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Monday Night Football Preview: An Improbable Playoff Battle

Despite holding records below .500, Washington and Dallas both have a shot at the postseason. Who bolsters their resume Monday night?

For the second consecutive week, we have a Monday night matchup featuring a pair of teams below .500. This time, though, one of them is in the thick of the hunt for their divisional crown. Thus is life in the NFC East.

After Sunday's missed Josh Brown field goal in overtime, Washington finds itself leading the division by half a game. What a time to be alive, indeed.

Washington will try to further its run at the playoffs Monday against a Dallas Cowboys team that is trending quickly in the opposite direction. Sitting at 3-8 with Tony Romo again down with an injury, they'd usually be looking toward the future at this point in the season. Yet, somehow, this game still means something to the Cowboys of the present.

If the Cowboys were to win, not only would they knock off a division rival, but they'd be within a game of the division lead. Can they pull it off?

Let's take a look at this matchup using numberFire's game projections page. This uses numberFire's algorithms to provide a projected final score, win percentages, similar games throughout history, and a look at how the game may play out relative to Vegas's lines. This is available to all premium subscribers for each game throughout the season, giving you something to obsess over once your season-long fantasy leagues have circled the drain.

We'll also be using numberFire's Net Expected Points to gain a broader perspective of all of this. NEP is a measure of efficiency for both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on the strength of opponents.

If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. Before each play, there is an expected number of points the offense will score on their current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP. The sum of all of these fluctuations in expected points over the course of the year is NEP.

There are plenty of questions surrounding this matchup going in. Let's examine four of them to see if we can gain a better understanding of this potentially impactful matchup.

Is Kirk Cousins Good Enough to Lead a Playoff Run?

A big part of the reason that Washington finds itself still in contention (outside of playing in a brutal division) is a couple of decent games out of Kirk Cousins. This has stirred discussions of a possible contract extension for the impending free agent. Has his play warranted such a discussion?

The key with Cousins appears to be expectations. Heading into the year (and even mid-way through October), nobody expected Cousins to claim a firm grasp on the starting job. However, with some solid performances at home, it seems as if Cousins has turned a corner.

Although Cousins certainly hasn't been bad, it seems those quality games are clouding a largely mediocre campaign. He sits 17th in Passing NEP per drop back of the 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. This puts him behind the likes of Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler, and Tyrod Taylor, and just ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, and Alex Smith. He hasn't been bad, but he also hasn't been quite as good as some have perceived him to be.

With all of that said, the question is whether or not he's good enough to lead a playoff run. Given that Washington is in the NFC East, he doesn't need to be a top-10 option to meet that bar.

Of the current starters in the division, Cousins is second in Passing NEP per drop back behind Eli Manning, who is 10th overall. Sam Bradford is 27th, and Matt Cassel is 36th. Given the competition, it is entirely possible -- as crazy as this sounds -- that Cousins may give Washington a slight edge in this department. 

Cousins won't have the easiest of matchups Monday, facing a Cowboys team that sits 15th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. They've had their ups and downs, but they certainly haven't been a detriment to the team.

Because of this, our projections see a down night for Cousins through the air. He's slotted for 255 yards on 36 attempts (7.08 yards per attempt) with 1.39 touchdowns and 1.02 interceptions. That's certainly not going to blow an opponent out of the water, and it's probably not enough to further the Cousins hype train.

Are Any Washington Running Backs Salvageable?

Although Cousins hasn't been superb this year, you can bet the house that he has been better than the team's running backs.

Even though Jay Gruden has been churning through the backs with regularity, none of the three-headed dumpster fire has emerged to claim the role as his own.

Entering Week 13, there were 39 running backs who had recorded at least 90 carries on the season. Of those, Alfred Morris was 34th in Rushing NEP per carry at -0.09. That's abysmal. However, it's still better than Matt Jones. Jones sits last in the league at -0.20, twice as inefficient as Morris, who -- again -- is terribly inefficient.

The average Rushing Success Rate (the percentage of rushes on which the player increases the team's NEP) of those 39 running backs is 39.81 percent. Jones is 29th at 36.73 percent, while Morris is 35th at 34.07 percent. There is really nothing redeeming about this group.

The one player who has been at least mildly competent in his role is Chris Thompson. He has turned his 27 carries into 4.18 Rushing NEP and a 51.85 percent Rushing Success Rate. When you add in Thompson's 15.36 Reception NEP, you get a guy who is at least doing his job. It hasn't been enough to warrant additional playing time in the eyes of the coaching staff, but the efficiency is far beyond what they have gotten out of Jones and Morris.

This is a maddening situation in the fantasy realm, as well, with the Cowboys ranking 29th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. If there were a clear-cut, competent top option, then you could easily plug them in. That's not the case here.

The projections do still see Washington racking up 117 rushing yards this week, though that would likely be due to volume rather than an outburst of efficiency. Morris is allotted 48 of those yards with 22 going to Jones, but your guess is as good as mine as to whom the coaching staff will pick to lead the way this time.

Does Dallas Still Have a Shot?

Yes, I realize this is an absurd question, given Dallas's situation and record. But, alas, we're still forced to ask it.

Entering Sunday's games, Dallas still had a 3.1 percent shot at making the postseason. The Giants' loss surely helped that a bit, and a win Monday would do even more. It's still not possible, right?

Unless Cassel picks things up, that seems like a fair assumption. He is one of only seven quarterbacks with a negative Passing NEP of the 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. Another is Romo on his 127 drop backs, though that's likely not an endorsement of Dallas's prospects moving forward.

So, what about Darren McFadden? Can they just ride him and only turn to Cassel when necessary?

This would also appear to be a reach. McFadden has certainly exceeded expectations, but he's still largely in the middle of the pack. He is 15th in Rushing NEP per carry of the 39 running backs with at least 90 carries and 17th in Rushing Success Rate. He has been fine, but it doesn't seem like enough to carry a team.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Washington's defense has been making some great strides of late. After a rough stretch earlier in the year, they are 17th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play and 16th against the pass. Against this Cowboys' offense, it appears as though it is Washington's defense that holds the upper hand.

With all of this, our projections are predictably not optimistic about the Cowboys' offense. Cassel is projected at 211 yards on 33 attempts (6.39 yards per attempt) with 1.06 touchdowns and 0.78 interceptions. The team will likely need more than that to pick up a win, and they'll likely need more if they want to keep those long-shot playoff odds kicking.

How Can Dallas Pick Up the Win?

Considering all of the strange stuff we've seen this year, it would be foolish to count the Cowboys out of Monday's game before it starts. Is there a blueprint for an upset here?

To find out, we can turn back to the game projections page to look at the most similar matchups. These show us how games that shaped up like this one have played out in the past.

The second most similar game (at an 89.91 percent match) came back in 2013 between the Pittsburgh Steelers (representing Washington) and the Tennessee Titans (representing Dallas). The Steelers were at home favored by six, but the Titans came away with a 16-9 victory.

Both offenses struggled mightly in the game, with the only points of the first 29 minutes coming on a safety on the opening kickoff. Jackie Battle put the Titans on top, 7-2, right before the half.

Then it was the Rob Bironas show, as he launched three consecutive field goals to put the Titans up, 16-2. A Jerricho Cotchery touchdown late made the score a bit closer, but Tennessee completed the upset. How'd they do it?

This game was less about the Titans than it was about the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger threw one interception and coughed up a fumble, and the interception helped create the Titans' lone touchdown. They weren't able to make up ground from that, and Tennessee was able to milk the clock with Jake Locker only throwing 20 passes.

The obvious takeaway here is that Washington doesn't need a huge game from Cousins to get the win; they just need him to not put their defense in tough spots. Cousins has never been shy of a turnover or three, so that's a frightening proposition for Washington fans. They need to hold onto the ball and force the Cowboys to air it out, or their grip on the NFC East lead could be loosened as quickly as they gained it.

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