It was supposed to be a potential NFC championship game preview. A clash between two of the NFL’s greatest historical rivals. A showdown among two of the league’s top offenses and two of the top defenses.
What materialized, however, was an emphatic beatdown in a one-sided laugher.
We, like most of America, had high expectations for last Sunday night’s matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, and projected it to be the most exciting game in the NFL Week 5 slate.
That, obviously, didn’t happen as the Cowboys suffered an embarrassing 42-10 drubbing.
We all make mistakes.
Although the Cowboys forgot to show up in California last weekend, we still believe Mike McCarthy’s team can put on a show worth tuning in for again on ESPN and ABC.
For the Cowboys-Los Angeles Chargers on Monday Night Football at SoFi Stadium, our SmartRatings has tabulated a score of 81. This is the second-highest calculation by our SmartRatings for a game this season, trailing only the 85 we awarded to the Week 1 Sunday night matchup between rival Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.
Of course, Aaron Rodgers’ first game with the Jets against a Bills team that is the three-time defending AFC East champion carries a bit more hype than Cowboys-Chargers, but we have reason to believe the final game of the Week 6 slate can deliver some excitement.
Sportsbooks also have assigned the Cowboys as 2.5-point road favorites with the highest over/under of the week at 50.5. Our predictive model also points to the Cowboys as the best bets, giving them a 52.4% probability of taking down the Chargers in Los Angeles.
We’ve projected the teams will combine for 48 points – tied for the most for any matchup this week. The offenses led by Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert have shown they can pile up the points, while both teams have also endured lapses defensively, which means we could be in store for a shootout.
But what also makes this matchup intriguing is both teams are desperate for a win.
The Cowboys are not only motivated to bounce back from Sunday’s humiliating thrashing, but they can ill afford to suffer another setback if they have any hope of winning the NFC East.
Their latest loss dropped their record to 3-2 and their chance of winning the division is currently down to 22.8%, but we’re still giving them a 77.7% chance of reaching the playoffs – the seventh-best probability of any team.
We’re giving the underdog Chargers, who should be well-rested coming out of their bye, a 39.6% chance of playing beyond Week 18. However, you can pretty much kiss any chance of them winning the AFC West goodbye with a loss after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos on Thursday night. A defeat would also drop their record below .500 and it would then be an uphill battle for them to make the playoffs.
So here we go. Two teams in need of a win square off under the lights in what should feature plenty of offensive fireworks.
The common thread between these offenses – and a storyline that will no doubt be mentioned throughout the TV broadcast – is Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore held that same position for the Cowboys the last four seasons.
Moore was hired by Los Angeles in late January, days after Dallas said he would not return as the team’s offensive coordinator, with the hope he could help Herbert and the Chargers offense become more vertical.
Under Moore, Los Angeles ranks fifth in percentage of successful offensive plays at 42.2 and is sixth in the league in average yards per play at 5.80 after averaging 5.29 yards in 2022.
Dallas, meanwhile, is 21st in the NFL in average yards per play at 4.95 – down from 5.42 yards per play last season. Of course, in some games the Cowboys look unstoppable offensively, and in other games – like last week – they look completely inept.
Much has been made about the Cowboys’ Texas Coast offense – AKA, the West Coast Offense – which utilizes short, high-percentage passes to open up a big play.
The inconsistent Cowboys are nailing the first part of offensive strategy, as Prescott is completing a career-high 69.4% of his throws while averaging a career-low 6.6 yards per attempt – but Dallas isn’t hitting the home run ball.
The Cowboys have scored just two touchdowns on pass plays of at least 20 yards and the team’s receivers have a big-play rate of 22.0% – the fifth-lowest mark in the league. The NFL average is 28.6%.
One way to fix this problem would be to throw the ball in the direction of CeeDee Lamb.
DAL Key: Get CeeDee Involved
In 2022, Lamb had a career-high 107 receptions – tied with the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler for fifth most in the league – on 156 targets – behind only Justin Jefferson (184), Davante Adams (180) and Tyreek Hill (170). He was named to his second Pro Bowl, and only Jefferson (28) and Hill (25) had more receptions of 20 or more yards than Lamb’s 24.
Lamb had a huge performance in Week 2 in the Cowboys’ 30-10 win over the Jets, as he matched a career best with 11 receptions for 143 yards. In the other four games, however, he’s made a minimal impact, totaling 215 receiving yards while catching exactly four passes in each.
Five receptions, however, is the magic number that typically results in a win for the Cowboys.
Best Record When Player Has 5+ Catches – Since 2021 (Min. 20 Games)
- A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans/Philadelphia Eagles (18-2/.900)
- CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys (19-5/.792)
- Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (21-6/.786)
- DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles (15-6/.714)
- Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-6/.700)
It’s not like Lamb hasn’t been on the field – he’s run a team-high 154 routes – but Prescott hasn’t been getting him the ball.
After being targeted on 29.1% of routes run last season – the seventh-high rate among the 54 receivers targeted at least 75 times – he’s being targeted 22.7% of the time this year.
His open percentage is down slightly from a year ago – 78.1% to 74.3% – but it’s still far and away the highest among Dallas’ other top wide receivers with Michael Gallup at 59.1% and Brandin Cooks at 57.9%.
Lamb has also compiled the exact same burn percentage as last season at 60.0%, so he’s still winning the matchup against the defensive back trying to cover him with regularity.
Despite being considered the team’s top playmaker at receiver, he’s been targeted six or fewer times three times – the same number of games he was targeted six or fewer times in 17 games in 2022.
If Dallas can contain defensive end Khalil Mack (six sacks against the Raiders), the opportunity is there for Lamb, Prescott and even Tony Pollard in the passing game to have a breakout performance in this matchup with Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles secondary has been picked apart in this young season, yielding an NFL-worst 299.8 opponent passing yards per game and having permitted 13 plays of 25+ yards. The only two teams to have surrendered more big plays have each played one more game (Bears, 14 such plays and Commanders, 15).
With seven passing touchdowns thrown against them, the Chargers are one of 11 teams since the start of the 2015 season to have allowed at least 1,300 passing yards and seven passing TDs in their first four games.
If there’s any silver lining, though, nine of the previous 10 teams made the playoffs!
Let’s pump the brakes a bit, though.
The cornerback trio Asante Samuel Jr., Michael Davis and Ja’Sir Tayor have one interception between the three of them and all three have registered a below average burn yards allowed per target. (Samuel, 11.08; Davis, 11.70; Taylor, 11.78; with the NFL average among cornerbacks at 10.44.)
Davis also has a big play-allowed percentage of 36.3 – the fourth-worst mark among the 52 corners targeted at least 20 times.
With a matchup against a penetrable defense, there’s no reason why Prescott can’t feed the ball to Lamb and Dallas’ Texas Coast offense can take some shots downfield.
LAC Key: Elevate the Offense With Ekeler
Ekeler said earlier this week there’s a 99% chance he’ll play against the Cowboys, so let’s assume he’s going to be on the field, as opposed to taking a 1% chance that he sits again.
Ekeler has been sidelined since suffering a high right ankle sprain in the Chargers’ 36-34 season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins. He had said earlier that he could’ve played in Week 4, but with the team having a Week 5 bye, it was decided he would take another week to rehab and be at full strength upon his return.
Last week’s bye also gave Herbert more time to recover from a broken finger he sustained on his non-throwing hand in Los Angeles’ last game – a 24-17 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. It marked the Chargers’ second win in a row to get them back to the break-even mark after an 0-2 start.
Herbert’s finger isn’t expected to impact his throwing, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have Ekeler back if it does end up bothering him and the Chargers have to lean more on the ground game.
Ekeler is one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL, adept at taking the ball on a handoff for a big gain or going out on a passing route and catching a pass from Herbert. His 107 receptions in 2022 were the second most by a running back in NFL history.
In the season opener, he racked up 164 scrimmage yards with 117 coming on the ground on just 16 carries and 47 coming on four receptions.
The Chargers ran the ball on 52.6% of their 76 offensive plays in Week 1, but that number dropped to 38% in the next three games with Ekeler out.
It’s not a huge surprise Los Angeles moved away from the running game with Ekeler sidelined, but the lack of a viable ground attack made the team one-dimensional and easier to defend. Since Week 2, the Chargers rank 28th in rushing yards per game (82.0) and 29th in average yards per rush (3.37).
With Ekeler back in the fold, Herbert has another weapon at his disposal.
Herbert is off to a sensational start to the season in the first year of Moore’s offense. He ranks third in passer rating (106.3), fourth in completion percentage (71.0), sixth in average air yards (8.73) and sixth in average passing yards (276.5).
Statistically, he’s enjoying a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and that spells trouble for Dallas.
The Cowboys allowed an opponent season-high 421 yards last week and are now without their top tackler after middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch landed on injured reserve with a neck injury he sustained Sunday.
Just as the Dallas offense has looked outstanding in some games and terrible in others, the same is true for the defense.
While we don’t know what to expect from the Dallas defense, the biggest concern is who these performances have come against.
Everyone was ready to hand the Cowboys the Lombardi trophy after their 40-0 trouncing of the New York Giants on Sunday night in Week 1 when they sacked Daniel Jones seven times, intercepted him twice and allowed just 171 total yards.
It certainly was an impressive showing, but knowing what we know now about Jones and the Giants, it loses a little luster. And the same can be said about their other two wins over the New England Patriots and New York Jets.
The three QBs they’ve beaten this season have the three worst passer ratings in the NFL in Mac Jones (74.2), Zach Wilson (73.4) and Jones (71.7).
The first time they faced a competent QB was last Sunday night and it was against the early frontrunner for MVP in Brock Purdy, and he absolutely torched them, completing 17-of-24 passes for 252 yards with four touchdowns.
Here’s the thing that should make Cowboys fans nervous, Herbert is a lot closer talent-wise to Purdy than he is to the other trio.
Veteran receiver Keenan Allen has been Herbert’s top target, catching 35 passes for 434 yards with his average of 108.5 receiving yards ranking fourth in the league. He has caught three of Herbert’s touchdown throws with tight end Donald Parham Jr. also catching three.
Allen is one of the best in the league in creating separation, registering an open percentage of 93.0 – second in the NFL among the 54 receivers targeted at least 25 times. His burn percentage of 69.8 ranks 10th.
NFL Open Percentage Leaders (Min. 25 Targets)
- Josh Downs, Indianapolis Colts (93.5)
- Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers (93.0)
- Za Flowers, Baltimore Ravens (90.0)
- Curtis Samuel, Washington Commanders (88.9)
- Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins (87.8)
The bye week should also give Joshua Palmer more time to get comfortable in the offense. He has replaced Mike Williams after he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the Chargers’ 28-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3. In Palmer’s first start of the season against the Raiders, the third-year pro had a season-high 77 yards on three catches.
Los Angeles has opened this season scoring 24 or more points in each of its first four games – its longest such streak since 2008 – and the offense is poised for another big outing against an inconsistent Cowboys defense. (The Chargers haven’t scored at least 24 points in each of their first five games since 1981, when they did it in their first seven.)
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are obviously coming off an ugly loss, but they have proven in the past they can bounce back – just as they did earlier this year when they routed the Patriots 38-3 seven days after a troubling 28-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3.
Since the start of the 2021 season, the Cowboys are 10-1 following a loss, with the offense averaging 34.2 points and the average margin of victory at 19.5 points.
Prescott has played in 10 of those games – winning nine – throwing 17 touchdown passes against only three interceptions while posting a 113.7 QB rating.
Will Dallas be able to continue the trend and wash off the stank from last week’s debacle to get back in the win column? Or will Los Angeles add more misery to the already wounded psyche of Cowboys fans and make it three victories in a row to move above .500 for the first time this season?
Check out the rest of our NFL picks, along with every team’s chances at making the playoffs in our season predictions. We also have all the college football top 25 predictions. And don’t forget to follow us on X and Instagram.