Last Sunday’s marquee matchup brought the Kansas City Chiefs into Dallas to play the Cowboys in what will probably be star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s last football game for a while.
With two prolific offenses going against two spotty defenses, this was expected to be something of a shootout – and, for an 11 minute 44 second window that bridged the second and third quarters – it was. Beginning with 13 seconds left in the first half, the two teams scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions. The most dramatic of these coming on the very last play of the first half.
With two seconds left and Kansas City on their own 44-yard line, Dallas dropped almost its entire defense into the end zone – expecting the Hail Mary. What they got instead was a short toss over the middle to Tyreek Hill. Tight ends Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris had already released into the pattern and were there to provide a convoy as Hill zig-zagged the final few yards for the touchdown.
But, beyond this localized offensive explosion, the rest of the game belonged to the defenses – especially the Dallas defense – as they controlled the Chiefs throughout their 28-17 victory (gamebook).
The Big D is for Defense
Kansas City entered the game ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards. They went home with a modest 255. They entered the game ranked third in total offense, but gained just 323 yards. Through eight games, the Chiefs had averaged 4.9 yards per rushing play – the third best average in the league. Against Dallas, they averaged just 3.6. With 236 points scored already, KC was the league’s third-highest scoring team. The Cowboys held them to 17 points.
Kansas City’s only two touchdowns came on the last play of the first half and the first drive of the second half. Of their 323 yards, 125 came on the 11 plays of those two possessions (just a tick under 40%). Their other 44 offensive plays contributed just 198 total yards (only 4.5 per play).
With Elliott’s suspension about to kick in, there is concern about whether Dallas will be able to hold on to that last playoff spot. Clearly, no team can lose a player like Zeke and not sag at least a little bit. But there are a lot of other pieces on this Cowboy team. They still have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and they have talented running backs to run behind that line. In 24 carries so far this season, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have combined for 185 rushing yards. They still have Dak Prescott. And they have a defense that is turning the corner.
Dallas entered the bye week having allowed 30 or more points in 3 of their last 4 games. Through the season’s first five games, they were allowing 26.4 points and 339.8 yards per game – 118 of them rushing yards. In the three games since their bye, the Cowboys are surrendering just 15.3 points on 299.3 total yards per game – 73.3 of them rushing yards.
It’s not at all inconceivable that the other pieces of the Cowboy’s operation will keep the team in contention until Elliott makes his way back – which would be for the final two games of the regular season against Seattle and Philadelphia.
Things Not Too OK in KC
It is, in fact, possible that Kansas City – though not threatened with the loss of their star running back – should be more concerned than Dallas. With a 6-3 record, a two-game lead in the division, and a softening schedule ahead, the Chiefs will have only themselves to blame if they don’t make the playoffs. But the recent trend is concerning. Their 5-0 start did include victories over New England and Philadelphia in the season’s first two weeks, before the Patriots and Eagles started figuring things out. Their recent steak of three losses in four games includes losses to contending teams in Pittsburgh and now Dallas. After rushing for at least 112 yards in each of their first five games, KC has managed no more than 94 in any of the last four. Running back Kareem Hunt still leads the NFL with 800 rushing yards, but most of that yardage was amassed during the 5-0 start. He gained just 37 yards against Dallas, and over the last four games has totaled 191 yards on 58 carries (3.3 per).
As the season churns through its middle weeks, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what made Kansas City special early in the year was the dynamic running game. Their defense never has been elite, and while the passing game has still been effective it hasn’t been able to atone for the missing running game.
If the Chiefs want to entertain thoughts of playing deep into January, they will need to re-discover that running attack.
Jacksonville Provides the Model
Some 994 miles to the east of Dallas, the rising Jacksonville Jaguars provided something of a model for how the Cowboys might go about things for the next few weeks.
Faced with playing without their dynamic running back Leonard Fournette (also suspended), the Jags got 110 rushing yards from Leonard’s two backups Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon on their way to 148 rushing yards on the day. They also notably expanded the role of quarterback Blake Bortles.
Blake, who had never thrown more than 31 passes this season in a Jacksonville win, threw 27 times in the first half alone – on his way to a season-high 38 pass attempts. It was still a very safe passing attack. Blake made very sure the throw was there before delivering the ball. He wasn’t dazzling by any means. But with 24 completions for 259 yards and a touchdown, he was effective as he commanded an offense that converted on 12 of 18 third downs, and ran the clock for 40:14.
And then there was the defense.
Moving up to number 3 overall and staying the league’s top rated defense against the run, the Jaguar defense dominated in a 23-7 victory (gamebook). Having allowed, now, just 117 points, they also remain the league’s toughest team to score against.
They were especially dominant in the second half.
During the Bengals first series of the third quarter, running back Joe Mixon squeezed through the middle for a six-yard gain. On the last play of that quarter, Mixon would gain six more yards up the middle. Cincinnati’s other 5 running plays in the half lost a total of 7 yards.
The Bengals finished the last 30 minutes with 31 yards and just 3 first downs. They averaged 1.6 yards per offensive play.
The more they do this, the more this Jacksonville team begins to believe in itself. They remain one of the more compelling teams at the mid-way point of the season.
Incidentally, the last time that Jacksonville and Cincinnati played was Week Nine of the 2014 season. The Jags were beaten that day 33-23 as Jeremy Hill ran for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jacksonville was on its way to a 3-13 season, while the Bengals (who have fallen to 3-5 this season) were then on their way to a 10-5-1 record and a playoff berth. Life in the NFL can certainly change quickly.