A preliminary look at Sunday's box score suggests that the Cowboys and Redskins were involved in a very statistically even game. Check out some of these key categories:
First downs: Dallas 20; Washington 20
Passing First Downs: Dal 13; Wash 13
Third Down Conversions: Dal 4-12; Wash 4-12
Red Zone: Dal 1-4; Wash 1-4
Total Drives: Dal 13, Wash 13
Pretty much dead even, no? So, how did the Cowboys manage to win by a blowout score, 44-17? Well, there's this:
3: The Cowboys turnover margin in the game. As I've written several times this December, the Cowboys played really well in September and October - so well, in fact, that they were able to overcome negative turnover differentials in several games. Against the Texans and Seahawks, for example, they had a -2 and -1 TO differential, respectively, yet managed to eke out close wins. I wrote at that time that this was not sustainable, since teams that win the TO battle win the game roughly 80% of the time. Indeed, in all four Dallas losses, the Cowboys found themselves on the bad side of the turnover ledger.
Fast forward to December, wherein the Cowboys have been at least +2 in all four of their games. Not coincidentally, all have been victories. For the month, they are +9 in TO differential. That's 2.25 drives stopped, short fields, or key momentum swings every game. Which has led directly to this:
21.5: The Cowboys average margin of victory in December. In the season's most important month, Dallas leads the NFL in offense. More importantly, they lead the league in scoring margin in December, after outpacing the opposition 165-79. That translates to a shocking 41.25-19.75 average per game score. Which means that, in December, the month in which they typically implode, or reveal their DNA, the Cowboys have been winning their games by an average of three touchdowns.
This is historic production. Not only was the 165 points the Cowboys best December in franchise history (allowing for four games in the month), it was a full 39 points better than the 126 points scored in December, 1993 (the year that marked the Cowboys second consecutive Super Bowl). Not only is it the highest-scoring final month in Cowboys history, but it ties the Don Coryell-led 1982 Chargers for highest scoring December in NFL history.
How about in terms of all months, not just December? The Cowboys' 2014 December proves to be the greatest scoring month in franchise history (with fourteen more points than they managed in September 2007). And, it's the seventh highest-scoring single month in NFL history, only two of which occurred in the modern era. That's some special sauce, folks.
I've said it many, many times, but it bears repeating here: close games are a subject to luck; in large sample sizes, all teams' winning percentages in games decided by seven or fewer points, regardless of overall record, are roughly .500. Consequently, what distinguishes good and bad teams isn't that good teams somehow "learn" to win close games; rather, they become good enough to avoid them altogether. This December, the Cowboys have won every game by at least eleven points, and all four wins were effectively sewn up with five minutes left in the game. In short, they have played like a good team.
22: The number of big defensive plays made by the Cowboys in the four December games. Against the Bears, Eagles, Colts and Redskins, Dallas recovered six fumbles, registered seven interceptions, and logged nine sacks. In the season's most important month, in other words, they averaged five and a half big defensive plays per game. Want to know why they enjoyed a historic level of scoring? Be sure to thank the defense.
2: The number of 65-yard touchdowns for the Cowboys on the afternoon. Dallas' first and last touchdowns were Dez Bryant's beastly catch-and-run and Joseph Randle's burst up the middle. This pair of 65-yard scores proved to be the Cowboys' second- and third-longest plays of the year, behind only Dez Bryant's 68-yard touchdown on play-action back in week three against the Rams.
In the season's first half, the Cowboys won by sustaining offense. In November wins against the Jaguars and Giants, they won with explosive plays, a model that we saw again on Sunday afternoon. To wit:
After engineering three drives of five or more minutes against the Colts, the Cowboys had no 5+ minute drives against the Redskins. It appears that they came out intending to possess the ball; their opening 4:45 drive was their longest of the day, leading to a field goal. After that, however, they were like a cobra, striking quickly: Dallas scored four touchdowns on the afternoon, on drives of one, four, five and six plays. That's astonishingly explosive. And, curiously, their three longest drives in terms of total plays all resulted in field goals.
Check out this offensive production in the first half, wherein the Cowboys had six possessions:
Drive One: 9 plays, 55 yards: FG
Drive Two: 4 plays, 80 yards: TD
Drive Three: 5 plays, 74 yards: TD
Drive Four: 9 plays, 56 yards: FG
Drive Five: 6 plays, 49 yards: TD
Drive Six: End of half
The Cowboys offense can bring the thunder; on Sunday, they opted for lightning. However, it wasn't unmitigated awesome; there was a significant dry patch that must be remarked upon...
4: The number of Dallas' offensive three and outs in the second half. After having their way with the Redskins throughout the first frame, the Cowboys offense bogged down after the half. On their first three and four of their first five second-half drives, the Cowboys went three-and-out (with the exception being the 4-play affair that ended in Romo's interception). This represented a level of offensive futility heretofore unmatched this season. Three times in 2014, Dallas has had back-to-back three-and-out possessions (against the Rams, Saints and Cardinals), but never three in a row.
And it wasn't just the bald fact of their ineptitude, it was the way they played. In a strange paradox, the Cowboys left their starters in because they wanted to play to win the game and then played not to lose. In the second half, the Dallas offense reminded me of Cowboys teams in 2011-13, who couldn't run, passed too much, and tried, yet only half-heartedly, to protect their quarterback. They didn't play with the aggressiveness and confidence that we've seen for much of the year, and which has characterized the past month.
That said, it seemed that, when they wanted to score, after the Redskins has closed the lead to 27-17, they did so rather effortlessly. The moral of this story: when this team is at full effort and concentration, they are really, really, really good.
32: The length of the DeMarco Murray run on third-and-one that pushed him past Emmitt Smith as the Cowboys' single-season rushing leader. At the final gun, Murray sat atop the team's glorious rushing history, with a staggering and beautiful 1,845 yards on 393 carries. What was just as beautiful was the fact that, on the next play, Dez Bryant caught a 23-yard touchdown pass to give him 16 for the season, also a single-season record (previously held by Terrell Owens).
This a week after Tony Romo broke Troy Aikman's franchise passing record on a 25-yard scoring strike to Jason Witten last week. In back-to-back weeks, therefore, the Cowboys' new "triplets" shattered the record books, and did so in spectacular, meaningful fashion: a lovely cut and burst through the hole to pass Emmitt; a gorgeous toe-tapping TD grab along the side of the end zone; a laser to The Senator through the smallest of windows.
The fact that one set up a touchdown and the other two resulted in scores is, in this season of offensive excellence, fitting.
9: Ted Williams' number. Why invoke the Splendid Splinter's number at this juncture? Because it has some correlation in my addled mind to that of our own Number Nine. Allow me to recount a bit of baseball lore. On the last day of the 1941 season, Williams was batting .39955, which would have been rounded up to a .400 average. Williams was given the opportunity to sit out the final day, so he could finish the year with a .400 average. But he didn't want to go out that way, deciding to play a doubleheader against the then-Philadelphia Athletics. The Splinter went 6-for-8 on the day, finishing the baseball season at .406.
And, here's where Romo compares to The Splinter: Romo entered a meaningless game leading the league in passer rating. After a sweltering first half, in which he posted a 149 rating, Romo fell off a bit, but still finished the game at an even 100.0, his tenth game this year with a rating of 100 or higher. Sunday's work allowed him not only to finish with a league-best 113.2 passer rating, but also to lead the NFL in QBR (82.75), completion percentage (69.9), touchdown percentage (7.8), and yards per attempt (8.5). The dude has been awesome.
1: Number of Romo's 300-yard passing games in 2014. With 299 yards passing against the Redskins, Romo finished the season with a grand total of one 300-yard passing effort, the lowest of his career - and that includes 2006, when his first start came in game six, and 2008, when he missed ten contests due to a broken collarbone. In anything approaching a full season, Romo has had between five (2011) and nine (2012) 300-yard passing games. This year, with a running game, he's been Aikman-like, playing with incredible poise, accuracy, and precision.
17: The number of times the Cowboys passed on the 21 second downs they faced. Earlier in the season, the Cowboys offense got, as folks like Bob Sturm have pointed out, predictably "run, run, pass." To stop it, teams began to stack the box on first and second downs in order to get the Cowboys into less tenable third down situations. In the last couple of months, as a counter-punch, the Cowboys have begun to pass more on second down. On Sunday, they passed on an astounding 81% of their second down opportunities.
And it's not like this was because they faced a long succession of second and longs; yesterday, in addition to passing on several second and nine or tens, Romo and Company passed on second and two, four, five and six. This follows a pattern that has been developing of late, which is to pass on second down, regardless of distance. And, many times, they do so from a spread formation. Late in the season, as teams gear up for playoff runs, it's important to show a lot of diverse tape. By passing on second downs, the Cowboys are giving rival defensive coordinators one extra thing to worry about.
54: Bruce Carter's number. Although Carter has had a checkered career in Dallas, and almost certainly won't be re-signed in the offseason, he capped off his 2014 with a very fine day, an important development given Anthony Hitchens' high ankle sprain. On the afternoon, Carter logged 11 tackles, seven of them solos, notched a TFL, defended two passed, and collected a pair of critical red zone interceptions.
Given his limited snaps this year, the fact that he leads the team with five interceptions (many of which have been HUGE; recall his pick-six agains the Rams, and his game-clincher at Philly) is a remarkable accomplishment. It's a testament to him and a coaching staff that preaches the "next man up" philosophy.
In 2014, that philosophy has come to fruition, leading to the best number of all: 12. As in 12-4, baby!
Lets see if they can't make it number thirteen next Sunday.