256: Philadelphia's rushing yards. Coming in to the game, the one thing the Dallas defense could hang its hat on was their ability to slow down opponents' rushing attacks. On Sunday night against the Giants, Eli Manning and the passing game had their way with the Cowboys for the better part of the game, but New York could never get its rushing game untracked, gaining a paltry 89 yards on 32 carries, for a 2.8 yard average. Despite talent deficiencies and losses to injury, the Cowboys seemed to be laying their run fits well and consistently, which is often sufficient to stop the run at the NFL level.
One of the areas where the Cowboys seemed to enjoy a distinct advantage in this game was in at quarterback, where Romo is (and continues to be) vastly superior to Mark Sanchez. However, to utilize this advantage, the Cowboys had to stop - or at least slow down - the Eagles running game. They never could, at least not with any consistency, and so they never forced Sanchez to have to beat them. Thanks to the work of the Eagles running backs and, even moreso, their offensive line, he played with the lead for just under 57 minutes of game time, and had to make few, if any, meaningful throws. That's the way you negate a disadvantage.
.200: The Eagles batting average in the red zone. As I noted on our most recent podcast, coming in to the Thanksgiving game, the Cowboys defense has been struggling mightily in the red zone. In the five most recent games, they had allowed 12 touchdowns in 14 red zone attempts (NYG I: 2-2; Washington: 2-2; Arizona: 4-4; Jacksonville: 1-2; NYG II: 3-4), with both stops on takeaways (this after holding opponents to 9-17 in games 1-6). What that means is that they hadn't forced a field goal on a red zone penetration since the win at Seattle.
To continue to allow such a staggeringly high percentage of red zone TDs against the Eagles would mean certain death. Indeed, on Philly's first two series, this ignominious trend continued, extending the mark to 14-16. After that, however, Rod Marinelli and his boys found ways to stiffen. The Eagles next seven pre-garbage time possessions resulted in FG, punt, FG FG, fumble, TD, FG. If you had told me the Cowboys were going to force four red zone field goals, I would have told you that they would walk away winners.
.533: The Eagles third down conversion percentage, after converting 8 of 15 attempts. As might be expected, the Dallas' defense's work on third down correlated to their success in the red zone. After going 0-3 on third down stops on the Eagles first two TD drives, Marinelli's troops managed third down stops on the next seven drives in which the Eagles faced a third down (on their final touchdown, the most inhospitable down-and-distance Philly faced was a second-and-five).
The Cowboys, on the other hand, went 4-12 on third down. After sitting atop the NFL pile (and not just the 2014 pile, but the history-of-the-league pile) in this key category after seven games (when they had a 59% conversion rate), the Cowboys have fallen off in this regard, and drastically. In the last five games, the Cowboys are 20-58 in third down conversions, which translates to .35, or just a hair above one in three.
Increasingly, it's looking like Dallas' historic conversion rate through the season's first seven games was an aberration, an unsustainable hot streak that has been corrected in recent weeks as they have suffered the dreaded regression to the mean. And here's the burning question: if the Cowboys' winning formula is dependent on the offense converting downs and sustaining drives, what kind of team is this if, in fact, they are unable to accomplish this? Which brings us to:
267: Dallas' total yards from scrimmage, a season low. In recent games against Jacksonville and New York, the Cowboys struggled to sustain offense (a combined 8-22 on third down) but made up for it by making big plays in the passing game (and, against the Jags, in the running game). So, although they failed to sustain offense, they managed to be explosive. Given their struggles on defense, the Cowboys offense has to be one of these things - a grind-it-out bunch that chews clock, or a big-play, quick-strike unit that can match teams like Philly score for score.
On Thursday, they were neither; Dallas managed one run of more than ten yards and one pass that went for more than 20. So, the formula that has characterized their wins since Romo was hurt against Washington - get big plays - was nowhere in evidence. And here's my theory why:
3: As in using all three downs, which appeared to be the Cowboys offensive strategy. If we take away the two one-play drives at the end of the first half (resulting in Cole Beasley's fumble and a kneel down), and look at the rest of Dallas drives in the game's first three quarters, a clear pattern emerges: the Cowboys clearly wanted to sustain possession by working for manageable down and distances. Take a look at which downs the Dallas offense converted each series (the yards to go on third down conversions are in parentheses; failed conversions received an asterisk):
Drive I: third (1); third (3); second; *third (8) - no PI call on pass to Bryant
Drive II: third (3); second; second (TD)
Drive III: *third (3) -miscommunication between Romo and Witten
Drive IV: second; *third (3) - sack
Drives IV-V: the one-play drives at the end of the half
Drive VII: second; *third (3) - run stuffed for gain of one
Drive VIII: *third (2) - sack
Drive IX: went to passing-based offense and dispensed with goal of achieving manageable third downs...
For a full three quarters, the Cowboys goal appeared to be to run the ball on first and second downs, get steady gains, achieve manageable third down distances, and sustain offense by converting them. If successful, this had the added benefit of keeping the Eagles high-octane offense off the field and protecting Tony Romo - both of which, to my mind, were critical aspects of the gameplan.
That strategy works if a team can convert those short third downs, as the Cowboys did masterfully in early season contests. On Thursday, as we can see from the above, they failed too often to get much-needed conversions, whether from a referee's decision on what could easily have been a pass interference penalty on a play to Bryant, a miscommunication between two men who share the same brain or the failure to get three yards on the ground when they had been doing that successfully thus far, the Cowboys couldn't execute their plan.
Here's the deal: the Cowboys were relying on a gameplan that required them to execute long drives, probably of 10 or more plays, against an active front seven, and to do it repeatedly, since it was clear the Eagles were going to score 30+ points, given that they have in every game this season. To accomplish that, the Dallas offense had to be nearly perfect. On Thursday, they were far from perfect, and the entire plan came to a crashing halt.
6.2: Yards per play given up by the Cowboys. This correlates roughly to their season average. The takeaway here is that the Cowboys defense didn't necessarily play any worse than they have in any other game this year, or on the season as a whole, but that they were on the field for too many plays. To wit:
75: The Eagles total plays from scrimmage, tying a season-high, one more than the Giants ran the previous Sunday. There are two issues here; the first is that the undermanned Cowboys D played 149 plays in four days. If they were to have a realistic shot of competing against the Eagles, they probably needed to limit the Giants to about 55 plays, and then keep Philly in the mid 60s.
Here's the second issue, which is strongly linked to the first. The Cowboys ran 58 plays on Thursday. That creates a differential of -17. This does not represent the greatest disparity on the year - that ignominious honor belongs to the last week's game, when the Giants enjoyed a 73-52 advantage in plays from scrimmage, which just edges out the week three contest in which St. Louis ran 72 plays to the Cowboys 52. Yesterday's debacle comes in third.
I've written this many times before, but I believe it bears repeating: in the Cowboys' five consecutive victories after the opening day 49ers debacle, they averaged a 68-57 advantage in plays (and if we toss out the outlier, the Rams game, it swells to a 71.5-53.3 advantage). Since then, however, the total snaps have worked out thusly:
NY Giants I: 60-59 (+1)
Washington: 64-64 (even)
Arizona: 59-65 (-6)
Jacksonville: 59-65 (-6)
NY Giants II: 53-74 (-21)
Philadelphia: 58-75 (-17)
This graph is pointing down, my friends. After dominating the time of possession and, by extension, the number of plays from scrimmage during their six-game winning streak, the Cowboys have either been even or dominated in that regard. Against middling teams like the Giants, when they can strike quickly, Dallas can overcome such a disparity. Against the Eagles' fast-break offense, and strong pass rush, the Cowboys cannot allow 17 more plays and hope to win. Especially not a week after logging a -20 in snap differential. And speaking of negative differentials:
-10: The Cowboys first down differential on the afternoon. Like many other stats from the Thanksgiving game, this contributes to a downward trend. In Dallas' first six games, the Cowboys converted 40 more first downs than their opponents; in the six games since then, they have suffered a significant drop-off, and are at -27. Disconcertingly, this has grown steadily worse. Here are the first down differentials from the Cowboys games this season:
San Fransisco: +7
Tennessee: + 13
St. Louis: -7
New Orleans: +4
Seattle: + 14
Yep. Downward trend.
-2: The Cowboys turnover differential on the afternoon. During their early-season winning streak, the Cowboys were often losing the turnover battle and, by so doing, playing what I have characterized elsewhere as losing football. Five times this season, the Cowboys have been on the positive side of the turnover ledger; they are 5-0 in those games. Once - last week - they were even. In their other six games, they have been on the negative side of the ledger (they are 2-4 in those games). That's far, far too many times losing the turnover battle.
Given that the team that wins the turnover battle wins about 80% of the time in the NFL, the aberration in these turnover stats is the two wins Dallas notched when having more giveaways than takeaways. Had those two games - against Houston and Seattle - held true to form, we're looking at a 6-6 team.
4: The Cowboys number of home losses on the season. Only once in their storied history have the Cowboys made the playoffs with four home losses: in 2006, the season that was capped by Romo's first nationally-televised miscue (the fumbled snap in Seattle, which magically found its way back into Thursday's telecast). What is particularly galling about these four loses, however, is who they have come against. By losing to San Francisco, Washington, Arizona, and now Philadelphia, Dallas not only has four conference losses, but three of them are against teams who they will be battling for precious playoff spots.
With a second division loss, the Cowboys must not only beat Philadelphia on December 14, but have to hope the Eagles lose at least one other game, since Philadelphia holds the tiebreaker (division wins) thanks to the Cowboys hiccup against the 'Skins. In terms of the wildcard battle, the Cowboys have to hope that either Arizona or San Francisco wins the division, since the only head-to-head tiebreaker they hold is with Seattle. But it might not come to that; here are the NFL's tiebreaking procedures for a wild-card position when there are three or more teams involved:
Three or More Clubs
(Note: If two clubs remain tied after third or other clubs are eliminated, tie breaker reverts to step one of applicable two-club format.)
1. Apply division tie breaker to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step two. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tie breaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild-Card participants.
2. Head-to-head sweep. (Applicable only if one club has defeated each of the others or if one club has lost to each of the others.)
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
There are nine more steps, with number twelve being a coin toss; none of them will matter, however, as the Cowboys are very unlikely to get past number three above, even if Seattle is involved. With their victory over the 49ers Thursday night, the Seahawks sport a 6-2 conference record, a game and a half above the Cowboys' mark. With Thursday's loss, the Cowboys find themselves with only one outcome to root for: that they end up in a two-way tie with Seattle for a wildcard berth.
2003: The year when Bill Parcells took his upstart 8-3 Cowboys team into a Thanksgiving contest against Miami, where the Dolphins, led by Norv Turner, proceeded to dismantle the Cowboys. The following week, they went on the road to Philly, where they were again exposed in a 36-10 shellacking. I'm not suggesting for a second that this team is as woeful as that bunch (although that group did have a much stouter defense). What I'm working at here is that, in the NFL, you can only operate so long on delicate winning formulas. In 2003, that team's inadequacies were eventually exposed. My question is: are this group's deficiencies similarly evident for all the NFL to see? Have they come about as far as their limited talent (and damaged quarterback) can take them?