The Dallas Cowboys' 24-21 victory over the New York Giants was by far the most important one for the team this season. Had the Cowboys lost, they would have let the Giants back in the NFC East race and fallen a full game back of the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, Dallas has the same record as Philly at 6-5, with the 'Boys owning the head-to-head tiebreaker at the moment.
We saw some positive signs for Dallas on Sunday, most of them offensively. Coming out of their bye, the offense looked dramatically different to the astute observer, frequently utilizing wide receiver Dez Bryant in the slot and calling for 15 play-action passes after averaging 4.1 in the first 10 games.
If the Cowboys' coaches continue to make optimal decisions, this team has a very good chance to take down the NFC East. Before taking a peek at their Week 12 Thanksgiving Day matchup, let's take a look around the division.
|New York Giants||4-7||213||280|
Sitting at 4-7, it's going to be really difficult for the Giants to make the playoffs. Even if they finish 4-1 to reach 8-8 on the season, they'd need Dallas to win just one more game since the 'Boys can claim the head-to-head tiebreaker over them.
Using points scored and allowed, we can use the Pythagorean Expectation to calculate how many games each team "should" have won.
|New York Giants||4||3.77||-0.23|
For the first time since Week 1, the Cowboys have more actual wins than Pythagorean wins. The number is extremely close, indicating the team has "gotten what it deserves" through 11 games. If the Cowboys were to play 1,000 seasons and give up/score as many points as they have, the most likely outcome would indeed be six wins.
|LB Sean Lee||Hamstring||Week-to-Week|
|CB Morris Claiborne||Hamstring||Doubtful|
|WR Dwayne Harris||Hamstring||Doubtful|
Trying to get healthy, the Cowboys are now dealing with three hamstring injuries to a trio of important contributors. Although linebacker Sean Lee was supposed to be out for up to a month, there's an outside chance he could play on Thanksgiving, according to Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com. It's still more likely he comes back in Week 14.
Both cornerback Morris Claiborne and wide receiver Dwayne Harris left Sunday's game with hamstring injuries. They're both doubtful to play this Thursday, according to David Moore of the Dallas Morning News.
What Must Improve: Doug Free's Pass Protection
In giving up two pressures on Sunday, right tackle Doug Free turned in his best performance in pass protection in over a month. Below, I charted Free's pressure rate in each game this year using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
You can see that, although he played pretty well against the Giants, Free actually had a lower pressure rate in each of the first five games of the season. Over that stretch, Free was arguably one of the top offensive tackles in the NFL.
Since Week 6, though, we've seen a different Free. He's been by no means as poor as he was in 2012, but his pressure rate has exceeded 6.0 percent in five of the past six games. Let's hope the downward movement in Week 12 is a sign of things to come and not an aberration.
Matchup to Watch on Thanksgiving: LT Tyron Smith vs. DE Lamarr Houston
Free might be struggling a bit, but thankfully for Dallas, the Oakland Raiders use their top pass-rushing threat primarily on the right side of their defense. Defensive end Lamarr Houston has rushed from the left side of Oakland's defense on just 4.7 percent of his pass snaps, according to PFF. That means he's going to see a whole lot of left tackle Tyron Smith.
Houston has been dominant this year, racking up 48 tackles, five sacks and 35 pressures. Only two 4-3 defensive ends in the entire league have pressured the quarterback more than Houston. Further, no defensive end has a higher tackle rate, so it's going to be a challenge for Smith in both the running and passing games.