After a year hiatus, the Cowboys will make their triumphant return to the playoffs on January 15th when they face either the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, or Detroit Lions. They will face the lower seed of any of those remaining teams after Wild Card weekend. So for now, it’s just a waiting game. But since we have all this time on our hands we get to play the “which team do we want Dallas to face in the Divisional Round” game.
There are some that will proclaim that they aren’t worried about anyone – bring’em on! Others will roll with the narrative that the only team capable of beating the Cowboys…are the Cowboys themselves. Sure, those are fun things to say, but let’s just amuse ourselves and explore the scenarios anyway.
If you were one of the people that wrote off the Green Bay Packers after their 4-6 start, don’t feel bad. We’re in it together. After winning six straight games, the Pack are back and that has some people worried as anything is possible once you make it to the dance. Aaron Rodgers has his team riding hot and they could play their way into a possible Divisional Round rematch the Cowboys. The Packers just beat the Lions on Sunday night to win the NFC North and earn the #4 seed in the NFC.
The Cowboys beat the Packers in Week 6 so maybe they don’t worry people that much. Instead, maybe it’s the Giants, who swept the Cowboys this season, that are the team fans are most apprehensive about facing. New York has a resurgent defense and has kept the Cowboys offense to only one touchdown in each of the two games this season.
Then, there’s Detroit. Nobody seems too worried about Detroit. The Lions have lost three straight and have backed themselves into the playoffs, grabbing the final spot. The Cowboys rolled them a couple weeks ago 42-21, so they are the most desirable opponent to face, but it would take an upset over the Seattle Seahawks to make that happen.
There are a lot of different factors you could throw out to support an argument of wanting to face one team versus another, but one key statistic that very helpful in determining a team’s ability to win games is – Passer Rating Differential. The Cool One wrote an article about this statistic in June and he swears by it. And for good reason. It correlates quite well with the ability to win football games.
Today, winning in the NFL is all about passing efficiency. The best offenses are those that pass the ball the most effectively, the best defenses are those that prevent their opponents from passing effectively. The best teams in the league are those that do both.
The key to the Cowboys making the playoffs will be an improved passer rating differential. Don't trust anybody who tells you otherwise.
Seriously, don’t trust anyone.
It shouldn’t surprise many people that the 2015 version of the Dallas Cowboys had a ridiculously poor Passer Rating Differential. And it would surprise you even less to know that the reason for this was because of a poo-poo platter of an offense. With a 76.4 Offensive Passer Rating and a 94.2 Defensive Passer Rating, the Cowboys had a differential of -17.8, which sinks you towards the bottom of the league. Finishing with a record of 4-12 last year shows that the Passer Rating Differential is right on cue representing a team’s ability to win games.
So if this is a measurable that is reliable, what can it tell us about some possible opponents and how they compare with the Cowboys? Here is the offensive and defensive passer ratings for each team in the playoffs and their respective differentials.
So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that this chart does a pretty solid job supporting the Passer Rating Differential argument based on how these teams have performed this season, which adds some credibility to this relationship. That bad news is that the Cowboys aren’t as high as we’d like them to be and that can be a little worrisome. Despite having one of the top OPR’s, the Cowboys sport the third worst DPR. We have all rejoiced in how improved the defense has been this season. Who wouldn’t? After all, Dallas is in the top five in points allowed and has given up the fewest rushing yards this season.
There are some grains of salt to be taken with this message and here are a couple that come to mind:
- Opponents can’t run well on Dallas, so they choose to pass more.
- Opponents have to play catch up, so they choose to pass more.
- The Cowboys don’t have a strong pass rush, so opponents can air it out on them.
There are pros and cons with these reasons, but many of us have a good feel for what the Cowboys are. What about their opponents?
Well, it’s no shocker that a Lions upset over the Seahawks would bring the Cowboys the most nonthreatening opponent. Compared to all the other playoff teams, Detroit is weak on both sides of the ball. That Cowboys would have a 22 point edge in Passer Rating Differential.
The next most desirable team is the Packers. While Rodgers helps boost the OPR, the defense has their own shortcomings to worry about. The Cowboys slightly beat them out on both sides of the ball, giving them the overall edge.
The Giants appear to be the team the Cowboys don’t want to face. Sure, revenge is a dish best served inside the confines of AT&T Stadium with 100,000 screaming Cowboys fans, but if you’re looking for the easiest path – it won’t involve a third rendezvous with New York. The passer rating also tells us something we already know – Eli Manning is terrible and the Giants defense is for real. The Giants have the absolute worst OPR in the NFC and the absolute best DPR in the entire league. But their defense is strong enough to carry them.
So of the three, the Giants seem like the clear-cut team that would present the most difficult challenge for the Cowboys, right? Wait, not so fast.
When it comes to team passer rating differential, @Packers are #1 over last four weeks. TPRD is most consistent indicator of winning teams.— Kevin Dugan Jr (@KevinDuganJr) December 20, 2016
This tweet was four games into their six game winning streak and their TPRD has only gotten stronger over the final two games. This whole “Aaron Rodgers heating up” thing could have some real merit. It could also be the product of facing Matt Barkley (81.7), Carson Wentz (75.5), and five-interception performance of Russell Wilson (43.7). Make no mistake about it though, The Packers offense has been dangerous lately.
And if there is anything else to be learned from this it’s that when the Cowboys advance to the NFC Championship game, the battle is just beginning. Both Atlanta and New England are monsters in this category and could be trouble down the pike. So any game that sees either of these two teams getting bounced would be a good thing for Cowboys fans. And if Kansas City goes deeper than you expect them to, this may explain why. They are solid on offense and outstanding on defense.
This puts some perspective on things as the playoffs begin and could play a crucial role in determining which teams advance. The great news for Dallas is that their defense has been coming together recently. The pass rush has shown up and with the return of Morris Claiborne, the secondary will be stronger than it’s been in years. The offense carries this team, but for this to be a special year, the defense is going to have to get after the opposing quarterback so that emerges as the most efficient QB.