The Cowboys managed to come away with a win on Sunday by the narrowest of margins, and a lot of things had to go just right in the final minutes of the game for the team to end up with a 1-1 W/L record. Had they not, we’d be discussing an 0-2 record and a must-win game against the Eagles next week, as only 3% of teams with an 0-3 start have historically made the playoffs.
But as Bill Parcells was fond of saying, “you are what your record says you are,” and that’s certainly true of the 2021 Cowboys. And it’s also true for all the other teams in the league, some of which look much less formidable after an 0-2 start than they did heading into the season.
The Vikings (0-2) and Falcons (0-2), for example, are both on the Cowboys’ schedule and don’t look anywhere near as daunting as some some had seen them entering the season. And other parts of the 2021 schedule may also look different after two weeks of play than they did when the schedule was initially released.
One site that provides an up-to-date look at the remaining schedule is fivethirtyeight.com, where they use an Elo points system to calculate an expected point spread and win probability for each coming opponent while factoring in the first two weeks of play.
We’ve looked at ELO ratings before, and we’ve never been short of disparaging remarks about the metric. Here are some of my personal favorites:
- “ELO....extremely long odds?”
- “You sure that shouldn’t be Elol ratings?”
- “If this algorithm was piss tested, its urine would have stems and seeds in it.”
- “Did Tony Romo come out of retirement and sign a one-year deal with the Cowboys?”
- “Not sold on ELO picking football games, but I’m a fan of their music.”
With the funny bits out of the way, Elo ratings estimate each team’s skill level using only the final scores of previous games and the locations of each game. That skill level is translated into a points system where an average team has 1,500 points, and teams usually fluctuate somewhere between 1,300 and 1,700 points. The Cowboys for example are currently ranked 13th overall with a middling 1,537 Elo points.
The Cowboys’ next opponent, the Eagles, are 24th overall with 1,467 points, which gives the Cowboys an Elo point spread of -5.0 and a win probability of 68% on Monday night. And what can be done for the Eagles can be done for all of the remaining 2021 opponents. Here’s what that looks like, according to fivethirtyeight.com:
|Week||Opponent||W/L||Win Prob.||Elo Point Spread||Record|
|5||New York Giants||W||73%||-7.0||4-1|
|6||@||New England Patriots||L||43%||+2.0||4-2|
|11||@||Kansas City Chiefs||L||26%||+7.0||6-4|
|12||Las Vegas Raiders||W||60%||-3.0||7-4|
|13||@||New Orleans Saints||L||41%||+2.5||7-5|
|14||@||Washington Football Team||L||49%||+0.5||7-6|
|15||@||New York Giants||W||57%||-2.0||8-6|
|16||Washington Football Team||W||65%||-4.5||9-6|
The Elo ratings system currently has the Cowboys favored in 10 of their remaining 15 games, which would translate to an 11-6 season record. And here’s how that could go:
- Five wins over the next seven games: The Elo system has the Cowboys favored in the next three games, shows them as slight underdogs against the Patriots and Vikings, and then has them favored again against the Broncos and Falcons. 6-3 at the halfway mark of the season? Most Cowboys fans will gladly take that.
- A 1-3 midseason: The Cowboys are currently underdogs on the road against the Chiefs (WK 11), Saints (WK 13), and in Washington (WK 14), and are only favored in the Thanksgiving game against the Raiders (WK 12). That rough patch would leave them at 7-6 after after 13 games.
- 4 wins to close out the season: The Cowboys are currently favored in their last four games to finish the season 11-6 and ride the hot hand into the playoffs.
But that projected 11-6 record is not written in stone, not by a long shot.
The Elo rating system always improves a team’s Elo rating after a win, just as it always reduces a team’s rating after a loss. And the system also factors in margin of victory. A blowout loss against the Eagles on Monday, for example, could lower the team’s rating to such a degree that the win probability for the season finale against the Eagles or the game against the Cardinals (WK 17) might change so much as to make the Cowboys the underdogs in those contests. And before you know it, Dallas would be at a projected 9-8 W/L record.
Of course, that works both ways: If the Cowboys blow out the Eagles, the win probability for the remaining games will increase, and the Cowboys might even end up being favored against the Patriots and Vikings, depending in part also on how both teams play this week.
Ultimately though, because we’re dealing with win probabilities, mathematically we can’t just add up individual probabilities to arrive at a W/L record. Which is where the 538.com algorithm comes in: They simulated the remainder of the season 100,000 times to arrive at a projected W/L total for the Cowboys, and that currently sits at 9-8, with the closest divisional rival at 8-9 (Philly) and the other two quite a bit off at 6-11 (New York and Washington).
In any case, the season has barely started, and it can develop in wildly different ways. Where do you think this team is headed in terms of W/L? Let us know in the attached poll or in the comments below.
What will be the Cowboys W/L record for the 2021 season?
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