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Are The 2016 Cowboys Better Than The Two Previous Cowboys Playoff Teams?

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The last two times the Cowboys made the payoffs was in 2009 and 2014. After six games, how does this year's team compare to those two teams?

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The Cowboys lead the division after six games with a 5-1 record, a much better situation than they found themselves in last year, when the were 2-4 after six games. But 2015 is not a good benchmark for this year's team.

A much better benchmark for this year's team are the last two Cowboys playoff teams from 2014 and 2009. The 2014 team also started the season 5-1 and went on to a 12-4 record, while the 2009 team started 4-2 and finished 11-5.

The 2009 team famously shutout the Eagles 24-0 in the regular season finale and then routed the Eagles 34-14 in the wildcard round. The 2009 season ended with a demoralizing 34-3 loss to the Vikings in the divisional round which ultimately led to a wholesale rebuilding of the team and particularly the offensive line.

The 2014 won its wildcard game against the Lions but would infamously lose in Green Bay in the divisional round.

Can the 2016 team do better than each of those two playoff teams?

There's obviously no quick answer to that question, and there's a lot of football still left to be played, but one way of approaching that question is by looking at how different the 2016 Cowboys are compared to the previous two Cowboys playoff teams after six games in a number of key statistical categories. In comparing the stats over three years, I'll use a simple color scheme to denote where the 2016 team stands against the previous playoff teams:

Green : better or equal to both 2014 and 2009
Yellow : better or equal to at least one of the previous seasons
Red : worse than both 2014 and 2009

If you're so inclined, you can skip all the numbers in the tables below and simply focus on the colors, they'll provide the same information as the numbers do.

Apart from the W/L record, the most obvious place to start comparing the three teams is by looking at the all-important scoring differential, which headlines our overview of topline team stats in the table below.

Stats after 6 games
'09 Cowboys '14 Cowboys '16 Cowboys
Points scored 159 165 159
Points allowed 119 126 107
Points Differential 40 39 52
TO ratio -2 -2 +4
First Downs 123 142 144
Penalties 45 36 36

The 2016 team scored slightly less points than the 2014 team, but make sup for that in points allowed. The 2016 Cowboys look much better in scoring differential and the closely linked turnover ratio. This year's team is generating more first downs than the two playoff teams, and also looks good on penalties.

Overall, the numbers above paint a very favorable picture of the 2016 Cowboys. The visually inclined will have noticed that five of the six 2016 cells are green, and indication that the 2016 team is equal to or better than the 2009 & 2014 teams in some key metrics.

Let's dig a little deeper into some of the stats for the offense to see whether the picture remains as 'green' as it was in the table above. Here is how the 2016 offense compares to the 2009 and 2014 versions:

OFFENSE after 6 games
'09 Cowboys '14 Cowboys '16 Cowboys
Passer Rating 97.7 100.5 103.9
Passing TDs 9 11 7
Interceptions 4 5 1
Passing yards /Attempt 8.2 7.5 7.9
Sack /Attempt 5.7 5.2 4.9
Yards per rush attempt
5.6 4.8 4.8
Rush yards per game 153 160 161
Rushing TDs 7 6 11
Third Down Efficiency 38.4% 56.3% 46.6%
Red Zone TD % 44.4% 61.9% 65.2%

This is a good showing for the offense. Overall, the 2016 team is better than the other two teams in six out of the ten metrics above, which strongly suggests that this year's offense is superior to both the 2009 and 2014 versions.

Passing TDs are the only metric in the 'red' but that's balanced by the high number of rushing TDs. The 2016 passing offense is not quite as vertical as the 2009 version, the running game is not quite as efficient as in 2009, and the third down conversions are behind 2014. But then again, neither the 2009 nor the 2014 teams had rookies starting at QB and at RB, so the 2016 numbers are even more impressive.

If the 2016 offense is the best of the three offenses we're looking at, it stands to reason that the Cowboys could go even further in the playoffs this year than they did in their last two playoff appearances - unless the defense isn't up to par.

After an offseason full of ridicule for the 2016 defense, there was serious doubt that the unit would be an improvement over 2015, much less an improvement over the playoff defenses from 2009 and 2014. But the numbers are not as unequivocally negative as you may have been led to expect, far from it:

DEFENSE after 6 games
'09 Cowboys '14 Cowboys '16 Cowboys
Passer Rating 90.0 95.9 95.0
Passing TDs 10 8 10
Interceptions 4 7 4
Passing yards /Attempt 6.6 7.0 7.0
Sack /Attempt 6.4% 3.6% 4.8%
Yards per rush 4.3 5.1 4.4
Rush yards per game 109 115 92
Rushing TDs 3 4 2
Third Down Efficiency 35.0% 43.6% 45.1%
Red Zone TD % 57.1% 52.9% 52.4%

The big surprise here, at least for me, is that the 2016 defense only has one metric in the 'red'. The third-down defense doesn't look particularly impressive, although I'll freely admit that I don't fully understand how much of this is due to more of a bend-but-don't-break defensive approach as opposed to a general suckitude.

But apart from that, the 2016 defense is very much comparable to the 2009 and 2014 playoff defenses - and that, apart from the rookie success in Dallas, must surely count as one of the biggest surprises of the season. The defense will need to sustain this level of play over the entire season, and it sure would be nice to see that third down conversion rate come down, but right now there's no indication that the defense will keep the Cowboys from making the playoffs.

The next and final table is about special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS after 6 games
'09 Cowboys '14 Cowboys '16 Cowboys
Punt returns 10.4 7.5 7.6
Kickoff returns 23.3 25.9 24.0

Punt returns allowed
7.4 8.4 14.4
Kickoff returns allowed
20.9 21.8 23.2

The Cowboys have an okay return game. The 24 yards on kickoff returns currently rank sixth-best in the league, while the 7.6 yards on punt returns rank a less impressive 21st. But a real area of concern is the return yardage allowed. The 14.4 yards allowed on punt returns is ranked 28th in the league, the 23.2 yards on kickoff returns is ranked 21st.

Especially on Sunday against the Eagles - ranked No. 1 on kickoff returns with 38.7 yards and 12th on punt returns with 11.2 yards - the Cowboys need to be extra vigilant in the return game.

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We haven't even reached the half-point of the season yet, so it's probably still a little early to project where the 2016 team will end up this year. But based on where the 2009 and 2014 playoff teams were after six games, the 2016 team stacks up very favorably against those two teams and there's a reasonable chance that this year's team could outperform those two teams in the playoffs.