Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (6-9) at New York Giants (5-10)

It may not seem like it based off of their records, but the winner of this game will still be alive to win the NFC East and would go on to host a home playoff game next week if Washington loses to Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football. The Giants and Cowboys have both taken winding paths to get to this point, with the Giants being 0-5 and 1-7 at points this season and the Cowboys being 2-7 and 3-9 at points this season, but neither team is in terrible position right now.

The Giants’ 3-7 start wasn’t that bad when you consider that they played 9 out of 10 games against teams that rank in the top-10 in first down rate allowed over expected, the Steelers (2nd), the Rams (1st), Washington twice (3rd), the Eagles twice (9th), the 49ers (5th), the Bears (6th), and the Buccaneers (4th). As healthy as they had been in a while coming out of their week 11 bye, the Giants looked like they would be a good bet going forward.

The Giants’ good health lasted about a half unfortunately, as quarterback Daniel Jones hurt his hamstring early in the third quarter of their first game after their bye, a game in Cincinnati in which the Giants likely would have covered a 6-point spread had Jones not gotten hurt. Backup Colt McCoy held on for the victory, but only barely, as he was a noticeable drop off from Jones. That continued into McCoy’s next start in Seattle, but the Giants pulled the massive upset as 11-point underdogs in an uncharacteristically dominant game for a Giants defense that ranks just 23rd in the NFL overall in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.06%.

Jones returned the following week against Arizona, but looked immobile due to his hamstring injury and struggled mightily, looking possibly even worse than McCoy had. That caused the Giants to go back to McCoy for their next game against the Browns and McCoy’s struggles led to them largely being uncompetitive in that game, managing just a 25.93% first down rate against the Browns’ mediocre defense and losing the first down rate battle by 12.17%. 

At this point, it became clear that a healthy Jones would be a significant upgrade over McCoy,  as he is better in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and yards per carry, despite facing some of the toughest defenses in the league before getting hurt and then playing at far less than 100% against the Cardinals, while McCoy got to face the Bengals (21st in first down rate allowed over expected) for a half, the Seahawks (19th), and the Browns (27th). The issue was how healthy Jones could be. After the Giants’ pathetic showing against the Browns, they decided to put Jones and his injured hamstring to the test against the Ravens.

The Giants lost to the Ravens by 14, but Jones looked a lot better than he did against the Cardinals and there were a lot of good things to take away from that game, most notably that the Giants actually won the first down rate battle in that game by 0.21% and picked up 24 first downs on just 63 plays against a capable Ravens defense. The Giants had trouble sustaining drives because they went just 1 for 10 on third down and 1 for 3 on fourth down, while the Ravens went 8 for 11 on third down and didn’t have to attempt a fourth down, but third and fourth down performance tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and it’s very encouraging to see that the Giants got 22 of their 24 first downs on first and second down, as performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. 

Jones might not be quite 100% and the Giants defense is an underwhelming unit that is not nearly as good as they looked against the Seahawks, but I think Jones is underrated by people who just look at his stats and don’t realize that he’s either been significantly hindered by injury and faced with a dominant defensive opponent in pretty much every game he’s played. His only full healthy game against an underwhelming defense came in week 5 in a 37-34 loss against these Cowboys. Now at least resembling full health, I would expect Jones and this offense to play well against a Dallas defense that has been better than their raw stats suggest, but still ranks just 17th in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.50%. 

Dallas’ season has been up and down as well, in large part due to the massive blow this offense was dealt in their first matchup with the Giants, when Dak Prescott went down for the season with a broken ankle. The Cowboys still went on to win that game, but they were just 2-3 even with Prescott healthy through four and a half games and teams that lose their starting quarterback at 2-3 typically don’t go on to compete for playoff spots.

One big thing the Cowboys had in their favor though, aside from their weak division, was that much of their struggles early in the season were a result of the Cowboys losing the turnover consistently, something that usually doesn’t continue long-term. For the Cowboys, it continued for the next two games and then, making matters worse, backup quarterback Andy Dalton got hurt, leaving the Cowboys with practice squad caliber quarterbacks in Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert. 

However, their turnover issue went the other way after week 7, as the Cowboys were -13 through the first 7 games of the season before being +9 in turnovers in the 8 games since. That didn’t do them much good with DiNucci and Gilbert in the lineup in weeks 8 and 9, but Dalton returned after their week 10 bye and the Cowboys have won 4 of 6 games since, to keep themselves alive for a playoff spot.

Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so I wouldn’t expect them to continue winning the turnover battle like they have in recent weeks, but I definitely wouldn’t expect them to go back to losing the turnover battle as badly as they were earlier in the season and, overall, the Cowboys rank 14th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.49%. Their offense hasn’t been as good at picking up first downs without Dak Prescott and without the offensive linemen that the Cowboys have lost as their season has gone on, but, if we assume they’ll play turnover neutral football, the Cowboys aren’t a bad team. My roster rankings have them ranked a respectable 21st, even with key players missing.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Cowboys in the wake of their big win over the Eagles last week, as this line has shifted from favoring the Giants by 3 to the Cowboys by 1.5. The general public sees that the Cowboys blew out the Eagles last week and that the Giants lost by 14 to the Ravens and don’t realize the Cowboys were aided by a +2 turnover margin against an underwhelming Eagles team that lost its best defensive player in the first half, while the Giants were much more effective on first and second down than third and fourth. My calculated line is Giants -1, so we’re not getting much line value with the Giants either, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes and the money line at +110 isn’t a bad bet as the Giants should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game straight up.

New York Giants 24 Dallas Cowboys 23 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +1.5

Confidence: Low

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