but the Super Bowl is still within reach for the beleaguered team. By plugging future results into our Elo prediction model, we can plot a few different paths to the mountaintop.
1. Hack the rankings
The easiest way for the Cowboys to rise in the Elo rankings is simply for all the stronger teams to drop. If we hand out two “L”s to every stronger squad in the entire league (where they play each other, to the stronger of the two), the Cowboys’ odds of making the Super Bowl rise from less than 1 percent to 4 percent. Even less-likely scenarios (like the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings playing to a draw in Week 16) bring the Cowboys’ chances to 5 percent.
In this latter scenario, the Cowboys become the fourth-most-likely NFC team to win the Super Bowl, behind the Seahawks (14 percent), and the Saints and Packers (9 percent each). One out of four ain’t bad! But again, this is a hack. It’s incredibly unlikely that we’ll get two solid weeks of upsets in all the meaningful NFL games — and even if that’s how things played out, it’s hard to say whether it would reflect teams’ “real” relative strength going into the playoffs.
2. Take the most likely path
If we use SRS’s predictive ability as our guiding light, we can project the most likely possible results for the next two weeks — and therefore, the most likely possible seeding for the NFC playoff bracket. The results? The 49ers, Saints, Packers and Cowboys win their divisions, with the Seattle Seahawks and the Vikings getting the wild-card berths.
In this scenario, the Cowboys (SRS +5.1) host the Seahawks (SRS +4.2). Dallas would have the edge by SRS alone, but adding in a 3-point home-field advantage,1 the Cowboys would be favored by 3.9 points.
Though the Packers (SRS +2.8) would have home-field advantage over the 6-seed Vikings (+7.0) in the other wild-card game, SRS would still grant the Vikings the win, sending them to New Orleans for the divisional round. Meanwhile, the Cowboys would travel to San Francisco (+11.8). In Levi’s Stadium, SRS would project the 49ers as 9.7-point favorites. Even if the Cowboys pulled a huge upset, they’d then have to go into the Superdome and overcome a projected 3.9-point disadvantage against the Saints (+6.0), who would have just dispatched of the Vikings. Even after that, Dallas would then be neutral-site underdogs (by at least a field goal each) to any of the likeliest AFC champions2 … but they’d be in the Super Bowl.
If the Cowboys are going to go to the Super Bowl, somebody’s got to beat San Francisco — and SRS indicates that it probably won’t be the Cowboys, regardless of where they play. But by cherry-picking the last two weeks of results, we can engineer an easier road to Miami Gardens.
The Cowboys can’t qualify for the playoffs as anything but the NFC East champion — and every other potential NFC division champ already has 10 wins, so Dallas would be locked in as the No. 4 seed. Keeping the likely NFC North scenario from above, Green Bay would be the No. 2 seed and the Vikings the No. 5 — and the Cowboys would still be first-round home favorites over the Vikings.
To stack the 49ers’ deck, we stuck them with plausible losses to the Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams in Weeks 16 and 17, dropping them all the way to the No. 6 seed. Assuming the Seahawks take care of business against Arizona in Week 16, they then capture the No. 1 seed. If the Saints fail to win one more game than the Packers, they would be No. 3. San Francisco would then have to go into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and win for the second time this season, which has only happened since the Saints started playing at the Superdome.3
In the divisional round, then, Dallas would be 2.1-point underdogs at Seattle — not an easy upset to pull, but very doable. Meanwhile, the Packers (+2.8, plus a 3-point home-field advantage) would be 0.2-point home underdogs to the Saints, a virtual coin flip. Let’s say the coin flips Green Bay’s way.
So after back-to-back playoff wins as a 1.1-point favorite and 2.1-point underdog, the Cowboys would just have to overcome a 0.7-point SRS disadvantage against the Packers to make the Super Bowl.
From all the numbers above, there’s no question that this year’s Dallas squad is worthy of the postseason. What’s more, it ought to be able to go toe-to-toe with the NFC’s top title contenders and trade equal blows.
Muddying our statistics-driven crystal ball, though, is the fact that the results over the next two weeks will directly impact Elo, SRS, DVOA and nearly every other one of these numbers. With two full weeks left in the regular season, Football Outsiders projects that there’s just an 11.7 percent chance of the Cowboys making the NFC title game.
The key for Dallas, then, is to start by doing what it must for any of this to mean anything: clinch the NFC East by beating the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
CORRECTION (Dec. 18, 2019, 4:48 p.m.): A previous version of this article misidentified which wild-card teams would most likely face the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks, not the Minnesota Vikings, would face the Cowboys, while the Vikings would face the Packers. Dallas would still be favored; Green Bay would be the underdog to Minnesota, instead of being the favorite against Seattle, so Minnesota would be expected to face (and lose to) New Orleans in the divisional round. The point spreads have been updated to reflect the correct matchups.