The Cowboys and Colts don’t face each other often. In fact, Sunday night’s prime time matchup will be the first time since the 2018 season, when the Cowboys were shut out 23-0. To say that a lot has changed since then would be an understatement.
For the Cowboys, they’ve moved on from every coach on that year’s staff save for Kellen Moore (who was promoted to offensive coordinator following the 2018 season), Doug Nussmeier, and Leon Lett. As for the roster, only 15 players remain from that 2018 bunch, and two of them (Cooper Rush and Brett Maher) played elsewhere before returning to the team later on. Now, Mike McCarthy and his staff have the Cowboys riding high into this game.
The Colts are heading in the opposite direction, though. Their shutout victory over the Cowboys in that game featured Andrew Luck under center, running the show with rookie head coach Frank Reich calling the plays. Less than a year after that game, Luck retired and Reich cycled through a different starting quarterback every season since, culminating in 37-year-old Matt Ryan this year. Both of Reich’s coordinators that year, Nick Sirianni and Matt Eberflus, have become head coaches of their own, while Reich was fired earlier this year after a 3-5-1 start and, bizarrely, replaced by former player Jeff Saturday.
Since Saturday took over, the Colts have gone 1-2 with both losses coming within a score. That’s not necessarily an endorsement of Saturday, though, as 10 of the Colts’ 12 games this year have been decided by one score, or in the case of their tie in Week 1, not decided at all. Moreover, Saturday’s complete lack of professional coaching experience has been evident, most recently manifesting itself in the form of awful clock management in their last game that even Saturday apologized for afterwards.
To put it mildly, this Colts team is really bad on offense. They’re ranked 30th in total DVOA and their offense - now being run by assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier, who had never called a play until three weeks ago - is 31st in offensive DVOA. They’re tied for the most turnovers in the NFL; Indianapolis has thrown as many interceptions as they have touchdowns (11) and have three more fumbles lost (10) than they have rushing touchdowns.
That the offense is this bad is a genuine surprise. Reich was one of the better offensive play-callers in the league, and Ryan’s addition was supposed to be an upgrade over Carson Wentz, whose wildly inconsistent performances last year caused the Colts to miss the playoffs at 9-8. But Ryan has looked like a shell of himself, and their offensive line - which is the highest paid offensive line in the NFL - currently ranks 31st in pass block win rate.
Ryan enters this game seeing the ninth-highest pressure rate of any quarterback and he’s the fifth-most sacked quarterback despite not playing in two games. And get this: three of the four quarterbacks ahead of him have already faced Micah Parsons and a Dallas defense that leads the league in both sacks and pressures. Consider that eight of Ryan’s 10 interceptions on the year have come under pressure and things are looking real good for this defense, which currently ranks seventh in takeaways.
The Cowboys are also coming into this game with a significant rest advantage. Not only did Dallas have a mini-bye after playing on Thanksgiving, but the Colts don’t even get a full week after playing on Monday Night Football this past week. That certainly makes for a unique challenge for the wildly inexperienced Saturday, but it also bodes well for this Cowboys offense.
Kellen Moore's group has built their identity this year around their physicality, starting in the trenches. Only seven teams run the ball more than Dallas, and only five teams rank higher in rushing DVOA. The tandem of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard has been deadly behind a road-grading offensive line that ranks sixth in run block win rate. They’ll be tested by a Colts defense that’s 11th in run defense DVOA and surrendering the second fewest yards per carry this year.
The Colts’ secondary isn’t much worse, ranking 13th in pass defense DVOA. Overall, this defense is giving up the fifth-fewest yards per play, but they’re entirely reliant on making third down stops; only four teams have less takeaways than Indianapolis.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley goes way back with the Cowboys’ own Dan Quinn. They worked together under two different head coaches in Seattle and were there for the creation of the Legion of Boom. But while Quinn has evolved his defense since, Bradley still runs the same base defense. In other words, expect a lot of single-high safety looks and very minimal blitzing. Dak Prescott should have plenty of time to throw in this one.
It’s easy to see why the Colts have been close in just about every game this year. Their defense is pretty stingy, and they make just enough stops to keep themselves from getting blown out with any regularity. However, the offense has been so massively incompetent that it’s also made it very hard to score points with any regularity.
The Cowboys will need to execute better offensively than they did against the Giants if they hope to score touchdowns on this Colts defense, but their own defense should be able to wreck Ryan and this offense enough to secure the win easily. The Cowboys can’t afford to overlook these rowdy Colts, but this is a game they should win by multiple scores if they simply play up to their level rather than playing down to their opponent’s level.