With an emphatic victory over a bitter division rival last Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys catapulted themselves into first place in the NFC East.
Led by one of the frontrunners for league MVP at quarterback, as well as an edge rusher who is one of the leading candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Cowboys are dominating on both sides of the ball.
They’ve reeled off five straight victories in which they’ve scored at least 30 points in each – first time in franchise history they’ve done that in a single season – while outscoring the opposition by 23.2 points – first time since 1970 the team has a plus-115-scoring differential over a five-game span.
They are one of the NFL’s hottest teams and look like a force nobody wants to face right now.
Congratulations on all your recent success, Dallas, you’re now a road underdog against a team that currently sits in 11th place in the AFC on Sunday afternoon (on FOX).
While the Cowboys are barreling towards the playoffs, the Buffalo Bills are a battled-tested team coming off a signature victory of their own but have work to do to make the postseason.
When factoring that Sunday’s clash between a red-hot team going on the road to face a dangerous, yet desperate one, our supercomputer churned out a SmartRatings score of 78 – the highest on the NFL Week 15 schedule.
This supercomputer also believes the Bills will continue their playoff push and send the Cowboys to their first defeat since Week 9.
The Bills are one of six 7-6 teams in the AFC, but fall last in line among those six in the playoff pecking order.
With losses to the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals, they lose the head-to-head tiebreakers to those two 7-6 teams, and with a 4-5 record within the AFC, they also find themselves losing the tiebreaker of win-loss records in conference games to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texas (all 7-6).
Although they have four games remaining to jump past four teams to make the playoffs, the Bills have the best quarterback situation among those other 7-6 clubs with Josh Allen lining up under center and our model likes their chances to be one of the final seven coming out of the AFC.
Heading into Week 15, we’re giving the Bills a 63.6% chance of making the playoffs – sixth highest among AFC teams, ahead of the Texans, Broncos, Bengals, Steelers and Colts.
Just over a week ago, we pegged their odds of making the playoffs at 35.4%, but last Sunday’s thrilling 20-17 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium showed the moxie of a team that has what it takes to make the playoffs.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are in the playoffs. At least, as far as our supercomputer is concerned. It has given them a 100% chance of making the playoffs for a third year in a row.
They can officially punch their ticket to the postseason with a win over the Bills, though there are 14 other scenarios in which they can make the playoffs this weekend that don’t involve a victory. Hence, our supercomputer’s confidence in their postseason chances.
While last Sunday’s 33-13 beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles gave Dallas the current tiebreaker over its rivals for first place in the NFC East based on its better record within the division, finishing at the top and securing a home playoff game won’t be easy.
If the Cowboys and Eagles both win out, Philadelphia would wrestle back first place as it would end up with the better conference record. That scenario certainly seems possible given the Eagles have the NFL’s easiest strength of schedule over the season’s final four weeks with their opponents owning a combined 19-33 record, while the Cowboys have road games with the Bills and AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins and a home date with the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions in a 13-day span.
While the Cowboys put the rest of the NFL on notice with their convincing win over the Eagles by finally beating an upper-echelon team, there’s still one more box Dallas needs to check – beat a winning team on the road.
Last Sunday’s victory extended the Cowboys home winning streak to 15 games – second longest in franchise history. And while Dallas is making Jerry’s World a house of horrors for opposing teams, there’s a good chance the Cowboys won’t be hosting any playoff games – we’re giving their odds of winning the NFC East at 24.0% compared to 76.0% for the Eagles – so Dallas needs to figure out how to beat a good team away from AT&T Stadium.
So far this season, it’s been a night and day difference between how Dak Prescott and the offense play at home and on the road.
Since 2015, no team has had a larger drop-off from home scoring to road scoring in a season than Dallas’ difference of 16.2.
The Cowboys’ only road victory during their current five-game winning streak came over the hapless Carolina Panthers, and now they’re going to take the field in one of the most hostile environments in the NFL.
The Bills are 5-1 in Orchard Park (they also suffered a “home” loss to the Jaguars in London in Week 5) with their only defeat at Highmark Stadium coming on a last-second field goal by the Broncos on Nov. 13.
Not that Bills Mafia needed any additional reason to be boisterous, but a late afternoon game with extra tailgate time ahead of a matchup with a team everyone loves to hate should make for a rambunctious atmosphere in upstate New York.
The weather could also play into the Bills’ favor with wind and rain in the forecast. If that’s the case, keeping the ball on the ground would be the way to go, which also plays into the Bills’ hands.
BUF Key: Feed the Cook
Dallas boasts one of the NFL’s best defenses, ranking third in total yards (289.9), fourth in opponent scoring (17.9 points per game) and sixth in yards per play (4.90).
Stopping the run, though, has been an area where the team is vulnerable.
On the season, opposing teams are achieving successful running plays at a 39.0% clip – the fourth-worst rate in the NFL. And on first downs, when running the ball is most expected, the Cowboys are allowing runs of 4 or more yards 48.9% of the time – fifth highest in the league.
Since Week 10, they’ve surrendered 17 runs of at least 10 yards, with 14.4% of all opponent rush attempts gaining 10+ yards – the fifth-worst rate in the NFL.
Over that same span, James Cook is averaging 3.05 yards before contact – the fifth-highest rate among 37 backs with at least 40 attempts – and has 11 runs gaining at least 10 yards. With 55 carries since Week 10, that rate of gaining 10+ yards on 20% of carries is the best among qualifying backs.
Percent of Rushes for 10+ Yards Since Week 10 (Min. 40 Carries)
- James Cook, Buffalo Bills (20.0)
- Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers (18.9)
- Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (18.6)
- Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers (18.0)
- Devin Singletary, Houston Texans (17.7)
Cook kept the Kansas City defense off balance last week with 58 yards on 10 carries, along with five receptions for a career-high 87 receiving yards.
That marked the speedster’s fourth straight game with 100+ scrimmage yards – the longest stretch by a Bills running back since LeSean McCoy had five in a row in 2016.
In the past few weeks, Cook has seen his role in the offense increase, as he’s now coming out of the backfield to catch more passes. He has 16 receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the last four games after catching 22 passes for 211 yards with one TD in the season’s first nine weeks.
Continuing to feed Cook the ball would be Buffalo’s best bet to move the chains, as Dallas’ run defense has been suspect. It would also help take some of the pressure off Allen, who has been mistake-prone and will likely be the focal point of the Cowboys’ defensive plan of attack.
DAL Key: Keep the Pressure On
Having led the Bills to the divisional round of the playoffs each of the last three years, Allen is widely considered one of the top QBs in the league.
Only Prescott (28) has more passing touchdowns than Allen (25), and with a 25-yard TD pass to Cook and a 6-yard touchdown run last week, he became just the third QB in NFL history with 25+ passing touchdowns and 10+ rushing scores in a season, joining Cam Newton in his 2015 MVP season and Kyler Murray in 2020.
While Allen helped lead a late game-winning drive at Arrowhead last week, he also threw an interception with the Bills up 14-0 late in the second quarter that changed the momentum of the game, leading to the Chiefs’ first touchdown.
Turnovers have been an ongoing issue for Allen, who has an NFL high-tying 14 interceptions – the same number of picks he had all of last season with 92 more pass attempts.
Ten of those interceptions have come during Allen’s nine-game streak with at least one pick – the longest single-season streak by QB since Payton Manning had a nine-gamer in 2015.
He now faces a Cowboys defense that’s tied for fourth in the league in interceptions (13), led by DaRon Bland’s NFL-best eight picks. While Dallas has a ball-hawking secondary to match up with Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and Dalton Kincaid, that success starts up front.
The Cowboys’ pass rush this season has been relentless, ranking fifth in pressure rate (40.3) and fourth in sacks per passing play (9.0).
In the win over the Eagles, Micah Parsons sacked Jalen Hurts once to give him 12.5 on the year, making him just the second player in NFL history to register 12+ sacks in his first three seasons, joining Hall of Famer Reggie White.
It might be a bit premature to discuss Parsons’ Hall of Fame résumé, but the Cowboys edge rusher is certainly on the right trajectory for joining White in Canton. He’s been named an All-Pro each of his first two seasons and can make a strong case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Year 3.
Containing Parsons will be Buffalo’s No. 1 objective in passing situations, and for the most part, the Bills’ offensive line has done a good job of protecting Allen. Buffalo has allowed a league-low 18 sacks and Allen’s rate of 3.7 sacks per passing play is just a tick below Patrick Mahomes at 3.6 for the lowest in the NFL.
Last week against a formidable defensive front, however, the Chiefs were able to muscle their way into the backfield, knocking Allen off his game.
The Bills registered a season-worst pressure-allowed rate of 56.3 (they had a rate of 32.4 through 13 weeks), while Allen was hit 10 times and under pressure on 27 occasions – both season highs.
Though Buffalo won – thanks in part to an inspired defensive showing – dropping back to pass that many times while being under duress typically doesn’t spell success.
There have been four games this season in which Allen has been pressured at least 15 times, and he has a 76.2 QB rating in those contests with six touchdowns and six interceptions. The Bills had lost the first three of those instances prior to last week’s win.
In the nine games he’s been pressured fewer than 15 times, Allen has a 103.4 rating with 19 touchdowns to eight interceptions, while Buffalo has gone 6-3.
It will be a tall order for the Bills O-line to keep Parsons and the Cowboys out of Allen’s face, seeing as Dallas has pressured opposing QBs 15+ times in seven games. The Cowboys are 10-0 when registering at least 10 pressures, losing their only three games when failing to generate double-digits pressures.