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Can Cowboys awake from Divisional Round playoff nightmare?

It’s been a long time since the Cowboys advanced past this round.

Ed Jones defends Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Much has been written and spoken about the Dallas Cowboys failure to reach the NFC Championship game since the 1995 season. Saturday will represent the sixth time they’ve played in the divisional round since the team’s last NFL championship; in each of the previous five opportunities the team came up empty. In short, the divisional round has been a nightmare for Cowboys’ coaches, players and fans since the mid-90’s. Will 2018 be the year the team finally awakens?

Not often mentioned when talking about the team’s divisional round woes is the fact the team dominated that round of the playoffs from 1992 through 1994. Those Cowboys won four consecutive divisional round games by a combined score of 126 to 47 (average of 31 to 12).

Here are all nine Cowboys’ divisional round results since 1992:

The Cowboys actually reached the divisional round five consecutive times when you add their 1991 trip (when they lost 38-6 at Detroit; the worst post-season defeat in franchise history). So having only six trips in the 23 seasons since then seems rather anemic.

But it’s actually what you would expect. There’s 32 NFL teams, so each year 25% of the league advances to the divisional round. Thus, from a strictly statistical viewpoint, each franchise should make the divisional round once every four years.

The Cowboys’ 2018 visit will mark the sixth time the team has advanced this far in the last 23 years. From a statistical viewpoint they should have reached this round 5.75 times (23 * 0.25). Thus, the team has slightly exceeded that expectation. Of course, three of the visits have come in the last five years:

I thought it’d be interesting to look at that divisional round history and see if we can see any trends that help explain how the team has failed to advance further since 1995. Here are the point totals and differences:

One notable difference is the early 90’s team won their games easily, while the Cowboys’ losses have often been of the close, heartbreaking variety. In fact, three of the losses fall under the “gut punch” variety where the team played well enough to win but still lost:

  • 2007: lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants 21-17, despite gaining 100+ more yards, controlling the ball for 36+ minutes and committing only one turnover (teams who combine to do that in the playoffs are a collective 21-2 since the merger). It was a game that featured not one, not two, but three different balls thrown by Tony Romo that should have been touchdowns but his teammates failed him (I’m not naming names - I’m still not over it).
  • 2014 - Dez caught it.
  • 2016 - Everyone remembers Aaron Rodgers throwing for 36 yards on 3rd-and-20 from his own 30 with only 12 seconds remaining to set up a final play, game-winning field goal. What most forget is the more remarkable play just prior, when he held onto the ball despite being blind-sided by Jeff Heath.

If only the GOAT had remembered to chop down on Rodgers’ arm.

Summarizing, the divisional round has been a horror show of last-minute heartache the last ten years. The Cowboys haven’t been getting severely outplayed; they’re either not making that one play or allowing the opponent to make that one play.

Let’s look at the yardage numbers:

Here we see why there’s been so much heartache - the Cowboys have out-gained opponents three times in those five consecutive losses. Now, yards don’t win games in the NFL; turnover numbers are much more closely related to final scores than yardage numbers. So, what’s the story with turnovers:

Now we’re getting somewhere. Remarkably, the Cowboys haven’t won the turnover battle once since 1993 (seven straight games). Three times the turnover margin was zero; three times the Cowboys were -1 and once they were -3. Not surprisingly, that one game was the one time they were blown out.

In the three gut-punch losses the Cowboys turned the ball over only three times total - but they generated only two turnovers combined in those games. In fact, in the five straight losses the Dallas defense has generated a total of only four turnovers.

Needless to say that’s something that will need to change for the 2018 squad to break this long-running streak of futility. Dallas managed to overcome a -1 turnover differential against Seattle; that’s not likely to continue against Los Angeles.

Many are hoping the Cowboys’ ability to run the ball plus the Rams relative weakness against the run (they surrendered the highest yards per carry of any team in the NFL) will lead to success. While it’s hard to envision the Cowboys winning without being successful running the ball, doing so doesn’t ensure victory.

We see that throughout this entire period - from 1992 all the way to 2016 - the Cowboys have always been able to run the ball. They’ve averaged 128 yards rushing and have never totaled less than 96 yards on the ground. The team’s two biggest losses - Carolina in 1996 and Minnesota in 2009 - are the only games when the team lost the rushing yardage battle. So, I’d put a successful run game (on both offense and defense) under the “necessary but not sufficient” category.

What about the passing game? Well, there’s an interesting story here. First, the Cowboys haven’t been very prolific throwing the ball during the losing streak, except when Dak Prescott’s been the quarterback.

Remarkably, Tony Romo never topped 182 yards passing in any of his three divisional appearances. Each of those three teams had prolific passing offenses, so opponents somehow managed to take that away in those three losses.

The Cowboys’ pass defense, meanwhile, has been trending in the wrong direction; each game they surrender more passing yards than previous since giving up only 100 in the team’s 1996 loss to Carolina.

Winning the passer rating battle has proven to correlate strongly to winning in the NFL. So how have the Cowboys done in that area during this spell?

And we again see the losing version of the Cowboys swimming against the stream. Both the Tony Romo-led 2014 edition and the Dak Prescott-led 2016 edition posted higher passer rating numbers than the PackersAaron Rodgers... yet lost the game. Still, it seems safe to say based upon the article cited above and the result in the charts above Dak is going to need to out-duel Jared Goff.

Summarizing, the two most important things the Cowboys did during their winning ways - and failed to do during their losing ways - in the division round comes down to turnovers and the passer rating battle:

During the Cowboys’ losing streak they committed the same number of turnovers per game as the dominant squad from the early 90’s. But they’ve generated 60% fewer turnovers (less than one per game).

Similarly, the Cowboys’ offensive passer rating has declined significantly during the losing streak (down 27 points), while the opponent’s passer rating skyrocketed (+41 points). The team’s passer rating differential has declined dramatically, from +43 to -25 (a massive 68 point flip).

None of this is really surprising; I don’t think there’s anything here that should surprise regular BTBers. But it is interesting to put it all together and see what the story tells us.

  • Running the ball successfully - and limiting the Rams’ running game - is necessary but doesn’t ensure victory
  • Losing the turnover battle will almost certainly result in a loss
  • Similarly, losing the passer rating battle will also result in a loss (unless Dallas wins the turnover battle in a big way).
  • If the turnover margin is zero, then points one and three will determine the winner.

Frankly, I can’t wait. This is a rare opportunity (only the sixth time in 23 years) for the current generation of Cowboys to add their own chapter to the franchise’s rich legacy.


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