News & Analysis

NFL Week 3 Biggest Movers: Cowboys are moving up

Through two weeks, this column has been the kiss of death, with the Titans losing two consecutive division games after starting out 1-0 and the Saints going on the road to beat the Seahawks the week after we cut their Super Bowl odds by more than 10 percentage points. This week we’re going to praise the Saints opponent on Sunday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys, whose Super Bowl Championship odds have risen from a preseason mark of 2.8% to 8.5% following Week 3. Simulations take into account PFF grades, adjust for situation (e.g. a team coming off of a bye) and coaching, and are powered by AWS.

While we liked Dallas’ under prior to the season, Kellen Moore has been far better than anyone could have imagined, grading out as the league’s second-best play-caller through three weeks. Moore has turned what was one of the more stagnant offenses in the NFL into a force to be reckoned with by leveraging a few simple yet effective tactics. After running play-action below the league average rate last season on 23% of passing plays, the Cowboys have embraced the play-action fake, something that raises efficiency league-wide, using a fake-handoff on 39% of their passing plays (second to the Ravens). Dak Prescott has a 137.5 passer rating off of play-action (3rd) and is the only quarterback yet to take a sack or throw a pass away when using play action. It’s no coincidence that more play-action has resulted in more throws between the numbers (from 44% of throws to 59%) and an uptick in yards per pass on those throws from 7.8 in 2018 to 10.7 this season (5th).

What was previously an offense that struggled to push the ball downfield, Prescott and the Cowboys are averaging 16.7 yards per pass when throwing the ball 10-plus yards downfield (2nd) and are doing so at a league-average rate for the first time in Dak’s career. While the scheme is much improved, so to is the decision-making; one of the cardinal sins of NFL play-calling is running the ball on second-and-long, which pummels the offense’s chances of score next, but the Cowboys are passing on 2nd-and-8-plus at the second-highest rate in the NFL (again behind the Ravens) and are averaging over 10 yards per play in those situations (highest). The Cowboys' rejuvenated passing attack (one that is just as explosive regardless of who has lined-up in the backfield) is a major reason America’s team is back in the Super Bowl conversation.

Additionally, the Eagles have lost their last two games in a fashion where at least one win would have been the expected outcome. This, coupled with the fact that their upcoming game against New Orleans is far easier with Teddy Bridgewater starting instead of Drew Brees, makes the road to a first-round bye almost three-times as likely (38%) as it was prior to the season (14%). 

Some concerns for Dallas include the often-erratic play of Prescott, who after a strong start during the first two weeks, fell all the way from first to 12th in percentage of negatively-graded throws, our most-predictive quarterback stat. Additionally, the Dallas defense has actually struggled more than the scores of their games would indicate through three weeks, and given that their opponents have been New York, Washington and Miami, it is an open question as to whether they can continue to be good enough to win with a schedule that is the league’s top-five-most-difficult during the last 14 weeks.

Changes (from preseason)

Wins: 8.5 -> 10.6

Playoffs: 43.9% -> 85.8%

Division Title: 31.5% -> 80.6%

Super Bowl: 2.8% -> 8.5%

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