In what was undoubtedly one of the most challenging games these players will ever face, the Dallas Cowboys overcame adversity—in more ways than one—to take down the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14. Sitting at 7-6, the Cowboys are very much alive in the hunt for the NFC East crown.
4th and 1 Field Goal
I was pretty surprised to see Jason Garrett kick a field goal on 4th and 1 at the Bengals’ 19-yard line on the Cowboys’ first drive. In that area, the break-even success rate for going for it is 49.0 percent. The Cowboys’ chances of converting a 4th and half-yard were surely better than a coin flip. Historically, teams that have gone for it in that down-and-distance and field position have gained 3.04 points-per-drive, compared to only 1.86 for teams kicking a field goal. The decision almost came back to haunt Dallas.
Punt the Punter
Brian Moorman has to go, right? His five punts—only one of which was kicked inside the 20—averaged only 33.0 yards. Three of them were kicked out-of-bounds, but I don’t think that was Moorman’s intent. Moorman cost the Cowboys around three expected points with his punts; had he kicked even the league-average length, the Bengals’ expected points on three separate drives would have been around one point lower.
Tony Romo Overcomes Poor Start
The Bengals did a good job of disguising their looks against Romo, but the quarterback didn’t have his best stuff, either. I counted 10 of Romo’s passes as being off-target—nearly twice the normal rate.
After totaling only 3.67 play-action passes per game through 12 weeks—by far the lowest rate in the NFL—the Cowboys attempted eight on Sunday. Romo was moderately effective on the passes, completing four for 61 yards. He also missed Miles Austin on a deep play-action look in the first quarter—a play on which Austin was wide open and had a real chance to score.
Late-Game Decision-Making Good and Bad
The last two calls of the game highlighted the good and bad of Garrett’s late-game clock management. On a crucial 3rd and 5 at the Bengals’ 30-yard line, Garrett called a draw to DeMarco Murray that resulted in a first down. The decision was a gutsy and intelligent one. Believe it or not, runs on 3rd and 5 are historically just about as successful as passes. And since Cincinnati was out of timeouts, a failure to convert would have allowed the clock to run so the Bengals couldn’t mount a game-winning drive of their own.
After the run, however, the Cowboys ran just one more play—a two-yard run by Murray. With about one minute to go after the Murray draw, I thought the Cowboys should have run at least two more plays, even if the other one was another run. If the offense’s focus was on risk-minimization—no losses, penalties, or fumbles—there’s really no harm in trying to make Dan Bailey’s field goal a bit easier. The Cowboys settled for a 40-yard field goal when they could have potentially gotten it to around 35. That might sound inconsequential, but the historical conversion rate for a 35-yard field goal is around eight percentage points higher than for a 40-yarder—probably worth the trouble.
If we assume the Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins all have a 50 percent expected winning percentage over the season’s final three weeks, the odds of the Cowboys winning the division—i.e. winning one more game than the Giants and beating the Redskins in Week 17—are 27.7 percent.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.