New Orleans Saints (10-1) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)
Going into their week 8 bye, the Cowboys were a 3-4 team with a strong defense, but an underwhelming offense. They ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but just 23rd in first down rate at 33.81%. In order to remedy this, the Cowboys made an aggressive move to acquire slumping former Pro-Bowl receiver Amari Cooper from the Raiders for a 2019 1st round pick, potentially giving this offense #1 receiver it sorely lacked.
It was a risky move, but it’s gone well so far, as Cooper has 22 catches for 349 yards and already leads the team with 3 receiving touchdowns, despite being with the team for just 4 games. In addition, his 19 receiving first downs are 2nd on the team. The offense hasn’t been great or anything since he arrived, but they have moved the chains at a 35.94% rate in his 4 games, about league average, which is noticeably better than before the bye.
However, the Cowboys’ defense has gone in the opposite direction, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 38.06% rate in 4 games since the bye. They are 3-1 in those 4 games, but they have just a +4 point differential and have lost the first down rate battle in every game except last week’s home game against a backup quarterback. Injuries are the biggest reason for their defensive decline, particularly the injury to linebacker Sean Lee, who went down early in the Cowboys’ first game out of the bye against the Titans, coinciding with their defensive decline.
Lee is one of the most injury prone players in the league and the Cowboys have always been significantly worse defensively with him out of the lineup. They are better prepared for his absence this season, with young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith capable of playing every down, but this team is noticeably better when they have all three linebackers together. In the 4 healthy games that Lee has played this season (not including the game against the Titans which he left early in the first half), the Cowboys have allowed a 30.43% first down rate, as opposed to 35.93% in their other 7 games. Starting defensive end Taco Charlton, who also went down in their first game after the bye, is expected to return this week, but their offense could be without stud left tackle Tyron Smith, which would be a big blow.
The Saints are obviously a dominant team, but we’re not getting line value with them like we were earlier in the season, as they are -7.5 in Dallas this week (remember when they were +3 in Baltimore and -3 in New York against the Giants). In fact, if Smith ends up playing and this line doesn’t move, we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Cowboys. Unfortunately, Smith is a gametime decision, so we might not know until inactives are announced. For now, I’m taking the Cowboys for a no confidence pick, but I’ll almost definitely have an update before gametime.
Thursday Update: Smith looks unlikely to play, after not practicing all week. With him out, we aren’t getting any line value with the Cowboys, so I’m switching this pick to the Saints. This remains a no confidence pick as this line is about right.
New Orleans Saints 24 Dallas Cowboys 16
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5