After their pummeling of the previously-undefeated-after-bye-weeks-in-the-Andy-Reid-era Eagles last Sunday, the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, who hadn't been getting much love from national scribes, suddenly became media darlings. In the intervening days, we have been treated to myriad stories of Matty Ice's maturation, the emergence of Julio Jones in his sophomore campaign, and the superb play of their cornerback duo, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. While all of this may indeed be true, I feel strongly that the Cowboys will break their recent string of losses on Sunday Night Football and end the Falcons undefeated season. Here are seven reasons why:
That's One Cheap 7-0: To this point in the season, the Falcons have played the NFL's easiest schedule; their opponents sport an unimpressive .430 winning percentage (as opposed to .610 for the Cowboys). And, although they are the league's only remaining undefeated team, the Falcons' point differential (71) is only sixth best, suggesting that they aren't dominating opponents. Indeed, a look at their wins confirms this; two impressive wins against AFC West teams (in which the Falcons were +6 in turnovers; more on that later) sit amidst home squeakers against Denver (six points), Carolina (two), and Oakland (three). This cursory looks indicates Atlanta isn't dominant so much as lucky, which leads us to...
Regression to the Mean, Part I: The Falcons have been blessed by the football gods thus far in 2012, especially as it concerns turnovers, where they boast a +10 in turnover differential for the season. Years ago, Jimmy Johnson commissioned a turnovers study, and discovered that, while interceptions are something a team can control, fumbles - and who recovers them - are completely random, a conclusion that has since been oft substantiated by statistical wonks. Atlanta has, thus far, been on the lucky side of this randomness: they have fumbled 4 times, recovering three, and have collected seven of their opponents' eleven fumbles. As any statistician will tell you, its unlikely that this trend will continue. Which brings me to...
Regression to the Mean, Part II: With the exception of the Eagles game, the Falcons have struggled when the turnover margin has been even. Four of their seven wins have been by a touchdown or less and, obviously, they are undefeated in those tight contests. Given that even the best teams usually hover around .500 in close games, its statistically unlikely that Atlanta will continue to eke out victories when the score is within seven. The upshot here is that, as long as Dallas protects the football (and, after last week, I think they will), they are likely to be in the game at the end. Can the Falcons go 5-0 in close games? History suggests that its unlikely.
They're Forked Without 'Spoon: The Falcons' have their own Sean Lee-type, do-everything linebacker in Sean Weatherspoon. As Dave noted in his "Three Keys" post earlier today, 'Spoon has been scratched for Sunday night. Given that he's the guy who would have been responsible for covering Jason Witten (and that we were so forcefully reminded last week that the Cowboys offense still flows through number 82), his absence should open things up for the Cowboys' passing game. Which leads me to...
Match-ups, Part I: This appears to be one of the rare occasions wherein the Cowboys will be able to run their entire offense. The Falcons have been weak against the run, ranking 23rd in total yards allowed and, more importantly, 31st in yards per carry, at a whopping 5.1 per. One of the reasons the Cowboys have been so imbalanced in several of their games this season is that their running game can't be counted on to get them in manageable second and third down situations. As was the case against Baltimore, I think Dallas can get the running game going on Sunday. If so, it opens up the rest of Jason Garrett's playbook, perhaps even something we didn't see against the Ravens: the play-action passes that have been almost non-existent thus far in 2012.
Match-ups, Part II: On the other side of the ball, the Falcons offense has a new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter (great name for a comic book villain) and, with him, a new philosophy. The running game, featuring squatty (but aging) cutback artist Michael Turner, is no longer the offense's focal point. Instead, Matt Ryan and his stable of rangy receivers have taken center stage. I think this plays into Dallas' strengths; the Cowboys have a group of big, physical corners who match up well with Atlanta's group. And, although the loss of Lee stings (and will probably be felt acutely at some point during the game), Dallas does have several players, at different levels, who can match up fairly well with all-world TE Tony Gonzales. I wouldn't be surprised to see a combination of CB Orlando Scandrick, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bruce Carter taking turns hounding the former Cal Bear.
The Historical Whammy: Ultimately, none of the above analysis holds as much relevance as the much-touted and ironclad "Cowboys record against undefeated teams since 1991" meme that's now making its way through ESPN circles. For those of you unfamiliar with the history, it runs like this: since 1991, the Cowboys have thrice faced an undefeated opponent with at least nine wins; each time, Dallas has dealt them their first loss of the season. In 1991, a reeling but up-and-coming Cowboys squad went to Washington and beat an 11-0 Tony Romo's fourth career start, they defeated the 9-0 21-14; in 2009, a teetering 8-5 Dallas team traveled into a hostile New Orleans Superdome and saved its season with a 24-17 victory over the 13-0 .team; in 2006, in
Obviously, there are no players on this team from the 1991 win (even Jason Garrett didn't join the Cowboys until the following season), and precious few from the 2006 and 2009 wins. Nevertheless, there is an important symmetry at work here, especially when you consider the state of Cowboys Nation coming in to each of these key wins. In 1991, Dallas had just lost two hard-fought road games in agonizing fashion and, at 6-5, needed a victory to save their season. In 2006, Dallas came into the game 5-4 and needed a win to restore any playoff hope. In 2009, they were (again) coming off of two excruciating losses and (again) in the midst of an annual December swoon. In short, each of these games featured a Dallas team that, like the 2012 iteration, had its back to the wall and were much hungrier than their well-fed opponent. Sound familiar? Which team has been feasting on the ESPN love banquet all week? Its not the Cowboys.
And, in each case, toppling an opponent from the undefeated ranks righted a listing ship. In 1991, Dallas, behind backup QB Steve Buerlein, won the remainder of its regular season games and scored a wild-card victory over the Bears; in 2006, the win over the Colts was the second in a four-game streak; in 2009, the victory spurred a streak that carried the Cowboys into, and through a home playoff win over the hated Eagles. Can they be similarly hungry on Sunday? I think so.
And, might the big win serve as the catalyst for a similar streak? I'm not ready to be quite that bold, but a prime time victory certainly wouldn't hurt.