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Cowboys cover but still don't look like top-tier team

Jeff Fogle
VSiN.com

September 26, 2017 12:16 AM

The Dallas Cowboys still aren’t back to last year’s form…but moved to 2-1 in the 2017 season with a Monday night road victory in Arizona. Numbers and notes, plus NFL Power Ratings and key college recaps Tuesday in VSiN City!

NFL: Cowboys pull away late for 28-17 victory over Cardinals 
It was only 7-7 at the half. Points went on the board down the stretch because of occasional big plays…on a night where neither offense could sustain much rhythm. Ultimately, Dallas had more balance, more playmakers, and a knack for creating better field position in a game that lacked turnovers.

Dallas (-3) 28, Arizona 17

  • Yards-per-Play: Dallas 6.1, Arizona 4.4
  • Third Down Conversions: Dallas 22%, Arizona 44%
  • Turnovers: Dallas 0, Arizona 0
  • Rushing Yards: Dallas 99, Arizona 49
  • Passing Stats: Dallas 13-18-0-174, Arizona 29-48-0-283
  • TD Drive Lengths: Dallas 33-46-50-75, Arizona 82-54

If you’ve been watching VSiN market reports from Ron Flatter, you know that a one-sided ticket count one way, but a noticeable money count the other way is showing what sharps have been betting. In football boxscores, an impressive yards-per-play total…with a crappy third down conversion rate…tells you that the offense mostly sputtered but had occasional big plays. Dallas spent the night punting or scoring touchdowns. They had three TD drives of 50 yards or less because they were able to force great field position off Arizona punts. Total yardage was actually 332-273 for the hosts because the Cards had the ball much longer. Arizona’s offense was a game-long mix of either getting the ball to one-man team Larry Fitzgerald (13 catches for 149 yards), or NOT getting it to him before a punt.

Dallas moves to 2-1 straight up and ATS on the season. They still seem to have lost a step given the relatively poor season form of their victims. Only two TD drives longer than 50 yards through three games. Arizona falls to 1-2 straight up, 0-3 ATS. They have the look of a 5-11 or even 4-12 type team when shorthanded at the running back position. Losses have been to Detroit (35-23, losing YPP 5.3 to 4.6) and Dallas (28-17, losing YPP 6.1 to 4.4). Win was in overtime over inept Indianapolis.  

NFL: New Estimated Market Power Ratings
Tuesday’s the day to update our estimate of how “the market” currently has NFL teams ranked on a Power Ratings scale. Here are the pro point spreads for Week 4 as of late Monday evening. From these, we’ll create couplets for putting teams on the totem pole. 

  • Chicago at Green Bay (-7/45.5)
  • New Orleans (-3/49.5) vs. Miami (at London)
  • Carolina at New England (-8.5/48.5)
  • LA Rams at Dallas (-8/46.5)
  • Detroit at Minnesota (no line, pending status of Bradford)
  • Tennessee (-1.5/44) at Houston
  • Jacksonville (-3.5/39.5) at NY Jets
  • Cincinnati (-3/40) at Cleveland
  • Pittsburgh (-3/44.5) at Baltimore
  • Buffalo at Atlanta (-8.5/48.5)
  • NY Giants at Tampa Bay (-3.5/44)
  • Philadelphia at the LA Chargers (-1/47)
  • San Francisco at Arizona (-7/45)
  • Oakland at Denver (-2.5/46.5)
  • Indianapolis at Seattle (-13/41.5)
  • Washington at Kansas City (-7/49.5)

We use a standard three points for home-field advantage. Studies have shown the actual value is fractionally less than that. Three works well enough for a general estimate. From the lines above, we create couplets showing how far apart those two teams should be…then we try to fit the couplet in the most logical spot on the scale. Green Bay is -7 over Chicago this coming Monday night…so we make sure Green Bay is four points higher on the scale. New Orleans is -3 vs. Miami in a neutral site game in London, so we make sure the Saints are three higher than the Dolphins. 

86: New England
84: Kansas City
83: Atlanta, Pittsburgh
82: Dallas, Tennessee, Oakland
81: Minnesota (with Bradford), Seattle, Denver
80: Philadelphia, Washington, Green Bay (some injuries), Carolina 
79: Tampa Bay, New Orleans
78: NY Giants, Detroit, Minnesota (with Keenum), Houston, Cincinnati
77: Buffalo, Baltimore, Jacksonville, LA Chargers
76: Chicago, LA Rams, Arizona, Miami 
72: San Francisco, Cleveland
71: Indianapolis
70: NY Jets

This was a tricky week because the market is trying to figure out what’s going on in the murky middle…where teams can look pretty good one game, and pretty horrible the next. 

Particularly awkward:

  • Chicago at Green Bay: Somehow the Packers are now only four points better than the Bears on a neutral field when it was more like 7-10 points to start the season. Yes, the Packers are dealing with multiple injuries. But Chicago’s two good point-spread outings were at home, and this is on the road. Important market forces have clearly been unimpressed with GB vs. Atlanta and Cincinnati the past two weeks. We settled on 80 and 76…which feels too low for GB, and maybe too high for Chicago. Is Green Bay that bad when shorthanded? Maybe. 
  • Miami vs. New Orleans in London: Miami was rated NINE points better than the Jets last week when laying six points on the road, while New Orleans was two points worse than Carolina neutralized. Obviously both teams had extreme results. Now the market shows the Saints three points better than the Dolphins on a neutral field. We went with 79 and 76…but the “right” read on the market could be off a bit in either direction. The erratic Saints are always tough to pin down. 
  • New England only laying -8.5 to Carolina seems low based on prior standards for the Patriots, and how poorly the Panthers have played on offense. We dropped New England to 86 as a result, but that still puts Carolina at 80. Carolina only feels like an 80 if other teams are handing them points. Can’t imagine the market would be thinking of the Pats as an 85 (or worse), even with their shaky home showings.
  • Cincinnati is -3 at Cleveland, which equates to six points better neutralized. Cincinnati finally had a good half in Green Bay, but followed that up with a poor one in an OT loss. The Browns hung within three of the Steelers on this field back in Week 1. We went with 78 and 72…but Cincinnati hasn’t spent much time looking as good as 78 thus far. Maybe Cleveland’s just a 71, and 77-71 is the right call. 
  • Pittsburgh is -3 at Baltimore, which also equates to six spots on our scale. Has the market now decided Baltimore is awful after having them at -3.5 most of the week over Jacksonville on a neutral field? Is Pittsburgh NOT getting penalized for poor road results in Cleveland and Chicago in advance of a tougher road spot here? We settled on 83 and 77 because Pittsburgh isn’t playing like an 84. But that puts Baltimore even with Jax, which seems an over-reaction to last week. Maybe the line will drop to Pittsburgh -2 or -2.5 during the week, which would at least lift the Ravens up to 78. Or maybe the market is just assessing the Ravens a penalty for flying back from England…even if the team barely showed up on the other side of the ocean. 

Will be interesting to see if any lines move through the week. This mix of parity and inconsistency can create headaches for oddsmakers and gamblers alike. 

College Football: A quick recap of key stats in marquee matchups, with an eye towards forecasting this weekend and beyond
Let’s take a quick look at four high profile matchups from this past weekend before they get too small in the rearview mirror. We’re going to leave out Michigan/Purdue because both of those teams are off this week…and the 28-10 final score is a fairly accurate representation of how that game went. In some others…

Penn State (-12) 21, Iowa 19
Yards-Per-Play: Penn State 5.8, Iowa 6.1
TD Drive Lengths: Penn State 75-65, Iowa 21-74-80

You probably know that Penn State CRUSHED Iowa in total yardage (579-273). If you watched the game, ABC talked about the yardage stats all night. If you missed the game, it’s been fairly well-publicized since. What hasn’t been as well publicized is that Iowa won yards-per-play! How could that happen? Penn State ran 99 plays, compared to just 45 for the Hawkeyes. Both moved the ball in fits and starts…enough for two long TD drives apiece. Penn State was just 6 of 18 on third downs, while also missing two of four field goals. Iowa was 3 of 11 on third downs and missed its only FG try. As “potent” as Penn State seems, that style of offense HAS to finish drives well or it’s mostly just spinning its wheels while eating clock. It mattered here…and it’s likely to matter in important league games down the road. Making big plays in the middle of the field doesn’t ultimately matter much if you can’t move the chains or reliably convert field goals. 

Penn State is -17 this week vs. improving Indiana…a game that could get interesting if Indiana avoids miscues, and doesn’t wear themselves out with fast break football (great first half, horrible second half vs. Ohio State earlier this season). Penn State will put up big second half numbers if the Hoosiers do wear down. Iowa is plus 3 at Michigan State, which doesn’t feel like much respect off of this loss. Difficult schedule spot for the Hawkeyes, though. 

TCU (plus 13) 44, Oklahoma State 31

  • Yards-Per-Play: TCU 5.7, Oklahoma State 6.8
  • Turnovers: TCU 1, Oklahoma State 4
  • TD Drive Lengths: TCU 75-62-42-75-48, Oklahoma State 90-78-79-47

A big hit for the “Mason Rudolph is going to win the Heisman” and “Oklahoma State is going to surge into the Final Four for the Big 12” schools of thought. Still time for that. But Rudolph became harried and mistake-prone against an aggressive defense. This wasn’t Tulsa, South Alabama, or disappointing Pitt. That said, this was very much a turnover driven loss rather than getting outclassed. Okie State won total yardage 499-469, while gaining more than one extra yard-per-pay. Good test coming this week in Lubbock, where Okie State is -9 at Texas Tech. Neither Rudolph nor Okie Stat can afford another mistake-filled outing. TCU is idle this week before hosting West Virginia. Will be fun seeing how the middle tier of TCU, West Virginia, Texas, and Kansas State is going to work itself out. TCU isn’t yet upper tier with this win because of the yardage. We’ll stay open-minded. 

Notre Dame (-3) 38, Michigan State 18

  • Yards-Per-Play: Notre Dame 5.9, Michigan State 5.9
  • Turnovers: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 3
  • TD Drive Lengths: Notre Dame 78-24-80-62, Michigan State 75-71

A misleading final score. Notre Dame had an interception return TD, and a very short drive to boot. Michigan State gained almost 500 yards! Total yardage was 496-355 for Sparty. The Irish were more efficient, so I won’t try to make the case ND didn’t deserve the win. But…if you allow almost 500 yards to MSU, you’re going to be in some trouble against better opponents on your schedule. Shouldn’t matter this week at -22 vs. Miami of Ohio. You already know Michigan State hosts Iowa. 

USC (-17) 30, California 20

  • Yards-Per-Play: USC 4.7, California 4.9
  • Turnovers: USC 2, California 6
  • TD Drive Lengths: USC 74-4-33, California 60-47

Probably the most important boxscore in today’s recap. If you were watching other games during the midday TV window, you may not have realized that USC was so unimpressive. You can see two of the Trojans' three TD drives were very cheap. The Trojans benefitted from SIX California turnovers. If you focus on USC’s offense…you see a group that couldn’t reach 5.0 YPP in a game where they were supposed to score 40 points according to the market price. This after similar scoreboard underachievement vs. Texas the week before. Yes, the Stanford win was stellar. Mostly disappointment otherwise. They’re not playing like a Final Four entry…nor like a team that should be favored over Washington in a projected Pac 12 Championship showdown. USC is only -3.5 or -4 this coming Friday night at Washington State. And State has played a very weak schedule. More on that game later this week. California is plus 14 at Oregon in a tough schedule spot. Can Cal clean up its turnover issues? 

Back with you Wednesday for our next weekly handicapping tutorial. If you’re reading today’s newsletter entry on our website home page, you can subscribe to VSiN City for weekday email delivery by clicking here. Subscribers are also sent links to very handy betting sheets from the South Point. Have you checked out the most comprehensive weekly handicapping reference source in the industry? Point Spread Weekly costs just $9.99 per week, or $99.99 for the rest of the season. 

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