The Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs matchup features one quarterback trying to get back on track while dealing with a bottom ten defense, and the other quarterback is attempting to solidify his MVP candidacy with a team that has its sights set on the Super Bowl. If you had heard those facts six months ago, which statement would you believe applied to the Cowboys?
Well, here we are, and the Cowboys are a legitimately great team. But this matchup is drastically more interesting than it would have been a month ago. The Chiefs are finding their stride again as we expected they eventually would. In fact, the Cowboys come into this game as underdogs by 2.5 points according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
But what should we anticipate in a game that has the highest over/under of the week (56.5 points) at DraftKings?
The Cowboys offense
The burning question for the Cowboys offense is which Kansas City defense we will see in Week 11. Is it going to be the defense that was surrendering 30 points per game a month ago, or will it be the one allowing 38 total points over their last three games?
While the Chiefs defense looks dramatically improved from their implosion over the first five games, they haven't exactly faced an offensive gauntlet over the last three weeks. The Giants, a Packers team led by Jordan Love, and the Raiders aren’t exactly a defense’s worst nightmare. Is the Chiefs defense better now than it was a few weeks ago? Yes, but this is still a defense in the bottom half of the league.
Kansas City is especially weak against the pass. Not only are they surrendering 7.7 yards per pass attempt, which is among the bottom three in the league, but they are allowing an average passer rating of 99.5. This means that Dak Prescott, who currently leads the league in passer rating, should have a field day with this defense.
But one glaring weakness stands out as the Chiefs’ Achilles heel above all others -their first- and second-down defense. Kansas City actually falls around the league average for rushing defense on early downs, but their pass defense on these downs is horrendous.
The Chiefs currently rank 31st in the league defending against the pass on first down and 31st in this metric on second down. But then it gets even weirder. The Chiefs rank fourth in the NFL in passing defense on third down and 26th against the run. Kansas City has an abysmal secondary, yet teams are converting 33% of their first downs against the Chiefs by running, one of the highest rates in the league.
Assuming Kellen Moore will exploit the Kansas City defense’s weaknesses, expect a pass-heavy approach on early downs. This is going to feature screens and quick slant routes to Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Occasionally Dak will try and take a shot deep to Michael Gallup, but with the worst passing defense on early downs, he will take anything the Chiefs give him.
Assuming Prescott and Moore see success passing on first and second down, there will inevitably be short-yardage conversions for Ezekiel Elliott. This is where Kellen Moore has to get a little creative.
The Cowboys shouldn’t pass on third down because it is the one area the Chiefs defense is competent. Thus, use outside stretches, motions, counters, and sweeps to pick up the first down through the ground game. Please don’t keep running it up the middle on third down with no movement.
Overall, the Cowboys offense is going to have no issue in this one. The Denver Broncos game was a fluke, and there are only about two defenses who pose a threat to the Cowboys offense. It is safe to say the Chiefs aren’t one of them.
The Cowboys defense
This is an excellent test for the Cowboys defense, and we should learn everything we need to know about Dan Quinn’s squad after Week 11. They have faced two great offenses, the Buccaneers and the Chargers, and looked great in one and below average in the other. This is the rubber match to find out what defense we’ll get come January.
But of course, the Chiefs offense is looking to prove themselves as well. And similar to their defense, it is unclear which version of the Kansas City offense we will see on Sunday.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire is trending towards playing against the Cowboys and should see his first action since week five against Buffalo. But the Chiefs running back won’t change the Cowboys’ game plan.
The Chiefs are throwing the ball on 65% of plays, the fourth-highest rate in the league. If they are going to lose, it will not be because the Chiefs are running too much. Patrick Mahomes has already thrown the ball 412 times this year, by far the most in the NFL, with Tom Brady at second with 377.
For a Cowboys’ secondary that has played lights out over the last five weeks, they have to prove themselves again. They face a highly accurate quarterback likely to throw it 40 plus times, meaning there is little room for error.
Luckily for Dan Quinn, there is a clear game plan for stopping Mahomes; make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Patrick Mahomes has an 84% adjusted completion percentage with a clean pocket, but that number falls to 62% when he is under pressure. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they are going to have to do this without their two best pass rushers.
While it would be nice to have Micah Parsons on Travis Kelce, the rookie linebacker still doesn’t excel in coverage. And he definitely will not excel against the best pass-catching tight end in the NFL. Therefore, Parsons will have to make his presence known in another way, by getting to the quarterback.
Micah Parsons is the third-best pass rusher in the entire league by PFF grading. Not letting Parsons come off the edge and create havoc in the backfield, especially when Mahomes struggles with havoc, would be a big mistake.
This is not to say that Parsons should be rushing the quarterback every play. But he needs to see his pass-rushing snaps drastically increase from the seven he saw last week. The Cowboys need their best pass rusher in this game if they are going to stop Mahomes, and Parsons is now that guy.
As for Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs, and Jourdan Lewis, there is little analysis needed. Diggs and Brown will likely be rotating in coverage between Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. Lewis should see a good number of snaps on Kelce since he will essentially be treated as a wide receiver. These three need to play air-tight defense, which is much easier said than done.
Coming off a career game, Dan Quinn has a massive task at hand in stopping the Chiefs offense. Expect the pass every play because, more often than not, you will be correct. Let Parsons do what he does best and get to Mahomes to make him uncomfortable. From there, we have to hope that Diggs, Brown, and Lewis are in a position to make a play. It is a tall order, but we should have faith in the defense by now.
Coaching and special teams
At this point, there is little else that needs to be said about Mike McCarthy. Even the most critical Cowboys fans are starting to come around on him.
In case you need even more convincing, let’s review his 2021 résumé. McCarthy is going for it in on fourth down in favorable situations more frequently than 30 other NFL teams, he knows when his team needs a little extra motivation (you can read about that here), and his team is 7-2 coming off one of the largest Cowboys’ wins since the merger. Even the penalties are beginning to decline. If you don’t believe in McCarthy by now, you never will.
So trust McCarthy to outcoach Andy Reid, because he will. Let’s review Reid’s 2021 résumé in those same metrics. He makes the correct decision to go for it on fourth down around the league average; he has done well resurrecting this team, but it took him a while, and his team is 6-4 after starting 3-4. The one area he is better than McCarthy is penalties, where the Chiefs fall around the NFL’s average.
Don’t worry about “the almighty” Andy Reid influencing this game. The Cowboys now have a coach we can trust to beat good teams, and he can similarly impose his will on the outcome.
As for special teams, Greg Zuerlein is expected to be activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday. But Zuerlein shouldn’t play a factor in this game. Similar to how no team in the NFL will beat the Cowboys on field goals, it is the same story with the Chiefs.
Barring a last-minute field goal, the Cowboys need to be even more aggressive than usual on fourth down, leaving Zuerlein on the bench if they want to get out of Arrowhead with a win. Beat Kansas City by doing what the Cowboys do best, putting up 30 plus points, and that likely won’t happen by settling for field goals.
The only other aspect that needs to be addressed in this matchup is special teams’ penalties. While the Cowboys still fall among the worst in the league by this metric, they have been drastically improving. Similarly, Kansas City has seen a decline in special teams’ penalties after consistently committing one a game through the first six weeks.
The Cowboys cannot afford to give Patrick Mahomes an even shorter field. We need another clean game from Fassel’s squad and avoid gifting an already explosive Chiefs offense with free yards. This is even more important because Kansas City isn’t likely to commit special teams’ penalties themselves since they cleaned it up.
The matchup we have been waiting for since the schedule came out. The second 2020 Super Bowl team the Cowboys will face this year. An opportunity for McCarthy to once again showcase his coaching prowess. Dak Prescott with a chance to cement himself as one of the frontrunners in the MVP race. A true test for the newly improved Cowboys defense. This game has everything.
It will take a solid performance in all three facets of the game, but this is an entirely winnable game for the Cowboys. And if Dallas doesn’t win, maybe it is just a preview of what is to come in February. Regardless, we are in for a fun one.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 62.6%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 34, Kansas City Chiefs 27