The Denver Broncos have to be the most average team in football. They have gotten it done against four bad teams; the Football Team, Jets, Giants, and Jaguars. But after winning their first three games, they followed it up by losing four straight to the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders, and Browns. Now at 4-4, the Broncos are the most mediocre team in the NFL this year.
But with the Dallas Cowboys still facing uncertainty at quarterback, this game is not a lock. The consensus is that Prescott should be good to go, as noted by Dallas being a 9-point favorite according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
So, assuming the Cowboys have their MVP-caliber signal-caller back, what should we expect?
The Cowboys offense
Following the first three weeks where Denver didn’t allow more than 13 points, the Broncos were touted as a top-five defense. But this was apparently a mirage, as over the last five weeks, they have been a bottom eight defense by EPA per play allowed.
The Broncos defense is just good enough to contain bad teams but struggles against any offense that is above average. And calling the Dallas offense “above-average” would be a massive understatement.
By PFF grading, the Cowboys have the best offense in the NFL, and it is not close. The difference between Dallas’ offensive grade and the second-best offense is larger than the difference between the second-best offense and the fourteenth-best offense.
In other words, Dallas shouldn’t struggle against the Broncos defense.
The one area that you can give the Broncos defense credit for is their balance. Denver isn’t particularly better or worse in coverage compared to their run defense. Once again, they are remarkably mediocre at both.
But with Denver falling below average in both areas on defense, Kellen Moore will have his choice of how he wants to move downfield. But there is one area where the Broncos defense excels, defending against the pass on early downs. By EPA per play allowed in coverage on first and second down, the Broncos actually rank fifth.
This is just fine for the Cowboys. Dallas is the fifth-best team at running the ball on early downs, rushing at 5.3 yards per carry on first down. Even with the inefficient first down runs against the Vikings, the Cowboys are still rushing for 100.3 yards per game on first down alone. That is on pace to beat the 2019 Ravens and set the NFL record.
Assuming Prescott is healthy, the Broncos will have to defend against the early-down passes, meaning that the runs on first and second down will be a lot easier for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard compared to last week. And on later downs, Denver does not pose a threat. Dallas will have their choice to convert through the air or on the ground.
If Prescott is out there, there is not a lot to predict. The Broncos defense is below average, and it would take an elite defense to stop the Cowboys offense. Have fun with this matchup Kellen Moore.
The Cowboys defense
Following the pattern so far, guess how good the Broncos offense is? If you said average, then you are absolutely correct.
The Denver offense is all about maintaining possession of the ball and methodically moving downfield. They currently average the fourth longest time per drive at three minutes, but the odd part is that they don’t run the ball often. The Broncos currently average the ninth-lowest rushing attempts per game.
Now, you’re probably assuming they keep passes close to the line of scrimmage, avoid turnovers, and march slowly down the field. But this is also not true. Teddy Bridgewater lands as the seventh quarterback by average depth of target, meaning that he is throwing the ball downfield.
Instead, the Broncos are masterfully getting the ball right outside scoring range and then stalling their drives.
Denver is currently averaging 34 yards per drive, which is above the league average, but they are punting at a rate higher than every team except the Texans and the Seahawks. They consistently get right outside field goal range, and then the offense stops gaining yards.
And Teddy Bridgewater has his weaknesses. He ranks thirteenth by turnover-worthy plays, and he has been sacked 22 times this year, tied for the third-most in the NFL. This means that if Randy Gregory and the Cowboys pass rush can generate pressure, which they should be able to do, Bridgewater is not immune to making mistakes.
While this won’t be a challenging game for the Cowboys defense, they will have to play the matchup. Meaning that they shouldn’t sell out to stop the run because the Broncos are willing to air it out. Instead, they have to use Gregory and Micah Parsons in stunts to make Bridgewater uncomfortable.
And while the Broncos might see success for a few plays in the drive, eventually they will make a mistake. Either Bridgewater will fall to a sack, or he will throw a risky pass. Regardless, when Denver makes that inevitable mistake on their drives, the Cowboys defense needs to capitalize and get off the field. Stalled drives that once seemed promising is what has plagued the Broncos all year, and Dallas needs to take advantage.
Coaching and special teams
After last Sunday night, no one should question Mike McCarthy’s ability to outcoach Vic Fangio. McCarthy has proved he will coach to win the game, but Fangio will coach not to lose.
Of every coach in the NFL this year, only Kevin Stefanski and Matt LaFleur make the correct decision to go for it on fourth down more frequently than Mike McCarthy. Dallas has a coach that is willing to trust the talent of his offense to win on fourth down, but the same cannot be said for Fangio. Only seven teams are more unwilling to go for it in favorable situations than the Broncos.
Mike McCarthy is going to outcoach Fangio in every aspect of the game, except one. To give him credit, Fangio has coached a disciplined team, only drawing five and a half penalties a game. And this is clearly one area the Cowboys struggle.
At this point, we aren’t rooting for a decline in penalties because it will help us win the game. Dallas should be able to handle Denver no matter how much laundry is thrown on the field. But come January, when you have to face a team like the Rams, Buccaneers, or Cardinals, penalties could end the season early.
Obviously, we want to see Dallas decrease their penalties and handle business with the Broncos. But penalties are becoming a serious problem. The Cowboys need to prove they can play a clean game and mental mistakes won’t become a factor in the playoffs.
As for special teams, flip a coin to see if Dallas will play well. There was a great stretch from weeks three to six where the Cowboys played flawless football on special teams. And then you have the two penalties on special teams and one missed field goal that was the Minnesota game.
Similar to the penalty situation, special teams most likely will not make or break this game. But over the last ten games, John Fassel needs to develop consistency on special teams. It needs to start now if we are going to have faith in this aspect of the game come January.
Now, take this statistic lightly because of the small sample size, but only two of the last ten Super Bowl champions had a kicker below the league average by field goal percentage: the 2017 Patriots and the 2012 Ravens.
The Cowboys don’t need an automatic kicker. However, being outside the top twenty in field goal percentage does not seem encouraging. Greg Zuerlein is still the guy for Dallas, but he needs to improve his consistency by the playoffs. It starts this week.
With Dallas coming off their second-longest road stretch they will face this year, paired with what just happened in Minnesota, you can bet that AT&T stadium will be rocking when the Broncos come to town. It’s then up to the Cowboys to get things done and keep the winning streak alive.
We are far removed from the days where Tony Romo and Peyton Manning combined for 920 passing yards and 99 points. This time it’s Prescott versus Bridgewater, McCarthy and Fangio, and a red-hot 6-1 Cowboys team against a sluggish 4-4 Denver squad. It seems like the two teams are traveling in slightly different directions today. But there is a lot to see on Sunday; let’s just hope Dallas can take care of business.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 68.1%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 35, Denver Broncos 24