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Crunching Cowboys stats: The numbers reveal how Dallas’ game plan got the win

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The Cowboys got it right, but the Seahawks failed their game-planning test.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Dallas Cowboys
It was a big win for the head coach and his staff.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Savor the win. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Seattle Seahawks, advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs, and proved they belong in the postseason. It was at times nerve-wracking, and the late touchdown surrendered by the defense took a little of the luster off the victory. But it still was a win, and that is what really matters.

What is interesting about the stats from this game is that they lay out the game plan so beautifully, for both teams, and illustrate just why this wound up as a cause for celebration for Cowboys fans.

It was about controlling the ball for both sides

Both teams rely on the run game to control the clock and wear down the opposing defense. For the Seahawks, they also wanted to stop Ezekiel Elliott and force the game on Dak Prescott. That was supposed to allow them to pressure him so they could capitalize on bad throws while they kept Amari Cooper contained. The Cowboys had to mirror them in shutting down their ground game and not let Russell Wilson beat them, either.

It was not hard to figure those approaches out, given that the Seahawks had the league leading run game in the regular season while Dallas countered with the league’s rushing leader. Simply put, the Cowboys pulled it off, and Seattle didn’t.

Here are some key numbers concerning the run game.

Seattle-Dallas comparisons

Stat Seattle Dallas
Stat Seattle Dallas
Rushing yards 73 164
QB rushing 14 23
Rushing TDs 1 2
TOP 25 :10 34 :50
First downs 11 23
Rushing 1st downs 5 9

The Cowboys did exactly what they wanted to, with Zeke having a big day gaining 137 yards on the ground for an average of 5.3 yards per carry, plus chipping in 32 receiving on a total of 30 touches. And the yards gained by Dak with his legs don’t tell the entire story, as his two big runs both set up first and goals, including that beautiful run on third-and-14.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks never really got anything going on the ground outside of one 28-yard jaunt by Rashaad Penny. Despite that, they never really got away from trying to establish the run, a major error by Pete Carroll and his staff given that they only averaged 3.0 yards per carry. If you take away that one long run, that average drops to 2.1.

The Cowboys completely neutralized the Seahawks run game, while they had no answer for Dallas’, which averaged 4.8 per attempt. Oh, and Cooper amassed 106 yards receiving, including some key third down conversions as Prescott was effective, if not always spectacular, throwing the ball. One team was unable to make its blueprint for winning work while the other side got it done.

The big plays

The one thing the Cowboys did not do well was keep the Seahawks from having big plays. They had six gains of over 20 yards, including the 22-yard fourth-down conversion to Doug Baldwin.

But there is a silver lining there. Seattle also had only one play of 10-19 yards, with no other gaining more than nine. It was pretty much boom-or-bust for them on offense, as they only converted two third downs all game. The big ones they did get were part busted assignments and part impressively tight throws by Wilson. And this is where the number of offensive plays run comes in. The Seahawks only had 52 snaps to 68 for the Cowboys. By limiting the number of offensive opportunities, including forcing five three-and-outs, Dallas kept the handful of splash plays by Seattle from hurting them too much.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys were much more consistent on offense. They only had three plays go for more than 20 yards, but they had seven that gained between 13 and 19 yards. This allowed them to sustain more drives, only going three-and-out three times. That was how they controlled the clock.

Red zone optimism

This is a big one for the Cowboys. They struggled all season in the red zone, until the season finale against the New York Giants, when they had a 75% success rate. At the time, it was noted that if they could continue that, it would be great for their chances of playoff success.

They did exactly that, again converting three of their four trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. And the one failure was the interception where there was fairly obvious pass interference that was not called.

There has been a debate as to just how much the red zone struggles were due to play-calling or execution, and if there was an answer in this game, it would be both played a part. One interesting example was on the first touchdown of the game. Prescott threw a beautiful pass to Michael Gallup, and it was basically the same exact pass he missed on the previous play. On the second, he got his feet set and was on target, which was not the case the first time. It was a good call and after basically practicing it the first time, QB and WR got it right on the second rep.

Special teams were a decidedly mixed bag

Let’s face it, the Dallas special teams have not lived up to their name. This was a game where they were very bad and very good at times. They surrendered a 52-yard kickoff return that was saved from going all the way by Brett Maher, missed a long field goal that gave the Seahawks great field position leading to a field goal to take the lead in the second quarter, and had a brilliant punt return for a touchdown by Tavon Austin called back on a penalty (rather ticky-tack, it must be admitted). But Austin got another chance and delivered a 51-yard return that was wasted on the end zone interception.

There was also the huge factor of Sebastian Janikowski injuring his aged, overweight hamstring near the end of the first half. That took him out of the game, forcing them to rely on drop kicks by Michael Dickson. Having to do that was instrumental in the failed onside kick, which led to about as easy a way for the Cowboys ice the outcome as you are going to see a team have.

Overcoming the turnover deficit

The Cowboys committed the only turnover of the game, which always makes things much more difficult. But it is a testament to the coaching and leadership of the Cowboys that they were not rattled at all and just came back to eke out the win. That has been a hallmark of this team in the 8-1 run they started at the halfway point of the regular season. They have faced plenty of adversity, and just find ways to overcome.

Penalties

Officiating is just bad in the NFL, and the Cowboys had some really questionable calls on them including the hold on the Austin punt return that was called back, a strange false start where two Seattle defenders came into the neutral zone first, and a really questionable hold on Blake Jarwin. Meanwhile, there were plenty of missed calls against the Seahawks we can point to.

But then there came a disastrous series of calls for Seattle that led to the winning touchdown for Dallas. First, they had a holding call and an unnecessary roughness on back-to-back plays that dug them in a hole deep in their own territory after the interception that stopped a scoring threat. Then after they were forced to punt, they kept the drive alive for Dallas with two pass interference calls, both on third down.

Replays showed that all four calls were pretty legitimate. In crunch time, the Seahawks just made crucial mistakes that likely cost them the game.

Changing the narratives

It was a huge win for the team, but it was particularly significant for head coach Jason Garrett and his quarterback. Garrett now is 2-2 in the postseason, which really cuts into the meme that he can’t win the big ones. And Prescott is 1-1 in his short playoff career.

No matter how the team fares in the divisional round, they showed us something in this win.