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Predicting how the 2021 Cowboys season turns out, including chances of a Super Bowl

We all know the Dallas Cowboys are likely going to the playoffs this year, but what should we expect past that?

Super Bowl XXX - Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers

Oh, how things change. At this point last season, the Dallas Cowboys were fresh off a humiliating 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, where it became evident that Dallas was not going to compete in January.

Three hundred and sixty-seven days later, and it seems like the division is all but won for the Cowboys, leaving people to wonder if this is a Super Bowl-caliber team. After all, this may be the most well-rounded team in over 20 years. Perhaps the Lombardi is in the cards, but what should we expect in 2021?

The regular season

With a three-game lead on the division six weeks into the season, it is safe to assume that the Cowboys will make the postseason. After all, according to Football Outsiders, Dallas’ playoff chances stand at 94%.

The question is not “if” but rather “where,” specifically where the Cowboys will finish in the conference. Looking at the NFC playoff picture, Dallas needs to aim for any seed other than four. Yes, the one seed is obviously the goal, but avoiding the four is pivotal this year.

Why? Because arguably the two best teams in the NFL are both in the same division, meaning that whoever takes the four seed in the NFC will have to play either the Cardinals or Rams in the first round. Obviously, the Cowboys want that first-round bye, but avoiding the second-place team in the NFC West is just as crucial.

So, what seed should we expect the Cowboys to finish at? Using a formula that takes a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency, we can calculate Dallas’ expected winning percentage over the rest of the year. You can read about the methodology here.

One note on the formula; it factors out luck in close games. For example, both the Chargers and Patriots games could have gone the other way and resulted in a loss for the Cowboys, while the Buccaneers game could have been a win. So, if the Cowboys are neither lucky nor unlucky in their 11 remaining games, how many should they win?

Here are the final projected NFC standings using this methodology:

NFC Projected Standings

NFC Seed Team Wins Losses
NFC Seed Team Wins Losses
1 Arizona 14 3
2 Tampa Bay 12 5
3 Dallas 12 5
4 Green Bay 11 6
5 Los Angeles Rams 12 5
6 New Orleans 11 6
7 Carolina 9 8

We can compare this to Football Outsiders’ current projection of the NFC standings using their mean win totals. As you can see, the two are incredibly similar.

Football Outsiders Projected NFC Standings

NFC Seed Team Wins Losses
NFC Seed Team Wins Losses
1 Tampa Bay 13 4
2 Arizona 13 4
3 Dallas 12 5
4 Green Bay 11 6
5 Los Angeles Rams 12 5
6 New Orleans 10 7
7 San Francisco 9 8

So, there we go. By two different metrics, the Cowboys project to avoid that daunting fourth seed. More accurately, they avoid a matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. Instead, Dallas will host New Orleans in the first round. Playing the Saints is not an easy matchup by any means, but it is a walk in the park compared to playing the Rams or the Cardinals.

While this is just an estimation, let’s take this a step further. Now that we have the playoff seeding, what should we expect for the Cowboys come January?

Playoffs

Before discussing individual matchups, a quick note needs to be made on this team’s upside. They have a top-five offense and a top-ten defense. That is all of the necessary ingredients for a Super Bowl run, but they are limited by their mistakes.

While the Cowboys possess the offensive and defensive statistics needed to win against nearly every team, their miscues hold them back. Fumbles, penalties, and interceptions are three facets Dallas falls below average, representing a disadvantage against most playoff teams.

These mistakes have to be fixed over the bye week if they want to compete in January. Now with that said, let’s get to playoff predictions. You can read about the model used to predict the outcome of NFL games here; this formula, adapted for professional football, can be used to get a likelihood of a team winning a given game.

Wild Card Matchups

Away Team Home Team
Away Team Home Team
Carolina Panthers Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Orleans Saints Dallas Cowboys
Los Angeles Rams Green Bay Packers

Against the Saints, Dallas’ miscues become a factor. This should be a close game despite the Cowboys having an exponentially better offense by EPA per play and only a slightly poorer defense. However, the Saints are a disciplined football team.

New Orleans currently lands as the ninth least penalized team in the NFL and has only put the ball on the ground once this year. The Saints do not make mistakes. For that reason, this matchup becomes much more difficult for Dallas.

But as you can likely guess, the Cowboys should have an edge in the first round. Playing at home with a better offense and a defense that will slow Jameis Winston, Dallas emerges victorious in a close game.

Results of the first round:

Likelihood of the Cowboys defeating the Saints: 55.5%

Dallas over New Orleans

Tampa Bay over San Francisco

Los Angeles Rams over Green Bay


Leading to the second round:

Divisional Matchups

Away Team Home Team
Away Team Home Team
Los Angeles Rams Arizona Cardinals
Dallas Cowboys Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is another important note on seeding. Given the way the NFL playoffs work, the one seed will automatically face the lowest remaining seed. With the Rams likely knocking off whoever takes the fourth seed, if the other two divisional winners advance, the team with the first-round bye would play the Rams in the second round.

This is not to say the one seed should be avoided this year; an extra week of rest to get your players healthy is valuable. However, with the Rams and Cardinals looking dominant, the one seed might not be as attractive this year.

Regardless, the Cowboys travel on the road to Tampa Bay, with Dak Prescott getting what he wished for. As predicted by the Cowboys’ quarterback in week one, he gets a rematch against Tom Brady.

The Buccaneers’ run defense hasn’t lost a step from their Super Bowl season. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that opposing offenses can exploit their pass defense. Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore proved that in week one.

While the Buccaneers have a better offense than the Saints, they are not as disciplined of a team. In fact, Tampa Bay is currently tied with the Cowboys as the second-most penalized team in the NFL.

The Buccaneers do have a better offense than the Cowboys by EPA per play, ranking first in the league. However, their defense falls middle of the pack as opposing teams refuse to test the Tampa Bay run defense.

The model gives the Cowboys another slight advantage, as Prescott gets his revenge game on Brady.

Results of the second round:

Likelihood of the Cowboys beating Tampa Bay: 55.2%

Dallas over Tampa Bay

Arizona over the Los Angeles Rams


Leading to an NFC Championship game that looks like this:

NFC Championship Matchup

Away Team Home Team
Away Team Home Team
Dallas Cowboys Arizona Cardinals

While the model projects the Cowboys to win in the first two rounds, it is worth mentioning that they are not favored to get to the NFC Championship. Even if the Cowboys face the Saints and Buccaneers to start the playoffs, the odds they win both games are closer to 30.6%. Anything can happen in January, but just because the model likes the Cowboys in both games does not mean they are projected to win them both.

In the NFC Championship Game, the Cowboys will be outmatched. Arizona is prone to make mistakes, putting the ball on the ground more than any team in the NFL. But outside of that, Dallas will have a tough time in this game, especially playing on the road.

The Cardinals are not only the third-best team by offensive EPA per play, but they currently land as the second-best defense. This is a well-rounded team that doesn’t appear to have any noticeable gaps. For that reason, this is sadly where Dallas’ playoff run projects to end.

However, we are only six games into the season. Anything can happen over the next twelve weeks, so don’t interpret the NFC Championship as the ceiling of this team. But for right now, we cannot expect the Cowboys to beat the Cardinals.

Results of the third round:

Likelihood of the Cowboys beating the Cardinals: 38.1%

Arizona over Dallas

If you were wondering, Dallas would also be at a disadvantage if they played the Bills in the Super Bowl. We will assume that Buffalo comes out of the AFC since the model gives them the best probability to do so.

The Bills currently land as the best defense in the NFL by EPA per play allowed and still have a top-six offense. Because of this, Dallas would project to have a 35% chance to beat them in a neutral playing site.

You might read this article and believe it is too optimistic, or the exact opposite, maybe you are expecting a Super Bowl this year. Regardless, we are only six weeks in and a lot more can happen. These are simple probabilities that can change drastically throughout the season.

We will see what the rest of 2021 has in store for Dallas, but for now, be confident. This team projects to compete in the postseason, which would have been a wild statement a year ago.

Probability of reaching each round:

Wild card: 93.9%

Divisional: 52.1%

NFC Championship: 28.8%

Super Bowl: 11.0%

Winning Super Bowl: 3.8%