Straws on a Camel’s Back: 5 biggest plays from Cowboys’ Week 9 defeat

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The Dallas Cowboys rode into Week 9 with a six-game winning streak and their quarterback, Dak Prescott, returning from an injured calf that held him out the prior week. With a high-powered offense and a defense coming off of their best game of the season, the Cowboys hosted the Denver Broncos in a rare noon kickoff at AT&T Stadium.

The Broncos entered the matchup with a six-game winning streak of their own, winners of six consecutive matchups with the Cowboys going back to the 1995 season. For the season, the Broncos were 4-4 losing four in a row before edging by the Washington Football Team with a 17-10 win.

On paper, this was a game that the Cowboys were favored to win easily. Unfortunately for Dallas, the Broncos were having none of that. A mixture of failed third and fourth-down conversions for the offense and big plays allowed by the defense added up to a bad day for Cowboys fans as the Broncos won, 30-16. Those sixteen points scored by Dallas made the score appear closer than the game actually was. Denver’s defense set the tone early and brought a lot of pressure against Prescott while the Broncos’ offense broke tackles and gashed the Cowboys with big plays. Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail.

Here are the five biggest plays of the game using Expected Points Added (EPA) and Win Probability models from rbsdm.com. EPA is a formula that takes historical data and applies it to every play to determine if it increases or decreases a team’s expected points given the outcome of that play. Every down and distance has a level of expected points; the likelihood a team will score on that particular drive based on that situation. Therefore EPA measures the shift in expected points as a result of a specific play.

Play 1: 1st Q- 15:00, Tony Pollard returns the opening kickoff 54 to the DEN 47

Cowboys WP: 80% EPA: +1.7

The Cowboys got off to a great start to the game with Pollard returning the opening kickoff 54 yards to set the offense up with starting field position on the Denver 47. Pollard caught the ball in the end zone and broke two tackles while fighting with Broncos defender for additional yardage as he made his way past midfield. A great start to a not so great game.

Pollard finished the day with 132 total yards, 89 of those coming in the return game.

Play 2: 2nd Q- 12:21, 1st and 10 at the DAL 44. QB Bridgewater to WR Patrick for a TD.

Cowboys WP: 53% -> 48% WPA: -5% EPA: +4.1

Leading 6-0 with 12:21 to go in the 2nd quarter, the Broncos had a 1st and 10 on the Cowboys 44-yard line. QB Teddy Bridgewater found Tim Patrick for a touchdown pass. The Broncos offensive line did a nice job of creating a clean pocket for Bridgewater to step into and Patrick was able to get just enough separation against CB Trevon Diggs. It also marked the first time in the game that the Cowboys win percentage fell below 50%. Unfortunately, the Cowboys would be under 50% win probability for the remainder of the game.

Patrick finished the game with four catches for 85 yards and 1 TD.

Play 3: 3rd Q- 12:55, 4th and 14 at the DEN 17. WR Malik Turner blocks punt, last touched by Dallas, Broncos ball.

Cowboys WP: 27% -> 20% WPA: -7% EPA: +3.1

If there was ever one, clear sign that this just may not be the Cowboys day, this was it.

The Broncos received the ball to start the second half and the Cowboys defense held them to a three-and-out. As Broncos punter Sam Martin caught the snap, Turner found a lane up the middle and reached out his arms to block the punt. The ball bounced one yard past the line of scrimmage and off of CB Nahshon Wright back into the arms of Broncos STer Jonas Griffith. Griffith caught the ball and the Broncos regained possession.

After some confusion in the announcing booth it was announced that because the ball crossed the line of scrimmage and touched a member of the return team it became a live ball again and was viewed the same as a muffed punt. Wright said after the game that he saw the ball in front of him and wanted to try to make a play but had never been in this position before.

What started as a great play by Turner that could have potentially given the Cowboys great starting field position ended with a costly error by Dallas that led to another scoring drive for Denver.

Speaking of Turner, he led all Cowboys receivers with 5 receptions and brought in both of the Cowboys touchdowns for the game.

Play 4: 3rd Q- 12:38, 2nd and 10 at the DEN 19. RB Javonte Williams rushes for 30 yard gain.

Cowboys WP: 22% -> 17% WPA: -5% EPA: +2.9

Shortly after the blocked punt/muffed punt, the Broncos found themselves with a 16-0 lead and 2nd-and-10. The play call was a handoff to RB Javonte Williams to the left. The Cowboys defense read the play well as DT Justin Hamilton and Diggs met Williams two yards downfield, but both defenders went high on a running back with a lot of power.

Williams pushed both Cowboys defenders an additional 10-yards downfield before shedding the tackle attempts on route to a 30-yard pickup. Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse chased him down to stop the bleeding but the damage was done.

Williams ended the day with 17 carries for 111 yards with 52 yards after contact.

Play 5: 4th Q- 13:21, 3rd and 14 at the DAL 43. QB Bridgewater to Hilton for a 40 yard gain.

Cowboys WP: 2% -> 0% WPA: -2% EPA: +5.1

With the Cowboys already down 19-0 in the early fourth quarter, the defense desperately needed a stop on a 3rd-and-long. Instead Bridgewater found WR Kendall Hilton on a seam route for a 40-yard gain. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn dialed up a blitz, rushing six in hopes of sacking Bridgewater or forcing an incompletion, but the QB was able to get rid of the ball quickly and hit Hilton in stride for a big gain.

Cowboys CB Anthony Brown was in coverage and made the tackle on the three-yard line. The Broncos would cash in on a QB sneak three plays later to make it a four score game and end the Cowboys chances of a comeback as their win probability hit 0%.

Bridgewater finished the day 19 of 28 for 249 with two total TDs.

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