Sports

NFL Analysis: Cowboys vs. Redskins on 3rd Downs

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This past weekend's renewal of the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry wasn't supposed to be that interesting. Sure, the Cowboys have shown a maddening ability to lose games this year, but since starting 3-0, the Redskins haven't shown any ability to win games whatsoever. Despite the seven game losing streak and the seemingly superior opponent, Rex Grossman and the Redskins reminded us just how difficult the road game can be in the NFL. It took four full periods of back-and-forth play and overtime for the Cowboys to finally dispatch the Redskins by a score of 27-24.

The Cowboys outplayed the Redskins, but not by much. Tony Romo's adjusted yards per attempt of 6.4 beat out Grossman's 5.6. Both teams were totally shut out in the running game, averaging under three yards per carry and under a 38% success rate. In such closely contested games, the victory often comes down to a smaller detail than passing efficiency or smothering defense. Last week, the 49ers used field position to take down the Giants. This week, the Cowboys won on the back of stellar third down offense.
 

Observe, third down WPA by offensive team in Week 11:

The colors represent expected points added -- the greener the better, the redder the worse. The Cowboys were excellent in both facets -- they consistently put up positive plays, recording +10 EPA, third behind Green Bay and Tennessee on the weekend. More importantly, though, they put up big, game-changing plays. The Cowboys posted a +72% WPA on 19 third down opportunities (including the game-winning kick in overtime, which accounted for 9%). The next closest squad to that mark was the Packers, way down at 46%.

Let's break down the big plays for the Cowboys:

This graph is each third down the Cowboys faced in order, labeled by quarter (5 indicating overtime). The height of the bar indicates WPA and the width indicates EPA. Mousing over the bar will produce full detail of the play in question.

The Cowboys didn't run roughshod over the Redskins on third downs by any means -- overall, they were 8-for-17 and committed one penalty (a false start in overtime) as well. But many of Romo's biggest completions came on these plays. A 22-yard first quarter touchdown to Dez Bryant, a seven-yard fourth quarter touchdown to Laurent Robinson, a 59-yard fourth quarter touchdown to Jason Witten, and a 23-yard pickup on third-and-15 to set up the game winning kick in overtime -- all four came on third-down passes and all picked up at least 10% of win probability and at least 2.5 expected points added.

The home field can be a great equalizer for bad teams. Even so, the GWP model still saw a solid 68% chance for the Cowboys to walk away from FedEx Field as winners. The Redskins were just one third down stop away form pulling off Week 11's biggest upset. Unfortunately, as the Redskins have likely come to learn over the course of their seven-game losing streak, almost doesn't count for too much in sports.

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