Dallas Cowboys (2-4) at Washington Mascots (1-5)
This is a tough one and I’ve been going back and forth on it. On one hand, the Cowboys have all the usual factors for a team that should be better going forward. They have a -12 turnover margin through 6 games and turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. At the very least, they should recover more than 28.57% of their fumbles going forward, but their fumble rate is likely to regress as well.
In addition, they’ve played a tougher than average schedule, which gets significantly easier going forward. They’ve been competitive in most of their losses, within three of four games being one score games in the 4th quarter. With strength of schedule taken into account, the Cowboys rank 11th in first down rate differential at +1.98%. The Cowboys injury situation on offense can’t be ignored, with guard Zack Martin joining quarterback Dak Prescott, tight end Blake Jarwin, and offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins on the sidelines. However, the Cowboys are getting healthier on defense with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch returning last week and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, linebacker Sean Lee, and defensive end Randy Gregory all likely to return this week, and backup quarterback Andy Dalton should theoretically be a capable if underwhelming starter.
The Cowboys were much better in first down rate (4th in the NFL at +4.28%) than their 8-8 record last season, in part due to their tendency to blowout bad teams (7 wins by 18 points or more). The Cowboys have yet to do that this season, but they’ve won their only two games against lower level opponents (Falcons and Giants), despite losing the turnover battle in both games. In those two games, they won the first down rate battle by 10.80% and 12.95% respectively, even though Dalton played a big chunk of the game against the Giants and led the comeback. If they can do that again in this game against a bottom-5 team, they should be able to win fairly easily.
On the other hand, the Cowboys are nowhere near the same team they were last season and the dropoff from Dak Prescott to Andy Dalton looked bigger than expected in Dalton’s debut last week. If that’s the case, the Cowboys, who are poorly coached as well, will likely continue struggling going forward, despite their past success in first down rate differential. I’m still taking the Cowboys for pick ‘em purposes in this game, with the line moving from Dallas -3 on the early line last week to Dallas -1 this week, but I don’t have confidence in them.
Update: It looks like both Lee and Awuzie will miss another week for the Cowboys. I didn’t have any confidence in the Cowboys anyway, so I’m switching this to Washington.
Washington Mascots 24 Dallas Cowboys 23
Pick against the spread: Washington PK