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:
Now, time for weeks 14 through 16!
Week 14 at Washington Football Team
Now we’re getting to the good part of the Cowboys’ schedule. Heading into Week 14 at 8-4, the Cowboys have played just two divisional games and neither have come against the reigning division champ. Washington won the NFC East last year because of how terrible the rest of the division was, more than anything else. But it’s not like they were completely devoid of talent.
Ron Rivera, in his first year as the team’s head coach, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took a handful of talented defenders on a unit that finished 27th in DVOA in 2019, added one Chase Young, and ended up with the third-best defense in the NFL by DVOA standards. In the offseason, they swapped out Ronald Darby with William Jackson III, replaced the safety rotation of Troy Apke and DeShazor Everett with veteran Bobby McCain, and added first-round linebacker Jamin Davis to a linebacker corps that struggled at times last year. All of these are clear upgrades to an otherwise young defense that should see a similarly strong effort in 2021, although maybe not as elite.
The question for Washington is if their offense can look even halfway competent. After last year’s quarterback carousel yielded no viable options, and the team’s first-round pick position being too far out of the realm for a quarterback, Rivera’s crew opted to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick. By the time this game kicks off, Fitzpatrick will have turned 39 years old, and he is well-traveled in the NFL, having played for nine different teams now.
Fitzpatrick is coming off a solid two-year stretch with the Dolphins in which he started 20 total games. During that time, he completed 64.2% of his passes with 5,620 yards and 33 touchdowns with 21 interceptions. In 2019, Fitzpatrick finished eighth in QBR and tenth in EPA; he also ranks 18th in EPA/play over the last two years among 32 qualifying quarterbacks. In short, Fitzpatrick is a solid quarterback but not one of the greats. And at his age, he’s certainly not a long-term answer, but Washington knows this.
They’re simply hoping Fitzpatrick can play efficiently in an offense that has some really good weapons. Terry McLaurin seems on the verge of becoming a true number one wide receiver, and he’s now joined by the electric Curtis Samuel, reliable Adam Humphries, and promising rookie Dyami Brown. Second-year running back Antonio Gibson is poised for a breakout year, while JD McKissic, Peyton Barber, and rookie Jaret Patterson offer valuable depth behind him. All in all, this offense finished dead last in DVOA last year, and still swept Dallas by a combined point margin of 66-19.
Both teams are going to be better, but odds figure that Dallas makes a bigger jump in quality. Still, this may be the best defense the Cowboys face all year, and Fitzpatrick’s veteran savvy could be too much for a young defense, especially if things are clicking for Washington coming into this one. This is a close matchup, so I’ll give the nod to the home team with the great defense.
Prediction: Cowboys lose, fall to 8-5
Week 15 at New York Giants
The last time these two met, Dallas won largely because, when both teams are healthy, they have a big talent advantage. At this point in the year, few teams are healthy, and even if players aren’t missing games they’re usually playing banged up. Generally that means these kinds of games get decided by funky things like recent games played and homefield advantage.
Well, New York has the homefield advantage here. And they’re coming back home after two straight road games against the likes of the Dolphins and Chargers. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are coming off a loss to a very grueling team: last year, teams were a combined 4-11 the week after playing the Washington Football Team. This will also be their fourth road game in five weeks, adding to the degree of difficulty.
As for the actual game, the Giants in 2020 were a team that got better as the year went on. They finished 25th in overall DVOA but 23rd in weighted DVOA, which tells us that while New York wasn’t dramatically better towards the end, they were better. Losing Daniel Jones for a few games in that stretch didn’t help either. But between this defense being so young and the offense featuring so many new pieces, odds are good that they’ll once again be playing their best ball come December. Unless, of course, things fall completely off the rails earlier in the year. But that does seem unlikely at the moment.
This has the makings of a really competitive game, especially with both teams looking to make a final playoff push late in the year. But the Giants are getting to come home to their fans in their stadium, while Dallas will be coming off a hard-fought loss on the road and staying on the road yet again. That’s not a great recipe for success, although it’s far from a death knell.
Prediction: Cowboys lose, fall to 8-6
Week 16 vs Washington Football Team
It didn’t take very long for the Cowboys to get a crack at revenge, did it? It rarely happens, but Dallas gets to face Washington just two weeks after their first matchup. In this case, it’s a quick opportunity for revenge after dropping the first one, and it comes at home the day after Christmas. To add fuel to the fire, the Cowboys will be playing for not only their playoff hopes, but to break a two-game losing streak.
The first matchup was an incredibly close call, as both of these teams should be playing at a high level by this point in the season. The analytics all tell us that these two teams pair up well against each other, and the Cowboys offense versus this Washington defense should be a great showdown. Washington’s biggest problem is that, while Ryan Fitzpatrick is an upgrade at the quarterback position, he can also be highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis.
Between that and the Cowboys’ desperation for a win here, things look good for them. And since the last matchup was decided by who had homefield advantage, and not much is likely to change in two weeks time, it makes sense to do so again here.
Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 9-6