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Cowboys rely on familiar blueprint that doesn’t include style points

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The Cowboys took it to the Seattle Seahawks and the final score wasn’t indicative of how dominant they were in portions of the game.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys defeated the travelling Seattle Seahawks by two points and the late-game magic by Russell Wilson was just that...too late.

On just about every pregame broadcast, there are mentions about how many one-score games the Cowboys find themselves in. It’s often in a cheeky tone as if wins show up differently for those that get style points. Winning is winning and teams that pull out the close ones are built for the playoffs, it’s the mark of a mentally tough football team.

This season, Dallas has just one win where the final score was decided by more than one possession. In 10 of their 11 victories on the season, the victory margin is at 4.6 points but that really doesn’t tell the story of these games.

The NFL isn’t the same as the college game where coaches like Nick Saban are infuriated to be tied 10-10 with Citadel at halftime. In the NFL, you can dominate an opponent and still have the game end by a field goal or less. That’s what the Cowboys have done this season quite a bit and did it again to the Seahawks. Sure, that final score 24-22 makes some sweat bullets but realize it really wasn’t that close of a call for the home team Dallas Cowboys.

An hour or so before kickoff, I wrote about which defense to trust most in this Seattle-Dallas game. It came down to three important keys: Limiting explosive plays, holding serve in the red zone, and run defense.

The Seahawks best chance of winning was running the football. Seattle got to the playoffs by averaging 168 rushing yards per game in their 10 wins. Well, on Saturday, Seattle’s first-ranked rushing offense with Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and the quick-feet of Russell Wilson were humbled by the Cowboys fifth-best run defense.

Seattle’s 13th-ranked defense made a huge mistake by allowing the league’s leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott get loose. Elliott out-gained Seattle’s entire offense by halftime:

1st Half Tot. Plays Tot. Yds Rush Yds Attempts Yds/Att. Rec. Yds Rec. Yds/Rec.
Zeke 17 123 91 13 7.00 32 4 8.00
SEA OFF 22 112 22 10 2.20 90 8 11.25

Not that it’s even fair but just look at Elliott’s numbers vs. Chris Carson’s on the other side:

1st Half Touches Tot. Yds Rush Yds Attempts Yds/Att. Rec. Yds Rec. Yds/Rec.
Elliott 17 123 91 13 7.00 32 4 8.00
Carson 10 22 22 9 2.40 -1 2 -0.50

Despite the Seahawks’ incessant attempts to run the football, the Cowboys defense ended up allowing only 73 yards on 24 attempts, only three yards per carry.

The Cowboys offense countered with two-times as much production as Dak Prescott’s 29 rushing yards tied Seattle’s leading rusher, Rashaad Penny. Also of note, Penny had four rushing attempts for 29 yards, all but one of that 29 came on one carry.

The stats may say that Seattle was the best running football team this year but four of their seven losses this season came when they put up 150+ yards on the ground. Dallas only has one loss in a game where they had 150+ rushing yards but they also had three turnovers.

Running is the Cowboys’ calling card and though a few teams have stopped them before, they’ve also taken it to some of the best run defenses this season. Against playoff teams this season, the Cowboys have 160 carries for 788 yards, almost five yards per carry.

After the Bears, Texans, and Ravens were all eliminated during wildcard weekend, the Saints, Cowboys, and Eagles are your top run defenses left in the tournament allowing less than 100 yards per game.

When Seattle couldn’t run, they became completely reliant on Russell Wilson’s knack for explosive playmaking. He’s one of those rare quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers that will manufacture the most improbable plays at the right time for his team.

Wilson had three completions of 26, 40, and 25 yards in the second-quarter. When you have a guy like Tyler Lockett that can win early and late, it’s going to be a matchup problem. However, the Cowboys didn’t allow a single explosive score and they’re ability to shut down the run made those explosive plays a necessity for Seattle to move the ball on offense.

Expl. Plays Plays 1st Half Yds/Play 2nd Half Yds/Play Avg. Expl. TDs
Seahawks 6 3 30.3 3 34.3 32.3 0
Cowboys 6 2 29.5 4 23.5 26.5 0

Keep in mind that 166 of Wilson’s 233 passing yards came on five completions. On the other 13 passes, Wilson was averaging 5.1 yards per completion.

Overall, it may seem like Seattle hit play-after-play with big YAC numbers but the Dallas offense matched Seattle’s six explosive plays. Dallas ended up trailing the yards per play average by about six yards.

At the 2:14 mark in the fourth quarter, Seattle had just called their final timeout after Dak Prescott converted a 3rd and 14 on a QB draw, ending at the Seattle one. On the next play, Dak sneaked in for the touchdown and Dallas was up 24-14 with 2:08 to play, capping off their third successful red zone trip of the night. Seattle was one of three on the night in the short field.

Sure, the Seahawks managed to get down there and scored eight points but then had to rely on an onside kick recovery to stand a chance.

An expected onside attempt was only successful 8% of the time in the 2018 regular season, how much does that percentage decrease when the team doesn’t have a kicker?

Seattle’s offense was dominated by the Cowboys defense despite some big-time time plays made by an incredible quarterback.

There is nothing different in this game that we haven’t seen already in games against the Giants, Redskins, Eagles, and Buccaneers. The Cowboys get up by two scores and dare you to catch up before the clock runs 0:00. More often than not, it’s close but not enough.

That’s the Cowboys’ winning formula, controlling the pace with long drives that grind opponents into submission. Then, they send out a young defense to harass the opposing offense with their speed and athleticism.

Dallas may be scoring in the twenties while others are routinely above that mark but look who scored the most points of wildcard weekend. This is the playoffs, points aren’t easy to get and the majority of games are decided by three or less. That certainly seems favorable for teams like the Cowboys.