• The Dallas Cowboys are stacked with elite talent, and they are playing like it: The Cowboys have the highest-graded quarterback in the NFL, a top-three wide receiver, a top-10 offensive line, the second-best pass rush and a top-five coverage unit.
• Trevor Lawrence continues to take steps forward: Lawrence’s 85.7 overall grade ties him with Lamar Jackson for the seventh-best in the NFL. Since Week 9 of last season, Lawrence trails only Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow in overall grade and passing grade.
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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Outside of the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL playoff race is loaded with teams with immense talent yet enough flaws and losses to make us question whether they are legitimate contenders.
Some teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys, are playing their very best football. Their immense potential is shining, and it’s time to examine whether they could sustain this in the postseason. Other teams, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, have rarely played their best football yet have an outstanding record and substantial room for improvement.
These teams’ seasons ended during the same weekend last postseason, and both have Super Bowl expectations this year. A deeper dive into their performance may reveal why they each could be poised to make a run in 2023.
For just a moment, toss out the fact that the Cowboys are the Cowboys. Of course, they have their past postseason transgressions, but this Dallas outfit is playing elite football at all the right spots.
Consider that they currently have:
• A top-10 offensive line.
• The second-best pass-rush unit in the NFL.
That’s an incredibly fearsome list of things for one football team to possess. The performance from that group lately has been astounding. Since Week 6, Dallas owns the highest-graded offense in the NFL and the second-highest-graded defense behind the New York Jets.
The headliner has been the incredible surge in performance from quarterback Dak Prescott. Some will point to the level of competition, but these are still NFL teams, and he has never played better football than right now.
Dak Prescott Passing Metrics, 2023 vs. Career-highs
Big-time throw %|
Turnover-worthy play %|
Prescott has been excellent outside of two early games against Arizona and San Francisco. He has posted an elite 90.0-plus grade in five games this season, including a 97.0 overall grade on Thanksgiving, the highest grade given to any player this season.
Big-time throws are always a plus, but what stands out this season with Prescott is the massive decrease in turnover-worthy plays. He’s making far better decisions in clean pockets.
Last year, including the postseason, Prescott committed 13 turnover-worthy plays from a clean pocket, the third-most in the NFL. Through 11 games this year, he’s committed just five.
Generally, two types of throws got Prescott in trouble last year: short throws into tight windows because defenses didn’t respect the Cowboys’ weapons vertically, and forced throws downfield to CeeDee Lamb due to sheer impatience.
During our preseason roster rankings, we highlighted Brandin Cooks as the X-factor for the Cowboys. They sorely needed someone like Cooks to stretch the field and create windows for Prescott downfield. And Dallas is now starting to find ways to involve Cooks.
Cooks posted a 57.1 receiving grade over the first five weeks of the season, a bottom-15 mark for the position. Since Week 6, his receiving grade has risen to a much better 75.8, 24th in the league. Consequently, Lamb is the highest-graded receiver in the NFL since Week 6. So, how does this work?
First, they had to establish Cooks as a downfield threat.
Brandin Cooks: Receiving grade on 10-plus-yard throws
*Min. 10 Targets
Establishing Cooks as a vertical threat has improved the entire Cowboys passing attack. Prescott is getting larger windows to throw into, and the entire receiving unit is taking advantage.
Dallas offensive metrics on 10-plus-yard throws
EPA per play|
Dak finds KaVontae Turpin wide open for his fourth touchdown of the day! ????
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 24, 2023
This play perfectly illustrates how the threat of Cooks creates space for fellow speedster KaVontae Turpin up the seam. This is the same Cover-2 look that so often got Prescott into trouble last year.
The vertical routes from Cooks and Turpin put the deep-half safety in conflict. Prescott knows this pre-snap and even gives a quick shoulder fake in Cooks’ direction to clear more space for Turpin up the seam. The linebacker in the hole isn’t a threat to the speedy Turpin, and Prescott gets to make as easy a 40-yard throw as there can be.
The addition of Cooks, increased usage of younger athletes like Turpin and Jake Ferguson and improved decision-making from Dak Prescott have turned the Cowboys’ passing game into a force to be reckoned with.
Like Cooks, Gilmore was brought in to be the complementary piece to the star in Trevon Diggs. But then Diggs suffered a terrible season-ending injury in practice before the Arizona game in Week 3. At the time of that loss, there were suddenly major concerns about who would fill the void left by Diggs.
Second-year standout DaRon Bland has seamlessly filled that role. After primarily playing — and excelling — in the slot last season, Dallas could’ve easily left him there and tried other options on the outside. They chose Bland for the outside role instead, and the results have been incredible.
DARON BLAND: 2023 Statistics
Rank (out of 132)|
Passer rating allowed|
It’s well-documented that Bland already owns the single-season NFL record for most pick-sixes, with five. Since the start of last season, he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions, and his 87.3 coverage grade ranks behind only Sauce Gardner among cornerbacks with at least 300 coverage snaps.
Bland’s production isn’t a fluke, and he isn’t just good. He’s special. His record-breaking pick-six embodies everything Dan Quinn asks for in his cornerbacks.
BLAND DID IT AGAIN!!! HISTORY!!!
— NFL (@NFL) November 24, 2023
Though he’s varied his defense a bit since arriving in Dallas, Dan Quinn still loves his Cover-3 schemes. On the play above, Sam Howell makes a high-low read to the weak side (away from his halfback). He sees slot cornerback Jourdan Lewis sit inside, so he assumes the out route is the safe throw. He didn’t see that in this version of Quinn’s defense, the weakside defenders are matched up with the two receivers to that side.
Bland has inside leverage with his eyes locked in on Jahan Dotson. He takes a two-yard backpedal to sell that he is retreating to the deep third and then breaks on the ball when Howell releases it. The rest is history, and this play almost certainly reminded Quinn of his days of working with Seahawks great Richard Sherman.
Micah Parsons and the pass rush will always be reliable for the Cowboys, but Bland’s emergence in the absence of Diggs gives this unit a chance to be elite from front to back.
Dallas is a bit weaker in the run game, and their primary NFC competitors —Philadelphia, San Francisco and Detroit — excel at running the football. However, the Cowboys held the Eagles to 3.3 yards per carry in their matchup, and they also limited Christian McCaffrey to 51 yards on 19 carries.
At the end of the day, the Cowboys are built to pass and stop the pass, which should be considered the blueprint for modern football. If Dak Prescott continues his stellar decision-making and DaRon Bland sustains his production in coverage, the Cowboys are a legitimate threat to take the NFC crown.
There are times that we have seen all of the AFC contenders play their best football and look like potential Super Bowl Champions.
The Jaguars have yet to look the part of a Super Bowl champion, and yet their record stands identical to all of those teams outside of Baltimore, a team that has one more win with a bye week approaching.
Jacksonville is squarely in the hunt for the AFC’s top seed with a favorable schedule down the stretch.
So, how can a team that currently ranks 15th in the NFL in overall grade potentially be the most dangerous among the group? Like Dallas, they have elite players at the right spots. The difference is that Jacksonville is just waiting for them to perform to that standard.
Trevor Lawrence is an elite quarterback, and he’s generally played as such this season. Our own Sam Monson highlighted earlier this year that Lawrence was elevating a supporting cast that wasn’t carrying its weight.
Lawrence’s 85.7 overall grade ties him with Lamar Jackson for the seventh-best in the NFL. Since Week 9 of last season, Lawrence trails only Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow in overall grade and passing grade. Super Bowl hopes start with the quarterback, and Jacksonville has a passer who is more than capable of taking a team to the Super Bowl.
The biggest improvement from Lawrence came on throws outside the numbers. Lawrence always had the arm talent to make these throws, but during his rookie season, he picked up some bad habits with his footwork that Doug Pederson had to fix during the early part of last season.
Once he remedied those bad habits, his production on outside throws skyrocketed.
Trevor Lawrence: Passing outside the numbers
2022 Weeks 1-8|
2022 Weeks 9-end|
2023 Weeks 1-12|
*Among Passers with at least 25 such pass attempts
Seemingly overnight, Lawrence went from an atrocious outside passer to an elite one, and Jacksonville rode this improvement all the way to a division championship. From Week 9 through the playoffs, they ranked third in passing grade and seventh in expected points added (EPA) per pass play.
Knowing this newfound skill would be of great importance, the Jaguars made a wise trade for Calvin Ridley to pair him with solid inside threats like Christian Kirk and Evan Engram. Optimizing Ridley’s skill set is still a work in progress, but he has been a good match so far.
Calvin Ridley: Targets Outside the numbers in 2023
Explosive plays (15-plus yards)|
Route combinations over the middle are easier to scheme to manipulate defenders. On the outside, though, there is a premium on the receiver creating his own separation, something Ridley has shown he can do quite often.
Ridley’s excellent speed and terrific body control create situations that make it extremely difficult to shut him down outside. Those attributes, combined with Lawrence’s newfound accuracy, are a serious problem for opposing defenses.
Calvin Ridley: Targets outside the numbers on 20-plus-yard throws
Yards after catch|
*Out of 115 Wide Receivers with at least 10 such targets
Jacksonville has created a vertical aspect of their offense that’s really difficult to stop. Even scarier is the fact that running mate Christian Kirk ranks near him in all of these categories.
Ridley also possesses the counterpunch with his ability to stop on a dime. No wide receiver has caught more hitches and comeback routes outside the numbers than Calvin Ridley, and only A.J. Brown and D.J. Moore have more receiving yards on such routes.
With Ridley’s prowess and Lawrence’s accuracy and timing, Jacksonville can rely on this combination any time they want because Ridley is better than 90% of the corners across from him.
The caveat to all of this, of course, is pass protection, something the Jaguars have been trying to improve steadily. They’ll have to survive a few weeks without left tackle Cam Robinson, but they made a shrewd trade for Vikings guard Ezra Cleveland, who allowed just one pressure in his first start this past Sunday. Rookie right tackle Anton Harrison also looms as a key figure who is slowly getting better as the year progresses.
This offense has a very similar feel to the Cincinnati Bengals teams of the last couple of years — elite quarterback play, a slew of weapons and the variable of the offensive line holding things together just long enough for the quarterback to work his magic.
All that weaponry is complemented by a defense that has created 20 takeaways in 11 games, boasts top-10 units at linebacker and cornerback and features a lethal pass rusher in Josh Allen.
The Jaguars are well-positioned for a chance at a bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They made a legendary comeback in their home stadium last year. This year, they are more experienced and better equipped for substantial postseason success.