Week 3 in the NFL is an interesting week, because it is the first week after which the first teams are basically eliminated from playoff contention. Only three times since 1990 (‘92 Chargers, ‘95 Lions, ‘98 Bills) has a team made the playoffs after starting 0-3. Since realignment in 2002, not one of the 78 teams that started the season 0-3 made the playoffs, which means the 0-3 teams (Raiders, Texans, Cardinals) can start doing mock drafts.
Week 3 is also interesting for teams like the Cowboys that started the season 1-1, because the third game often points such teams in one or the other direction. Had the Cowboys won against the Seahawks and improved to 2-1, their historic playoff odds would have jumped to 53%. Instead, they dropped to 24%. That difference of 29% is the biggest possible swing of playoff odds anywhere in the 16-game regular season, and the Cowboys’ inability to capitalize on that will likely set the tone for the rest of the season.
The table below shows what the playoff odds have looked like over the last 16 seasons by W/L after the third game of the season.
|Playoff odds based on Week 3 W/L records, since 2002|
|Record after Week 3||3-0||2-1||1-2||0-3|
|Playoff Teams||55||94||43||- -|
So the Cowboys have about a 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs after three weeks. That still sounds like they have a fighting chance, and maybe they do, but the more important question is this: Are the 1-2 Cowboys good enough to overcome those odds?
To understand where the Cowboys currently stand and what their chances look like going forward, we turn once more to the trusted Pythagorean Formula. We’ve used the formula often before to measure overall team strength, on the hypothesis that a team’s true strength could be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses. This is the NFL version of the formula:
The 1-2 Cowboys have scored 41 points and allowed 53. Plugging that into the formula results in a 5.6-win projection for the Cowboys, which should good for a Top 6 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
And in case you were harboring any hopes of a quick turnaround, know that the 41 points scored over three games makes the Cowboys offense the second-worst unit in the NFL. They are not going to be able to simply flip a switch and start scoring 30 points a game from Week 4 on.
There is of course some hope that the Cowboys might be able to beat the 1-2 Lions next week, but unless they beat Detroit by two or more TDs, the Cowboys win projection won’t rise much beyond eight wins, and that’s factoring in a Cowboys win.
And after four weeks of play, there is quite a strong correlation between the early win projection and the subsequent regular season win totals. Of course, with every additional week of data, the formula gets better, but after about Week 4 the improvements are gradual, and not as steep as in the first few weeks. For the Cowboys, outside of 2015 when Romo’s injury sunk the season, the projection has been fairly accurate during Garrett’s tenure as a head coach, averaging a mean average error of just 1.2 games versus the actual regular season win totals.
|Mean Avg. Error||0.2||2.4||1.4||1.0||4.5||1.1||1.2|
What the data here tells us is the Cowboys are basically an 8-8 team with the occasional swing in either direction.
Under Garrett’s tenure, the team has been oscillating around eight wins for the last eight years, and barring a huge showing against the Lions next week, the data here is robust enough to suggest that the ceiling for the 2018 team is yet another 8-8 season.
To borrow from Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are. And that record says the the 2018 Cowboys are an average to below average team.
Sure, they have a 24% chance of making the playoffs. But look at the 10 other teams with a 1-2 record; the historic playoff odds suggest up to three of them could make it to the playoffs - and do you really think these 2018 Cowboys will beat out the likes of the Patriots, Seahawks, Chargers, or Falcons for a playoff spot?
Winter is coming.
If we use the Pythagorean formula for the remaining 31 teams, we get a good idea of the emerging 2018 playoff picture. With that in mind, here’s how the projected wins stack up after Week 3 for all 32 NFL teams:
Pythagorean Projected Wins by NFL team, Week 3, 2018
|AFC EAST||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins||NFC EAST||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins|
|New England||1||2||0||57||77||5.3||NY Giants||1||2||0||55||62||6.6|
|AFC North||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins||NFC North||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins|
|AFC South||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins||NFC South||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins|
|AFC West||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins||NFC West||W||L||T||PF||PA||Proj.Wins|
|Kansas City||3||0||0||118||92||11.4||LA Rams||3||0||0||102||36||15.0|
If all teams continue playing the way they did over the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys would end up with the sixth-worst record in the league. Of course, a lot of things can change between now and then, but for now, the Cowboys are on a trajectory for one of the top picks in the draft.