Week 15 Wrap-up: King of the Road

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The Cowboys won the game they weren’t supposed to win. It would have fit so many of the simple check boxes we assign to the team for Dallas to blow that 21-0 lead last night and lose in Philadelphia. Big game? In December? Against an NFC East rival with the division on the line? If Tony Romo had only needed to hold something for a couple of seconds, we all could have yelled bingo and the game might have ended a lot earlier. Instead, Dallas came through with a critical victory. The 38-27 win restored the team’s place atop the NFC East with two games to go, improving its chances of making the playoffs from 50.4 to 81.1 percent.

This game wasn’t weird because the Cowboys won. It was weird because of how the Cowboys won it. Dallas prevailed without a dominant display from DeMarco Murray, who was held to just 81 rushing yards on 31 carries, as the Eagles got an excellent performance up front from the likes of Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. A positively Trent Richardson–esque 14 of Murray’s 31 carries (45.2 percent) went for no gain or a loss, which speaks to how effective the Philly front seven was at penetrating the backfield and blowing up plays. Before Sunday, just 15.6 percent of Murray’s carries had resulted in no gain or a loss.

Murray remains on pace to best a stunning round number, but it’s not the one Cowboys fans might want to see him hit. He is set to finish with 401 carries, which would make him just the sixth player in league history to break the 400-carry barrier in a single season. Having finished Week 15 with 1,687 rushing yards, though, he remains 313 yards short of 2,000 with two games to go, leaving him expected to finish 72 yards short. Indianapolis and the league’s 27th-ranked rush defense lays in wait next week, and the Cowboys wouldn’t be wrong to liberally employ Murray in the hope of keeping Andrew Luck on the sideline.

The Cowboys, not the return-happy Eagles, were also the team that caught an unlikely break on special teams. Philadelphia bizarrely failed to possess the short opening kickoff, handing the Cowboys an accidental onside kick that led to Dallas’s first touchdown. It was an enormous swing that probably doesn’t seem quite so meaningful on first glance.

If Dan Bailey kicks the ball through the end zone for a touchback and the Eagles start on their own 20-yard line, Advanced Football Analytics’s expected points model suggests they’ll score 0.34 points. Instead, when the Eagles failed to recover the kick, they lost that small fraction of a point and handed the ball over to the Cowboys deep inside enemy territory. The same model suggests the Cowboys would expect to score 4.21 points, meaning Philly cost itself 4.55 points with the misplay. Given that the Eagles were three-point favorites before kickoff, the blunder swung the Eagles into underdogs before a single ball was snapped.

Instead, the Cowboys overcame Chip Kelly’s team by throwing the ball to win a shootout. While Dallas stayed committed to the run and struggled to protect Romo, he did manage to throw three touchdown passes to Dez Bryant as part of a 22-for-31 day. Bryant made mincemeat out of overmatched Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher, and it became downright absurd by the end of the game that Fletcher was being matched up one-on-one against Dallas’s star wideout.

This isn’t a new problem for the Eagles, who have been beaten by the deep ball repeatedly this season. On passes that travel 15 yards or more in the air — the NFL’s official designation for “deep” passes — the Eagles have allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 110.2 passer rating, which is 27th in the league. On Sunday night, Romo’s seven deep passes resulted in five completions, 116 yards, two scores, and a 153.3 passer rating. ESPN Stats & Information says the Eagles blitzed only 12 times and had seven or more men in the box on just two pass attempts, so it’s hard to fathom why Philadelphia left Fletcher alone in coverage on Bryant so frequently, especially as Romo obviously started to target the matchup.

Was it more than just a win? You can probably make a case that it was a game that cleared the cobwebs of despair for the Cowboys and their fans, who are so used to seeing their hopes snuffed out in these late-season divisional matchups. I wouldn’t blame you for suggesting that this one had more of an emotional impact than a victory over the Jaguars in the middle of November might, and in terms of playoff positioning, this was all but a season-saving victory for Jason Garrett’s team.

The dominant story with the Cowboys, though, is the idea that they have to get the monkey off their back to prove they’re for real this time around. And that’s just not fair. We repeatedly move the goalposts on athletes and teams like the Cowboys, setting them up in a space where they’ll need to prove they can win before immediately suggesting that they need to do something else for us to truly believe in them.

It wasn’t long ago that Romo and the Cowboys couldn’t beat the Giants in prime time, and then they did that. Before that, the Cowboys couldn’t win a playoff game, never minding that they they beat the Eagles in consecutive weeks in the 2009 season to win the NFC East and then advance past Philly. Now, Romo and his team needed to prove they could win a big game in December, even though he has performed almost exactly the same in December as he has in October. It’s a series of arbitrary tests that are impossible to ever truly win.

With that in mind, this win that feels like some sort of more meaningful triumph will fade into a memory in a matter of weeks. If the Cowboys somehow fail to make the playoffs, this key December victory will escape into the ether for the subset of football fans who want to criticize Dallas for its inability to win when it counts. If they make the playoffs, chances are they’ll eventually lose, at which point all of the meaningful victories that got them to the playoffs — as well as any playoff victories they accrue — will be written off and ignored. The Cowboys deserve better. In fact, on Sunday, they earned better.

Terrance WilliamsMatt Rourke/AP

Home or Away

The upset victory in Philadelphia brought the Cowboys to 7-0 on the road, which is a weird enough quirk to get people talking. Dallas is just 3-4 at home, and it’s easy to craft a story that the Cowboys are better off being on the road. The mammoth AT&T Stadium is so big that it often attracts rowdy fan bases from the visiting team, and the 49ers and Texans enjoyed audible and visible appreciation from large chunks of the crowd during their trips to Dallas. Likewise, given how the Cowboys are popular around the entire country, it’s not uncommon to see Dallas fans make notable amounts of noise when the Cowboys travel. But are the Cowboys really more likely to win on away games?

The short answer is no. The long answer will tell you why. There’s just no year-to-year or stretch-to-stretch consistency among teams that play significantly better on the road than they do at home. I’m reminded of the 2007 Giants, who lost their opening road game at Dallas and then proceeded to win their next 10 road games, culminating in an NFC Championship Game win at Green Bay. That team was 3-5 at home, got tagged with the “road warrior” flag, and then proceeded to go 5-3 on the road (and 7-1 at home) during the 2008 season. It was this skill that the Giants had and then immediately misplaced after winning the Super Bowl.

Judging whether winning on the road is a repeatable skill is trickier than just looking at win-loss records away from home. Take the 2007 Patriots, who went 8-0 on the road. They were a great road team … but they went 8-0 at home, too, and were a fantastic home team. To figure out whether winning on the road is a skill, we need to contrast the two and see if teams that win more frequently on the road than they do at home can keep that up over any stretch of time.

So I went and looked at every team’s home-and-away record over the course of a given season since 1990 and identified the difference between its win total at home and its win total on the road. For the purposes of this little study, we’re considering those totals in terms of how much better the team is on the road, and I expressed every team’s record in terms of the gap between those two win totals.

Take the 2013 Cowboys, a team that went 5-3 at home but just 3-5 on the road. Their notation here would be minus-2. The 2010 Cowboys, 2-6 at home and 4-4 on the road, would be plus-2. I grouped the teams and found what their average win differential was between their home and road records the following season. If the home-road split was a real skill, we would expect teams exhibiting a strong home or road split to be pretty similar from year to year.

There aren’t many teams since 1990 that are similar to this year’s Cowboys (plus-4), but as you’ll see, this isn’t something with any predictive value whatsoever:

Whether your away record was way better than your home record, way worse, or just about anywhere in between, the following year you win somewhere between one and two fewer games on the road than you do at home. The correlation coefficient between relative away/home win totals from year to year is 0.005; one year’s away record has absolutely no value predicting the next year’s road record after you account for how the team plays at home.

That brings the Cowboys argument to a pretty quick halt. You would have to believe there’s something innate that can happen only in a single season, that you somehow lose your road warrior status over an offseason.

But even then, the anecdotal stuff that’s happened in those games breaks down the logic of the argument. Did the Cowboys really design that crazy kickoff on purpose, knowing it wouldn’t work when they played the Eagles in Texas? Did they really have an adoring fan base rooting them on in Philadelphia yesterday that might qualify as some sort of hidden road-field advantage? Did they somehow time the Romo injury to occur during Dallas’s three-game homestand, causing him to miss crucial time in the losses to Washington and Arizona?

Of course not. It’s just randomness. The Cowboys have been better on the road than they have been at home, but that’s not caused by anything and it’s not going to tell us anything about how Dallas will play going forward.

colin-kaepernick-triSteve Dykes/Getty Images

Blue Diamonds

The Seattle defense has shown up just in time. After struggling to regain their championship form for most of the season, Earl Thomas & Co. have seen their performance reach unparalleled heights during this critical four-game winning streak. The Seahawks can claim first place in the NFC West with a win over the Cardinals and their as-yet-unidentified starting quarterback next Sunday, and with a bit of help, they might still end up as the conference’s top seed. If they do get to spend January taking on all comers at home, they’ll have what their defense has done over the past four weeks to thank.

It wasn’t all that long ago that there was a distinct possibility the Seahawks might not make the playoffs. When Seattle lost 24-20 in Kansas City on November 16, the defending Super Bowl champion fell to 6-4, leaving it tied with San Francisco and three full games behind Arizona in the NFC West while facing tough competition to claim even a wild-card spot. Since then, the Seahawks have overrun the division, with three of their four wins on the trot coming against NFC West opposition, including a pair of victories over their archrival. Seattle’s 17-7 win at home Sunday knocked San Francisco out of playoff contention, and it was driven by another dominant performance by the defense.

Over the last four games, the Seattle defense has allowed 27 points. Total. The Dolphins allowed that many in the second half Sunday, and it’s what the Seahawks have done in a month of action. That’s insane. It’s the first time since the 2009 Broncos that a team has allowed so few points over a four-game stretch, and it’s just the fourth time a team has pulled this off since the league moved to its current schedule structure in 2002. Even at their very best, the 2013 Seahawks topped out by allowing a minimum of 43 points over a four-game stretch.

It’s not entirely a surprise to see the Seahawks take a sudden leap forward on defense, even if the extent of that surprise might be more significant than anybody could have anticipated. After Seattle’s 28-26 loss to the Rams in Week 7 left the champs at .500, I noted that the 3-3 Seahawks had suffered massive regressions past the mean in several key defensive components, even if their broader defensive performance had been very good. They were bad in ways that aren’t very sticky as a season goes along, and while the changes didn’t occur immediately, we’ve seen them improve massively in a few of those categories over this four-game streak.

Pass Rush: The most obvious impact has been on the Seattle pass rush. Dormant during that cold stretch to start the season, the Seahawks have suddenly found their legs and are annihilating opposing quarterbacks. They have 16 sacks across just 123 dropbacks over those past four games, a 13.0 percent sack rate that’s the second-best in football over that time frame. First place belongs to the Giants, whose 14.8 percent sack rate included games against Washington and Jacksonville, teams that are basically cheat codes for generating sacks.1

It’s been a team effort in getting after the quarterback. While Michael Bennett is delivering a Herculean effort in playing around 90 percent of the defensive snaps on a weekly basis, he’s recorded only two of the team’s 16 sacks over the last four weeks. It’s been the other guys. Cliff Avril has 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits. Bruce Irvin, who played 100 percent of the snaps in consecutive weeks against the Cardinals and 49ers, has 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits. Jordan Hill, the team’s third-round pick in last year’s draft, has emerged on the interior with four sacks and five quarterback hits, including a pair of each on Colin Kaepernick yesterday afternoon.

My natural inclination was to wonder whether the Seahawks were blitzing more now that they have a healthy Kam Chancellor and Byron Maxwell back in the lineup, but they’re actually sending blitzers no more frequently than before. Before this four-game stretch, the Seahawks were sending blitzes on 35.1 percent of pass plays; over this winning streak, they’ve sent those blitzes on just 21.3 percent of pass plays, the fourth-lowest rate in football. The Seahawks are squeezing teams with coverage and getting pressure on the rare times they do send blitzes, as nine of their 16 sacks have come with five-plus rushers.

Richard Sherman, Michael CrabtreeElaine Thompson/AP

Takeaways: More surprising during that ugly stretch was Seattle’s near-total absence of takeaways. Again, that’s no longer a problem. After forcing just five takeaways during their first six games, including three games without any turnovers, the Seahawks had forced a turnover in every single game before Sunday. Even with yesterday’s oh-fer, the Seahawks have forced 15 turnovers in the past eight games, tied for the sixth-most in the league. Richard Sherman, interception-less during that start to the year, had two picks in the first win over the Niners.

Third Down: The Seahawks have also managed to turn around their third-down performance. Through that Rams game, the Seattle defense was allowing opposing teams to convert on 47.3 percent of their third-down tries, the fifth-highest rate in football. That doesn’t sound like the Seahawks, and it’s no surprise they’ve since turned it around. Seattle’s allowed opposing teams to pick up only 15 of 49 third-down tries during this winning streak, a 30.6 percent rate that’s the seventh-best figure in the league.

With Seattle playing better in just about every facet of the defensive game, it’s no surprise it has gotten a massive boost from the player who situates himself directly in the middle of the unit. Bobby Wagner’s return from a turf toe problem coincides perfectly with this four-game winning streak, and Seattle’s struggles in his absence only confirmed just how valuable Wagner is to the team. Wagner often gets lost in the shuffle, given how notable the Legion of Boom can be behind him, but there are few middle linebackers who combine his range in coverage and ability to sift through trash to make plays at the line of scrimmage. Watch him defy simple physics to stop Frank Gore in the backfield on Sunday:

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Wagner’s played virtually every snap since returning to the lineup in a move that’s pushed Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith to the bench — the former starting linebacker doesn’t appear to have taken a single defensive snap during this winning streak. The Seahawks were lacking for depth at points earlier this year, but they’re now among the healthiest defenses in football, after getting Wagner, Tharold Simon, and Jeremy Lane back from injury. The only significant contributor to the Seattle defense who is unavailable is defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.

The Seahawks now find themselves in a very interesting playoff predicament. They will face the Cardinals on Sunday in Arizona in a game that will likely decide who wins the NFC West, and the deck is stacked against Arizona, which will have to start Ryan Lindley or Logan Thomas under center after Drew Stanton suffered a knee injury on Thursday night. The Seahawks have already been installed as seven-point favorites in Vegas.

If the Seahawks beat the Cardinals and then the Rams in Week 17, they’re exceedingly likely to finish with the second seed and end up with a first-round bye. They would have a clear path to the top seed if it weren’t for the Cowboys, the only NFC contender with a tiebreaker advantage over the Seahawks after winning 30-23 in Seattle earlier this year. If they win out, Seattle would hold the primary tiebreaker (head-to-head) over Arizona, Green Bay, and Philadelphia, and would win a tiebreaker over Detroit by virtue of its record in common games.

The Seahawks would naturally rather play their playoff games in the Pacific Northwest, but this is going to be a difficult team to beat regardless of where those contests take place in January. While you would be right to wonder whether the Seattle offense is going to score frequently enough to win a Super Bowl, the Seahawks defense is firing on all cylinders right now. “Peaking at the right time” isn’t actually a real thing, but the Seahawks are finally looking like the terrifying defense we all expected to see this season, just as the playoffs are about to arrive.

Filed Under: NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell