Then, I totaled the projected touchdowns for the primary skill players and was able to predict a final score from there. And that average final score, without home field advantage factored in, was: Dallas 20, Kansas City 19.
When you start to break down the numbers, you realize why the initially “eye-popping” Vegas line that has the Chiefs as three-point favorites, per FootballLocks.com, is the way it is. Despite winning just two games last year, the Chiefs are a formidable opponent with a new coaching staff and an upgrade at quarterback.
However, I think the Cowboys match up pretty well against them.
Let’s think about the Cowboys’ two biggest weaknesses: the interior offensive line and the safety position. The Chiefs have some quality pass-rushers, but they’re located on the perimeter of the defense. And although Alex Smith is a decent quarterback, he’s not going to consistently beat you downfield.
In such a seemingly closely-matched contest, this game is really going to come down to a handful of vital matchups. The team that can win those “games within the game”—the battles that dictate the outcome of the contest—is going to come away on top.
Cowboys RT Doug Free vs. Chiefs OLB Justin Houston
I’ve talked about this matchup on numerous occasions this week, but that’s because I think it’s the most important one for Dallas.
They’ve absolutely got to figure out how they’re going to stop Justin Houston. He’s a truly dominant pass-rusher with age (24), explosiveness (10’5" broad jump), arm length (34.5 inches), and production (three sacks last week and 10 in 2012) on his side.
Houston rushed from the right side of the Chiefs’ defense on just 6.3 percent of snaps last season, so he’s usually going to be lined up over Free. I think Houston can give Free trouble because he can use his long arms to control Free and his athleticism to beat him around the edge.
So what are the Cowboys to do? One option is to just double-team Houston with a tight end. That can be effective, but Dallas will probably need to use “12” personnel—one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers—since they’ll want Jason Witten to be a big part of the passing game.
Another option—the one I suggested last week against the Giants—is to spread the field so Romo can throw quickly, getting the ball out before Houston can be a factor. Dallas did indeed employ that tactic last week, as No. 3 receiver Terrance Williams played 37 snaps and Romo got the ball out in an average of 2.49 seconds—a number that would have been the second-lowest in the NFL last year.
However, the Chiefs aren’t the Giants. With Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith, and Dunta Robinson, Kansas City is much stronger than New York is at the cornerback position. Whereas the net effect was positive when Dallas brought Williams on the field against the Giants, I’m not sure that will be the case this week. Therefore, I think using two-tight sets to double Houston is probably the way to go for Dallas.
Cowboys QB Tony Romo vs. Chiefs S Kendrick Lewis
There’s little doubt that the Chiefs are going to play with a safety over top of Dez Bryant. But it will be interesting to see if they play some form of Cover 2 (with two safeties deep) or a one-high look that allows them to bring strong safety Eric Berry into the box.
If it’s the latter, it will be important for Romo to control free safety Kendrick Lewis with his eyes. Whenever Lewis is in the deep middle, he’ll be shading Bryant’s side, so Romo won’t be able to just stare down Bryant to get him the ball.
Cowboys Interior Offensive Line vs. Chiefs NT Dontari Poe
One of the reasons I like this matchup for Dallas is that, if they can find a way to control Houston, they can give Romo some time to throw.
Nose tackle Dontari Poe isn’t an outstanding pass-rusher, but he can certainly play the run. The 346-pound interior defensive lineman recorded a tackle on 10.7 percent of his run snaps last year. That’s remarkable considering that Poe rarely comes off of the field, playing more snaps than all but five defenders on the team last season.
The ‘Boys shouldn’t need to worry about Poe too much in the passing game, but they’ll need to double-team him when they want to run up the middle.
Cowboys CB Brandon Carr vs. Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe
With Morris Claiborne banged up, I think the Cowboys should use Carr to shadow Bowe. It probably won’t happen, but Bowe is really the Chiefs’ only legitimate weapon on the outside.
At 6’2", 220 pounds, Bowe has the size to win inside and in the red zone. Carr is a big corner himself, though, at 6’0" and 207 pounds.
It will be particularly crucial to keep Bowe out of the end zone because, outside of him and perhaps tight end Anthony Fasano, the Chiefs really don’t have many solid red-zone targets. Jamaal Charles can score from anywhere on the field, but it’s not like he’s especially deadly inside the 20-yard line, and the Chiefs traded Jonathan Baldwin in favor of smaller wide out Donnie Avery.
That’s one reason I prefer a conservative defensive approach for the Cowboys on Sunday. If they sit back in Cover 2 and Cover 3, even if Smith can move up the field, the Chiefs will probably struggle getting into the end zone.
For the record, Carr allowed three touchdowns in 2012. He was sensational in Week 1, giving up 51 yards on six targets and taking a late Eli Manning interception to the house.
Cowboys DE DeMarcus Ware vs. Chiefs LT Branden Albert
Ware is playing the majority of his snaps on the right side of Monte Kiffin’s defense, so he’ll be matched up primarily on left tackle Branden Albert. Although Ware didn’t have a sack last week, he sure looked like a healthier version of his 2012 self, as he had four pressures and two quarterback hits.
Meanwhile, Albert was really good in 2012, allowing only 12 pressures on 396 snaps in pass protection. That pressure rate of 3.0 percent is half of what Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith allowed.
But even as good as Albert is, you can expect the Chiefs to give him some help on the outside in this game. That should make for a matchup on the outside with either Anthony Spencer—who is expected to play, according to the AP (h/t Yahoo! Sports)—or George Selvie seeing a one-on-one.
Cowboys LB Bruce Carter vs. Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles
If Charles gets into the secondary, it’s lights out. The running back with the highest YPC in the history of the NFL is unsurprisingly one of the fastest players in the league.
Historically, straight-line speed counts more for running backs than any other position. The Cowboys absolutely need to make sure Charles doesn’t get past the second level of their defense. He can change games in a hurry, usually rushing for a couple yards a handful of times before ripping off an 80-yarder.
Linebacker Bruce Carter will play a big part in stopping Charles. Carter had eight tackles against the Giants and, as the Will linebacker in this 4-3 scheme, he will need to use his speed to attack Charles from the back side before he gets into the open field.
Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin vs. Chiefs QB Alex Smith
Smith has been really good against the blitz, particularly last year when he posted 126.8 passer rating against the rush.
Smith is dangerous against extra rushers for two reasons: 1) he’s mobile enough to dodge them and either run for a first down or buy time to find players downfield; or 2) he’s deadly accurate. That’s really the foundation of Smith’s game—mobility and accuracy—so it makes for a lethal duo against the blitz.
There are all kinds of reasons that Kiffin should avoid sending extra rushers on Sunday, but Smith's skill set is perhaps the strongest one. The Chiefs’ offense probably won’t repeatedly beat the Cowboys’ defense, so why give them the opportunity for big scores? If Dallas can force Kansas City to consistently move the ball up the field, they should be in a better position to come out of Week 2 with a 2-0 record.
*All statistical information courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.