Following one of the most exciting wins in recent history, the Dallas Cowboys are alive for the rest of the 2012 season; their playoff hopes will remain intact whether they win or lose against the Saints next week. The Cowboys took down the Steelers on the back of a highly-efficient offense; Tony Romo averaged 8.1 yards-per-attempt and the running backs totaled 5.4 yards-per-carry.
Okay, so the Cowboys didn’t exactly run rampant on Pittsburgh, but their rushing efficiency certainly helped the offense. I predicted that the ‘Boys would be able to run on Pittsburgh prior to the game despite the Steelers’ fourth-ranked run defense. The reason was that the Steelers had faced more short-yardage situations than normal, increasing their efficiency in terms of YPC allowed to improperly reflect their true ability as a run defense.
Jason Garrett will be criticized for his decision to run Tony Romo on a naked bootleg on a critical 3rd and 1 near the end of the third quarter, but I actually liked the call. The Cowboys had run that play only one other time this year—a one-yard touchdown run by Romo—and it had actually been set up really well. The ‘Boys missed one block on the play, but the failure shouldn’t be used as justification of a bad call. If that particular play had, say, a 90 percent chance of converting, the 10 percent of plays on which it wouldn’t work wouldn’t suddenly make it a poor call. The decision was a good one; the execution wasn’t.
The Cowboys have been forced to play all sorts of new faces in 2012, many of whom weren’t even on the team in September. Two of my favorite players who have quietly moved up the depth chart are tight end James Hanna and wide receiver Dwayne Harris. Hanna has overtaken John Phillips as the second tight end and the difference in receiving ability is immediately apparent. Jason Witten is still rolling along, but it won’t be that way forever. Harris’ ability to make plays with the ball in his hands makes you wonder why Kevin Ogletree and Dez Bryant were ever playing ahead of him as the Cowboys’ third receiver and punt returner, respectively.
Earlier in the week, I argued that the Cowboys have been using the running game differently of late. Specifically, the offense has (and should be) passing way more often on early downs and running more often on third down and in short-yardage situations. We’ve seen the transformation over the past few weeks, and it’s worked.
Garrett’s best call on the day was probably Murray’s touchdown run on 3rd and goal from the three-yard line. The decision was smart not only because running was inherently advantageous over passing in that situation, but also because down by seven with under seven minutes to play, the Cowboys were probably in four-down territory. Garrett knew it and dialed up a play that would likely make the Cowboys’ fourth-down attempt that much easier if Murray had failed to get the ball into the end zone.
Garrett was faced with an extremely difficult fourth-down decision late in the game. With two minutes left to play in a tie game, Dallas had a 4th and 1 at their own 21-yard line. Garrett decided to punt. Based on historical game data, the Cowboys' win probability dropped from about a coin flip to just 30 percent following that decision. It helped that Brian Moorman boomed a 59-yard kick, but that could never have been expected.
By determining the Steelers' chances of winning the game in regulation after the punt (around 28 percent), we can calculate the break-even percentage needed for the Cowboys to go for it on 4th and 1 to be 33 percent. NFL teams have converted 64.4 percent of plays on 4th and 1 since 2008, so the decision should have been a no-brainer. As much as failing on the try would have hurt the Cowboys, punting the ball away gave them only a sliver of a chance to win the game in regulation.
Either way, the 'Boys found a way to pull out the victory. Assuming that the Cowboys, Redskins, and Giants all have a 50 percent chance to win each remaining game, Dallas actually possesses over a 40 percent chance to win the NFC East.
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.