1. The Cowboys are coming off a bye.
It may surprise many, if not most of you, that I am actually touting Wade Phillips as a reason to like the Cowboys this week. After all, the man does have his detractors. But I've always been a little higher on him than most from a tactical standpoint, and I'm particularly high on his ability to coach after the bye week. Admittedly, the bye statistically unimportant in general (a fact I've pointed out before). But with the Cowboys -- particularly in the Wade Phillips era -- it makes a difference. In short, the Cowboys have been fantastic after byes under the Phillips regime. I went back and looked at the stats: they had a 36-21 win vs. the Falcons, a 14-10 win at Washington, and a 38-17 win vs. the Eagles. They covered the spread in all 3 games, and all 3 opponents were .500 or better. The Cowboys streak of post-bye wins also extends back 2 additional years into the Parcells' era.
Of course, it's possible with a sample size that small that the Cowboys' recent bye week success is just an anomoly -- a random fluctuation that has little relationship to what will happen this year. But I think it reflects Wade's ability to use the time off to ratchet up the sophistication level of the Cowboys' defensive schemes. Using Pro Football Reference, I went back and cross-checked the post-bye performances of Phillips' Chargers when he was the defensive coordinator, and they gave up an average of only 14.3 points in those games. Likewise, recent history suggests that the Cowboys have been effective at bouncing back from losses and using the bye to establish momentum.
I like their chances to do so again this year. The vibes are fantastic coming out of Valley Ranch; the Boys have been practicing intensely and well during the time off, with a focus on football and a blessed lack of hype or distraction. Moreover, they are, for the first time this year, quite healthy. And most importantly, I think scheme -- and time to gameplan -- matters an unusual amount when playing the Titans. The Titans present a unique schematic problem for opposing coordinators: Vince Young's ability to run the ball, combined with Chris Johnson's shifty and explosive running style, make scheme and defensive discipline paramount. The Cowboys have been making progress on both those fronts, and I think the bye hastens that progress.
I also just really like where this Cowboys team is right now. They're not too hyped (they're last in the division), but given the dearth of dominant NFC teams, they're far from dead. For those of us familiar with the Cowboys' history, that's exactly when this team thrives. They're flying under the radar, but they are coming off a terrific performance against a good Texans' team, and their front 7 on defense has the makings of a truly elite unit.
Thus, although more people are starting to pick up on the Boys' bye week secret, this line still seems a little low.
2. The Cowboys can take away what the Titans do best.
Put simply, the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme excels in stopping the run. They are terrific at containing elite running backs, as only 3 backs have rushed for 100 yards in the past 2 seasons (look at what AP did against them last time). Indeed, one of the real trademarks of the Phillips scheme has been its relative invulnerability to dominant rushing teams. Given the time to scheme provided by the bye, I think that the rush defense will be even stronger than usual.
If they can do that, I like their chances to win handily. VY, while an exciting young QB, has yet to show that he can take over a game through the air against a good team. In fact, this year the Titans' have shown an alarming inability to generate explosive vertical plays -- something teams really need to be successful in this wide-open league. Part of this is undoubtedly playcalling, but part of it is that both Chris Johnson and the offensive line look out of sync. You know they're in trouble because last week they had the game against the Broncos well in hand yet allowed the Broncos back in the game. If the Cowboys can limit their exposure to explosive running plays, which I think they can, I think they can generate a significant lead.
THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: THE TITANS PASS RUSH
Faithful readers know how much emphasis BadNFL places on a good pass rush, and the Titans have had a good one. Actually, they're tied for 1st in the NFL with 16 sacks. That said, it doesn't overly worry me this week. The Titans have impressively rallied to overcome injury thus far, but the loss of Derrick Morgan will really stretch their already precarious depth. It was arguably their lack of depth -- and the corresponding propensity of their defense to wear down late in games -- that enabled the Orton-led comeback last week.
Moreover, the Cowboys have been decent in protection this year. Doug Free, who was for many the team's biggest question mark as the season began, has played admirably. Surprisingly, the Cowboys also lead the league in fewest sacks allowed (although Alex Barron's holds saved a few otherwise sacks). While the Titans will get some pressure, I expect the Boys to be able to put up plenty of points to cover this spread. Before I even saw this line, I knew I would likely be taking it -- and at under a touchdown, I'm loving it.
Cowboys cover, and BadNFL finally gets off the schneid this week.
At the behest of one of BadNFL's good buddies, one of the co-authors of the fine blog that is Vandy Sports Line (a must read for any SEC or even CFB fan), I'm taking this opportunity to add a new feature. Modeled on the Las Vegas Hilton Suprecontest, about which I wrote here, I'm going to pick 4 additional games each week at the bottom of my main post. Although the focus will still be on my main prediction, and my analysis will be quite brief of the additional games, I figure it'll be a good chance to get more predictions out there and, in times like these, balance out tough-to-swallow loss streaks. This week, my additional games are:
- Atlanta -3 @ Cleveland. Cleveland, while better than we thought, isn't a great team, and they're coming off a feel-good win against the Bengals. I think Atlanta is still underrated, and like their chances to cover on the road.
- St. Louis +3 @ Detroit. St. Louis has looked quite good in the past 2 weeks, and Detroit has yet to win a game. Although I'm a little concerned about the Rams going on the road, I think it'll be a close game and I like the points.
- Denver +7 @ Baltimore. That was a huge, huge win for Flacco and the Ravens last week. I expect a major letdown against a frisky Broncos team this week. Seven points is too many.
- NO -7 @ Arizona. I don't love New Orleans right now, but Arizona is absolutely atrocious, and I think the Saints will eek out a double digit win.