The Dallas Cowboys received an early Christmas present last weekend with a playoff berth in their stocking. Their performance on the field in upstate New York, however, was more deserving of a lump of coal.
Things were much jollier in south Florida, where the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins pulled out a 30-point thrashing without their top playmaker. Of course, that shutout victory came over a team that must be on Santa’s naughty list given its situation at quarterback.
Santa then gave the Cowboys another gift on Monday, when the Philadelphia Eagles loss moved them back atop the NFC East.
Both the Cowboys and Dolphins are atop their respective divisions, but finishing in first place could be tricky if they slip up this week at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens (on FOX).
Given the importance of this game for the division title hopes of these 10-4 teams, SmartRatings has given this Christmas Eve showdown a 79 on its excitement scale. That rating is tied for the highest rating of NFL Week 16, along with the Baltimore Ravens-San Francisco 49ers Christmas night clash.
Despite last Sunday’s discouraging 31-10 beatdown by the Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys clinched a playoff berth thanks to a loss by the Atlanta Falcons earlier in the day. They then astonishingly moved back into a first-place tie with the Eagles on Monday night when Philadelphia blew a late lead in a 20-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
While Dallas owns the current tiebreaker with Philadelphia, the Eagles have the easier road ahead with two games against the New York Giants sandwiched around a trip to face the three-win Arizona Cardinals. The Cowboys, meanwhile, next host the NFC North-leading Lions before visiting the Commanders in Week 18, so leaving Miami with a win is crucial to keeping their grip atop the division.
The Dolphins enter Week 16 with a two-game advantage over the hard-charging Bills, but that lead is a precarious one and could all but evaporate by the time Miami and Buffalo square off in the regular-season finale. While the Bills next face a Los Angeles Chargers team that was blitzed for 63 points in its last game followed by a meeting with the three-win New England Patriots, the Dolphins have the Cowboys and AFC-leading Ravens, so Miami needs wins to keep Buffalo in the rear-view mirror.
Although Dallas and Miami make up just two of the six NFL teams with double-digit victories, it’s sometimes hard to tell they are zeroing in on the playoffs.
The Cowboys look unbeatable at home, where they’re 7-0 and averaging nearly 40 points, but then look rather pedestrian when they hit the road.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, boast one of the most explosive offenses in the league – except when they’re playing another playoff-bound team. And that’s the same story for the Cowboys, who also don’t always stack up against top-notch competition, aside from a win over the Eagles in Week 14.
The Dolphins are one of six teams without a victory over a team with a winning record (0-3), joining the likes of the Las Vegas Raiders, Chargers, Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Commanders.
The Cowboys have just one win over a team with a winning record (1-3), and don’t find themselves in a much more glamorous group, sitting with the likes of the Cardinals, Patriots, Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears.
The other four teams with double-digit wins (Ravens, 49ers, Eagles and Detroit Lions) are a combined 14-7 against teams with winning records.
At one point or another this season, many considered either the Cowboys or Dolphins to be the best team in the NFL, though few would bestow that distinction on them today.
We still think both teams can hold the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end (our supercomputer gives the Cowboys a 12.2% chance of winning the Super Bowl and pegs the Dolphins at 9.8%), but a win this Sunday would go a long way in strengthening those predictions.
So both teams come into this meeting with something to prove, as they look to show they have what it takes to beat a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
Sportsbooks have the Dolphins as 1.5-point favorites, and our projection model agrees that they’re the best bets with a 55.8% chance of victory. Given the way things played out last weekend, it’s easy to see why.
MIA Key: RUN!
An inability to stop the run has been an ongoing issue all season for the underdog Cowboys, but that flaw was truly exposed last week.
Dallas was dominated on the line of scrimmage, as it allowed 266 rushing yards – its most since 2020 – with James Cook gaining a career-high 179 yards on the ground. Everyone knew Buffalo was going to run in wet conditions in Orchard Park, as the Bills ran on 49 of their 65 offensive plays, and the Cowboys couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Eight of Buffalo’s runs went for 10 or more yards and the Bills picked up first downs via a running play 20 times. Since first down distinctions began being tracked in 1994, it is the only time Dallas permitted that many first downs on running plays and just the eighth occasion by any team.
Since Week 10, the Cowboys have allowed 25 runs of at least 10 yards – two fewer than the Packers for the most in the NFL. This came after Dallas yielded only 12 runs of 10+ yards through Week 9 – tied with the Buccaneers for the third fewest.
The Cowboys are fully aware of their struggles to stop the run and expect opponents to take advantage of their shortcomings.
“It would be a stupid football team not to exploit some of the stuff you see that we have a problem with,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis told reporters. “I think we’ll definitely get that in the future. But I’m positive we’ll get it fixed, though.”
Lewis is right to expect teams to target their weakness but might be a little off in his assessment that the Cowboys will fix their problems – at least, this week.
No team has been better moving the ball on the ground this season than the Dolphins, who are averaging an NFL-best 5.08 yards per rushing attempt and have a league-high 26 rushing touchdowns. Their average of 3.1 yards before contact trails only the Ravens at 3.6, and their rate of successful running plays at 40.2% ranks fifth.
This is a recipe for disaster for Dallas, which is allowing the highest rate of successful running plays.
Percentage of Successful Running Plays Allowed
- Dallas Cowboys (41.3)
- Cincinnati Bengals (41.3)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (40.9)
- Denver Broncos (40.0)
- Minnesota Vikings (38.3)
- Arizona Cardinals (38.3)
Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane lead Miami’s ground attack and present myriad problems to Dallas’ already susceptible run defense with their speed.
The Dolphins like to run wide to the left sideline behind four-time Pro Bowl tackle Terron Armstead and guard Lester Cotton. They are gaining nearly a yard and a half more on running plays to the left sideline than the right sideline, averaging 6.80 yards per carry to the left – third-highest rate in the NFL – compared to 5.28 to the right – the eighth best.
Of Miami’s 116 running plays to the left sideline, 26 have gone for 10+ yards – the NFL’s third-highest rate at 22.4.
Looking across the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys have struggled mightily to stop runs to the left sideline. While they’re allowing opponents to rush for an average of 5.01 to the right sideline (13th in the NFL), their average of 6.14 rushing yards allowed to the left sideline is third worst.
Given Dallas’ woes, expect Mike McDaniel to have several running plays up his sleeve designed to attack the left sideline with Mostert and Achane.
Rushing Leaders to Left Sideline
- Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers (493 yards/7.47 averaged/1 touchdown)
- Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins (356/5.24/6)
- De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins (325/13.00/5)
- Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons (309/3.91/1)
- D’Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles (300/6.52/2)
Mostert rushed for a pair of touchdowns in last Sunday’s 30-0 win over the Jets to set two franchise records. His 18 TDs on the ground surpassed Ricky Williams’ previous mark from 2002 for the most in season and his 20 total touchdowns (which ties McCaffrey for the most in the NFL this season) bested the team record set previously by Mark Clayton in 1984.
Despite moving into the record books, Mostert wasn’t completely satisfied, as he was disappointed he was limited to just 42 yards on 15 carries.
“Yeah, I’ve got the record and everything, both records, but I felt like I didn’t help my team enough in the run game and that’s something that I’ve got to truly live with now,” he told reporters after being limited to just 2.8 yards per carry. “It’s just a standard that I’ve set for myself, and I’m just trying to climb that ladder.”
Motivated to play better, Mostert will have his sights set on running all over the Cowboys. Leaning on the run would also help ease Tyreek Hill back into the offense – if he plays.
The star receiver sat out last week with an ankle injury, though Jaylen Waddle stepped up with eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown. It’s unsure if Hill will be able to go in this matchup. If he does suit up, Tua Tagovailoa won’t need to force the ball to him if Miami can take strike the Cowboys defense where it’s porous.
DAL Key: Protect Prescott
The Cowboys faced one of the NFL’s toughest defenses last week and had little success moving the ball.
Dallas entered Week 15 ranking first in scoring (32.4) and fourth in total offense (381.5), but didn’t score a touchdown until less than three minutes remaining while sputtering to a season-low 195 total yards – averaging a mere 3.4 yards per play.
Part of the problems stemmed from six-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin leaving with a quadriceps injury, and the team is hopeful he’ll be able to return.
That would be great news for the Cowboys. The bad news, though, is Dallas will have to get up for another formidable defense.
Miami sacked the dynamic duo of Zach Wilson and Trevor Siemian a combined six times last Sunday to give it 48.0 sacks on the season – two fewer than the Ravens for the most in the NFL.
The Dolphins have racked up more than 40% of their sacks in three games, with 20.0 coming from last week, plus a pair of seven-sack games against the Giants in Week 5 and New York Jets again in Week 12.
While the two New York metro teams are the worst in the NFL at protecting their quarterbacks, as Giants have permitted a league-worst 76 with the Jets next in line with 61, the Dolphins are still one of the best teams at generating pressure – even when excluding their takedowns of the NY QBs.
Even after striking their game logs from Weeks 5, 12 and 15, the Dolphins are still generating a pressure rate of 40.5 and an adjusted sack rate of 6.6. The league average for pressure rate is 35.9 and league average sack rate is 6.7.
Dak Prescott felt the heat in the chilly rain last Sunday. He was sacked three times, and any momentum he and CeeDee Lamb had garnered following the Cowboys’ 33-13 win over the Eagles in Week 14 suddenly lost all steam as he averaged a season-low 3.94 passing yards per attempt and compiled a passer rating of 57.7.
Two-time Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb had 3.0 sacks last Sunday for the Dolphins to give him a team-high 9.5 on the season, while Christian Wilkins was credited with a half a sack to increase his already career high sack total to 8.0 for 2023. The only defensive tackle with more sacks is the Ravens’ Justin Madubuike with 12.0.
Wilkins is tied for fourth with 19 QB hits and is tied for third with 17.5 QB knockdowns, and even when he’s not sacking the quarterback, he’s routinely applying pressure on the QB so a teammate can bring him down.
Defensive Tackles, Adjusted Sack Rate Leaders (Min. 150 Pass Rushes)
- Justin Madubuike, Baltimore Ravens (5.3)
- Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills (4.9)
- Javon Hargrave, San Francisco 49ers (4.8)
- Christian Wilkins, Miami Dolphins (4.3)
- Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs (4.3)
The Cowboys offensive line will have its hands full with the Bills’ defensive front, especially if Martin can’t play – or isn’t at full strength.
Rookie T.J. Bass entered at right guard following Matin’s injury and was responsible for a half of a sack while registering an adjusted sack-allowed percentage of 3.7. The NFL average for right guards is 1.5.
Martin’s adjusted sack-allowed percentage is right at the league average at 1.5, while his pressure-allowed rate of 5.9 is better than the league average for right guards of 7.1.
Martin sat out one game already this NFL season because of an injured ankle in Week 3, and in that game, Prescott was hurried 12 times – three fewer than the most times he was hurried in a single game this season – in Dallas’ stunning 28-16 loss to the Cardinals.