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Using analytics to predict every game on the Cowboys schedule: Weeks 17-18

It’s not about how you start, but how you finish.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-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
Weeks 10-11
Weeks 12-13
Weeks 14-16

And to finish it off, here are the final two weeks of the regular season.

Week 17 vs Arizona Cardinals

The last time these two teams played was the Cowboys’ first game without Dak Prescott, and it went about as well as anyone could have expected: the Cardinals blew Dallas out of the water to the tune of a 38-10 final score. But by the time this game kicks off, that game and season as a whole will be firmly in the rearview mirror. The Cowboys enter this game with a projected 9-6 record looking to close out their final home game in strong fashion.

The Cardinals are very much a team with some forward momentum. Last year they reached a promising 6-3 record after a crazy Hail Mary touchdown from Kyler Murray to beat the Bills in the final seconds. But an injury sustained on Murray’s throwing arm coincided with a three-game losing streak that ultimately saw Arizona finish 8-8 and watch the playoffs from home. After adding veterans J.J. Watt and A.J. Green, and selecting Zaven Collins and Rondale Moore with their first two picks in the draft, the Red Birds are hoping they’ve done enough to upgrade this team and push them over the hump.

A look at the analytics from last year, however, aren’t so encouraging. Their offense actually regressed in terms of offensive DVOA, going from 13th to 19th. Some of that is due to Murray’s injury, but they were an inconsistent unit before that. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury didn’t seem to have things figured out at various points, and when Murray did get hurt he was unable to effectively adjust. Murray’s connection with DeAndre Hopkins, acquired ahead of last season, was almost immediate, however, there were times where the offense became stagnant if Hopkins was neutralized by the defense. For example, Murray had a completion rate of 73% with nine yards per attempt when targeting Hopkins, and those numbers dipped to 65% and 6.4 YPA when targeting literally anyone else.

Defensively, the Cardinals saw a huge improvement. After ranking 20th in defensive DVOA in 2019, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s unit jumped to 10th in the NFL, highlighted by their ninth-ranked pass defense. The problem is that much of their secondary from last year is gone. Both of their starting cornerbacks - Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick - are gone. They signed Malcolm Butler in free agency, but he just retired, they also brought in Darqueze Dennard, but he’s landed on the injured reserve and will miss the entire year.

That leaves the Cardinals with Robert Alford, who hasn’t played a down of football since the 2018 season due to injuries, Byron Murphy, and likely a rotation of rookie cornerbacks Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan. All in all, the Cardinals lost six of their ten defenders who logged 400 or more snaps last year, suggesting a steep decline on that side of the ball.

That doesn’t provide a positive outlook for the 2021 Cardinals, although things could be changed drastically if the Kingsbury-Murray connection starts to click with consistency. Still, the Cardinals under these two haven’t proven to be good at closing out, whether it be individual games or seasons. Each of the last two years they’ve gone 2-3 in the final two months of the year. They may fare better in Year Three, but a matchup on the road against a Cowboys team that’s more experienced doesn’t bode well if you’re a Cardinals fan. It’s great news for Cowboys fans, though.

Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 10-6

Week 18 at Philadelphia Eagles

The Cowboys’ first game against these Eagles came in the third week of the season, and the logic behind predicting Dallas to win was based mostly on the youth and inexperience of the Eagles - both on their roster and coaching staff. Reaching the final game of the year will either see the Eagles starting to feel more comfortable in their schemes and culture or just looking to wrap up a difficult year in which (more) turmoil around the quarterback position poisons the well.

It’s also an intriguing position for the Cowboys. The final week of the year is usually when some teams rest their starters if they’ve clinched their playoff berth and can’t improve their seeding with a win. Will the Cowboys find themselves in such a spot entering Week 18 at 10-6? With the way the NFC East looks, it’s possible. But for the sake of this article, let’s assume the Cowboys are trying their hardest to win, unlike the Eagles in last year’s season finale.

Even so, it’s probably another good situation for the Cowboys. Even if all of Philly’s young pieces showcase some considerable promise and Jalen Hurts proves himself capable of being the starting quarterback, this just isn’t a team that’s built to win now. The Cowboys very much are.

Of course, the analytical outlook on these Eagles suggest a team with enough talent to score the occasional upset here and there, and with the game being in Philadelphia and against a bitter rival, it wouldn’t be the biggest shock if this was one of those upsets. Still, the safe bet is on the team with considerably more talent winning, and this week that’s Dallas by a few miles.

Prediction: Cowboys win, finish the season 11-6

Final Takeaway

An 11-win season would certainly be welcome, especially after how dismal last year was. It almost guarantees a playoff berth, likely by way of an NFC East crown after going 4-2 in divisional games. However, 11-6 likely isn’t enough to be one of the top two seeds, meaning any playoff run would necessitate victories on the road. That’s not out of the question, as the Buccaneers didn’t play a game at home until the Super Bowl last year, but it does make things considerably harder.

But the worries about how far a team can make it in the playoffs are worries best to be had once the playoffs start. In the meantime, an 11-6 final record would be a nice way to welcome back Dak Prescott and add some level of justification to the hiring of Mike McCarthy.