Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys (-3, 44.5 o/u)
This Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals (6-1, 2-1 road) travel to Texas to take on the Dallas Cowboys (6-2, 3-2 home) at AT&T Stadium (1:00 p.m. Eastern).
The big storyline heading into the game is the status of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Romo, who has long suffered from back problems, took a hard hit in the Cowboys’ week 8 loss to the Redskins and had to leave the game (but returned late in the fourth quarter). Though the injury is clearly not as bad as it could have been, Romo has missed practice all week and his status for Sunday remains in doubt. Backup QB Brandon Weeden played well while Romo was in the locker room. The former Cleveland Brown went 4/6 for 69 yards and a touchdown, and put the Cowboys back on even terms after Washington took the lead early in the fourth quarter. As the announcers pointed out during that game, Romo misses one practice every week to rest his friable back, meaning Weeden gets first-team reps on a weekly basis. Even if Romo can’t go, Weeden is a decent fallback plan for the division-leading Cowboys.
And, regardless of who is under center, the Dallas faithful can take comfort in knowing DeMarco Murray will be in the backfield. Murray is having by far the best season of his career. He has hit the 100 yard mark in each of the first eight games – the first running back in NFL history to do so – and leads the league in rushing by almost 300 yards. The one blemish for Murray this season is fumbles. Murray has put the ball on the ground five times this year and, each time, the other team has recovered it. Against Arizona, he will have to hold onto the ball extra tight. Arizona has four fumble recoveries on the year and are plus-nine in the turnover department, second best in the NFL. (As we’ll discuss shortly, turnovers are integral to Arizona’s success.) Murray may also find the holes a little extra clogged this week, as Arizona has a stout run defense which surrenders a paltry 77.9 yards per game on the ground (third best in the league).
Only two NFL teams are 6-1 on the year: the Arizona Cardinals and the Denver Broncos. Looking at the total offense/defense stats, the Broncos’ 6-1 record makes sense – they have the sixth best total offense in the league and the fourth best total defense – the Cardinals’ 6-1 records does not – they are 24th in total offense and 25th in total defense. On average, the Cardinals surrender 50 yards more than they gain each game. (The pass defense is to blame: Arizona is last in the league against the pass, giving up 302 yards per game.)
Yet, all Arizona does is win football games (unless they’re playing that other 6-1 team). A huge part of Arizona’s success can be attributed to turnovers. As mentioned, they have a plus-nine turnover margin, meaning they are getting more than one extra possession per game, on average. The Cardinals’ average margin of victory in their six wins is 7.6 points. How many points can you score in one possession, again?
Most of the remainder of Arizona’s success can be attributed to a bend-but-don’t-break defensive mentality. While the Cardinals give up a lot of yards, they don’t give up a lot of points. They have surrendered just 16 touchdowns on the season (fourth best in the NFL) and nine field goals (fifth best in the NFL). So teams have moved the ball down the field, but then either turned the ball over or stalled. (I haven’t found a “three-and-outs forced” stat online, but I would wager that Arizona would rank near the bottom.) If you’re wondering whether teams are just missing kicks against Arizona, the answer is: sort of, but not really. According to teamrankings.com, opponents have converted roughly 81% of field goal attempts against Arizona, the exact same as against Dallas.
Dallas enters the game as three-point favorites. Whether Romo plays or not may be key. Though Weeden looked good against Washington, that is a very small sample size. He was prone to turnovers in Cleveland and there are serious doubts about whether he can exploit Arizona’s league-worst pass defense. That said, the key metric in the game, whether Romo plays or not, may be turnovers. If Dallas can stay even in the turnover department, they stand a good chance of winning with or without Romo.
(Photo credit: Bigcats lair at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped from its original.)