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Using analytics to predict every game on the Cowboys schedule: Weeks 10-11

A rematch of last year’s thrilling finish and a showdown between two great quarterbacks

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Analytics are all the rage right now, which is why we’re going through each game on the Cowboys’ schedule for the 2021 season and using analytics for each team to make a prediction on who wins. In case you missed previous entries in this series, here is where you can find them:

Weeks 1-2
Weeks 3-5
Weeks 6-9

And now, weeks 10 and 11!

Week 10 vs Atlanta Falcons

He may not be wearing a star on his helmet, but Cowboys fans will get to see Kyle Pitts in AT&T Stadium as a rookie when the Falcons come to Dallas. The last time these two teams faced off, it was an utterly thrilling finish thanks to an inexplicable onside kick recovery for the Cowboys. But this time Dan Quinn is coaching for the star, not against it. In his place on the Falcons sideline is rookie head coach Arthur Smith, who spent the last two seasons engineering a highly efficient offense around Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry for the Titans.

Smith doesn’t have a runner like Henry in Atlanta, and the Falcons traded Julio Jones to Smith’s old team, but he’s got an arguably better quarterback in Matt Ryan and a few fun weapons in Calvin Ridley and, yes, the rookie Pitts. The offensive line has some questions, as they ranked 26th in adjusted line yards and 18th in adjusted sack rate, but Smith’s strategy of using play-action to move the pocket might help with that. Even with Jones gone, this offense should be able to put up some points.

It’s the defense that figures to be a problem for Atlanta. Dean Pees has once again come out of retirement to run the Falcons defense, but there’s not much to work with. Grady Jarrett is an elite defensive tackle, and Deion Jones is one of the more underappreciated off-ball linebackers in the NFL. But outside of those two? Dante Fowler disappointed last year, A.J. Terrell played exactly how you’d expect a rookie cornerback to play, and the rest of the secondary offering more questions than answers right now. Pees has built a career out of doing more with less, but he’ll face a really big challenge this year. Atlanta’s defense was pretty bad at just about everything in 2020, and Pees is somehow getting a less talented version of that while also introducing a scheme change. In other words, betting the over on Falcons games is probably a good idea.

Even so, the Falcons figure to be a team capable of the occasional upset on days where their offense is clicking and the defense makes just enough plays. They also have an easier schedule than they did last year, when eight of their 12 losses came within just one score. This should be a close game, but Dallas has the offensive firepower to expose this defense.

Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 6-3

Week 11 at Kansas City Chiefs

There really isn’t much to be said here. The Chiefs are arguably the best team in the NFL. You have to go all the way back to 2017 - to put that into context, Kellen Moore was still on the Cowboys roster, not the coaching staff - just to find the last time the Chiefs didn’t reach the AFC Championship game. They’ve appeared in the Super Bowl the last two years and won one. And it’s largely because Patrick Mahomes, who’s somehow under contract through 2031 now, is an utterly insane talent. Oh, Andy Reid being one of the best coaches in the NFL helps too.

The reason why the Chiefs didn’t win last year’s Super Bowl was partially because Mahomes’ protection fell apart due to an offensive line with tons of injuries. None of the Chiefs’ projected starters on the offensive line this year were starting in the Super Bowl, though, as Kansas City made a concerted effort to patch that up. And it’s not even like their line was terrible last year as they were sixth in pass block win rate. But they’ve upgraded the unit anyway.

Another reason why the Chiefs struggled in the Super Bowl was Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles changing up his plan of attack. Bowles abandoned his blitz-heavy single-high scheme to keep his safeties deep and rush only four in order to better defend underneath. As has been the one constant in the few games where Mahomes has looked human, this plan worked. But it’s necessarily a blueprint, because it also takes your defense playing really, really well to contain Mahomes. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for Dan Quinn and his defense, no matter how well they’re playing at this point in the season.

On defense, the Chiefs are the model for supplementing a great offense with a just-good-enough defense. They’re not an elite group, and great offenses will carve them up, but they have playmakers like Chris Jones, Jarran Reed, Juan Thornhill, and Tyrann Mathieu that make it a dangerous unit. What will get them in trouble against the Cowboys, however, is their reliance on the blitz. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to blitz, doing so at the seventh-highest rate last year. It worked too, as Kansas City ranked ninth in EPA/play when blitzing, but they fell to 19th when not blitzing. Dak Prescott just so happens to shred blitzes, ranking fourth in EPA/play against extra rushers.

For that reason, the Cowboys may just have a chance here. It’s a good matchup for Prescott, and Dallas has the talent on offense to really produce against this unit. The only question is if Dak can outduel Mahomes, and as bullish as I am on the Cowboys quarterback, Mahomes is simply too good.

Prediction: Cowboys lose, fall to 6-4

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