The Dallas Cowboys enter the final game of their home stretch as a seven point favorite (DraftKings Sportsbook) behind their three-game winning streak. But in a divisional game such as this one, anything can happen. No one would have expected the Giants to play spoiler in the Saints’ return to the Superdome.
However, few would argue that New Orleans is playing better football than the Cowboys at the moment. This appears to be a game that Dallas should take control of early, but what do the analytics say?
The Cowboys Offense
Roll a six-sided dice, and if the number you see is less than seven, the Cowboys’ offense will be able to put up points this week. At this point in the season, it is less of a question of “if” Dallas will be able to score and more “how” they choose to do so.
Here is where various outlets currently have the Cowboys’ offense ranked through four weeks; first by Pro Football Focus, third by DVOA, fourth by EPA per play, and fourth by points per game. Whichever statistic you choose to measure offensive success, Dallas is among the best in the NFL.
So given all of this, is it even possible for the Giants’ defense to stop the Cowboys?
As good as the Dallas offense has been this year, the Giants’ defense has been equally bad. Forming a narrative around New York stopping the Cowboys from scoring is nearly impossible; no metric would indicate this will be the case.
Total defense, passing defense, run defense, pass rush, defense on early downs, third- and fourth-down defense, third-down conversion percentage allowed, and yards per play all indicate that the Giants are well below average, finishing between 25th to 30th in nearly all of those statistics. The Giants’ defense ranks top five in one metric, defensive volatility, so at least they have been consistent.
When predicting a game, it is best to find what could possibly go wrong and determine the likelihood of that worst-case scenario. However, with New York falling among the worst teams in the league in every significant defensive metric, it is hard to envision a world where Dallas doesn’t put up at least 30.
To clarify, the Giants do not have the worst defense in the NFL; by both EPA per play allowed and DVOA, they rank 27th. This defense is not entirely horrible. The issue rests in the fact that they do not excel at anything. Thus, assuming that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott do not turn the ball over, you can expect another big week from the Cowboys’ offense.
It is becoming difficult to predict Kellen Moore’s game plan due to the number of weapons on this offense. By all accounts, the Cowboys should not have been able to run against the Panthers, and yet Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for 30 carries, finishing with 210 yards.
The game plan this week will likely be similar to the last two. Kellen Moore has proved that if the Cowboys are able to consistently gain yards on the ground, he is willing to establish the running game. Considering the Giants’ rank as the eighth-worst team by EPA per play allowed on the ground, allowing 4.5 yards per attempt, the Cowboys’ backfield should not have an issue accumulating rushing yards.
Expect Pollard and Elliott to combine for twenty-five-plus carries and rush for over 175 yards. But since this is the worst defense Dallas has faced this year, Kellen Moore will get to choose how he takes advantage of New York. Barring a mistake-filled performance, the Cowboys’ offense will assuredly continue their momentum through week five.
The Cowboys Defense
Before the season started, if you had guessed that Daniel Jones would be a top ten quarterback by DVOA and PFF grading through four weeks, you are either a Giants fan, or you were making a very bold prediction.
Daniel Jones’ most glaring weakness has always been his propensity to turn the ball over. However, after 16 total turnovers last year, including six lost fumbles, Jones has only given the ball away twice through four weeks.
The Giants’ quarterback is still far from elite, but he does seem to be improving. Ranking thirteenth by adjusted completion percentage, twelfth by average depth of target, ninth in yards per pass attempt, and eighteenth by time to throw are significantly better than where he finished in these metrics last year.
Daniel Jones is finally playing like a competent NFL quarterback, but that does not mean he is playing perfect football. A key component to Jones’ improvement has been the Giants’ offensive line keeping the pocket clean.
Jones has been able to throw with a clean pocket more frequently than sixteen other starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But this is not because Jones is getting the ball out quicker; in fact, he is averaging a time to throw .04 seconds slower than last year. And in 2020, Jones saw the eighth-most quarterback pressures in the NFL. The clean pocket Jones has seen is instead due to the Giants’ offensive line jumping from the worst team by pass-blocking grade last season, according to PFF, to the middle of the pack in 2021.
The argument is not that Jones cannot handle pressure; this season, the Giants’ quarterback is above average in nearly every statistic when the pass rush gets through. However, Jones has not proved he can convert the first down in these situations.
Despite falling middle of the pack by the number of quarterback pressures he has faced, he has only converted nine first downs in these instances. Only eight other quarterbacks have fewer first downs when pressured.
His statistics when pressured are inflated due to his low average depth of target. Thus, Jones will likely complete the pass when he has to throw with defenders in his face, but it will not be for enough yards to gain the first down. This also highlights the reason that Jones has been able to avoid turnovers through the first four games.
While Saquon Barkley might appear daunting on paper, he has not proved to be difficult to contain this year. Barkley averages 3.6 yards per carry, lower than Malcolm Brown, 2.6 yards after contact per attempt, lower than Mike Davis, and only has three carries over ten yards, less than Michael Carter.
However, the best way to contain opposing running backs is by removing the option to run. The previous section proved that it will not be difficult for the Cowboys to score. If they can put up points early, you remove any possibility of the opponent establishing the run.
The Cowboys’ offense producing first-quarter touchdowns is why Dallas’ opponents are averaging the lowest rushing attempts per game in the league. It is not because the Cowboys’ run defense is impenetrable; they simply score early and force the opposing team to make mistakes through the air.
Thus, Barkley’s poor start to the season, paired with the Cowboys’ ability to score early, means the Dallas defense should contain the Giants’ running game again. Don’t be surprised if Barkley gets off to a hot start, but the game will rest on Daniel Jones’ ability to keep up with the Dallas offense.
If Micah Parsons, Randy Gregory, and Osa Odighizuwa can create havoc similar to what we saw in week four, Daniel Jones will be forced to make longer throws under pressure. Since Jones tends to play conservatively when the pass rush gets through, this is not a facet the Cowboys should be particularly concerned with.
Coaching and Special Teams
If the Cowboys play mistake-free football, Dallas should not have much of an issue in this game, but mistake-free football has not been the Cowboys’ specialty to this point.
The Cowboys enter this game tied as the ninth most penalized team in the NFL, and if Dallas loses this game, it will be on the back of unnecessary penalties. The Cowboys are currently seven point favorites over the Giants, and thus this is not a game they should lose. However, mental mistakes such as penalties is the best way to give the underdog an opportunity to win the game.
Daniel Jones will not be able to overcome long conversions, but with the help of penalties, any quarterback can lead his team down the field. This is a game the Cowboys need to play disciplined football for the first time this year and ensure the Giants do not gain an advantage through officiating.
Mike McCarthy is a better head coach than Joe Judge. However, through the beginning of the season, McCarthy has not coached a more disciplined team than Judge. It is time for this trend to change.
If the Cowboys avoid turnovers and penalties, the game is all but won for Dallas. But the former is an area this team has struggled with through four games. If it continues to play a factor, Dallas could lose games they should have won.
As it relates to special teams, John Fassel needs to continue the momentum. Over the past two weeks, special teams has played well enough not to influence the outcome of the game. With a significantly improved defense and a powerhouse offense, the Cowboys only need an average special teams performance.
The Giants do not allow yards on kick returns, and to a lesser extent, punt returns. Make the fair catches on punts, and let the ball bounce out of the end zone on kickoffs to avoid any mistakes. The Cowboys’ offense does not need to start with favorable field position to score. Let Dak Prescott and the backfield do the heavy lifting.
If the Cowboys can avoid mistakes on special teams and decrease the penalties against them, you make the Giants beat you with the arm of Daniel Jones. And with Dan Quinn coaching the defense, I will take that bet ten times out of ten. Especially when Prescott is leading the counterattack.
While this game doesn’t have the allure of a Tony Romo versus Eli Manning matchup, there will be excitement around this game. If you remember what happened in week five last year when the Cowboys hosted the Giants, you will understand that Prescott might play with a bit of emotion. If you thought Dak was motivated for the Eagles game, just wait until Sunday.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 71.1%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 35, New York Giants 20
Disclaimer: Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details