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2014 NFL Week Sixteen Preview: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys

The Colts head to Dallas to take on the Cowboys in a game which should feel like a Playoff game. Can the Colts finally beat a Playoff-bound team on the road this season?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Colts have already clinched the AFC South, which takes a tiny bit of luster away, but this Sunday when the Colts travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys, it's going to have a Playoff feel to it. It's obvious that the game is much more important to the Cowboys than it is to the Colts, as they haven't clinched anything yet, but the importance for the Colts is more a confidence thing than it is for seeding.

The Colts are just 2-3 against teams that are still in Playoff contention, and 0-2 on the road, so this is the last chance for the Colts to actually do something on the road before the Playoffs start, because we haven't seen much, and they're going to have to win at least one game on the road to get to the Super Bowl. They catch a little bit of a break playing in Dallas, where the Cowboys really haven't played all that well this year at 3-4. But I don't care about qualifiers: the Colts need to play well Sunday.

Injuries are the biggest storyline for Sunday, for both teams. For the Colts, both T.Y. Hilton (hamstring) and Vontae Davis (groin) missed practice Wednesday, which would be a huge loss for the Colts, as I'd argue those are the two most important Colts (save Andrew Luck) to have on the field. The loss of Davis would be the worst, as he's going to have the task of shadowing Dez Bryant, a very important task if the Colts want to have any success Sunday. For the Cowboys, RB DeMarco Murray had surgery on his hand Monday, but was practicing Wednesday with a padded glove, but didn't really have the ball in his left hand. They insist he'll play, but the real question is how effective he'll be when he has the ball. I'll talk more about it below, but I think the Colts will be at an advantage if Murray plays extensively.

The Colts haven't had much success against the Cowboys, going just 5-9 all time and 3-4 since moving to Indianapolis, and recently it hasn't been pretty. Four years ago Peyton Manning threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and the Colts lost 38-35. In 2006, the Colts were 9-0, up a touchdown in the 4th quarter, and they let Marion Barber score twice in the 4th to win the game 21-14. The Colts last beat the Cowboys in 2002, where the Cowboys were quarterbacked by Chad Hutchison. Yep, it's been a while.

How do these two teams match-up? Let's take a look at the numbers and find out:

Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Cowboys (Adjusted):

Statistic Colts Cowboys
Offense Rank Defense Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
DSR 73.8% 6 66.2% 3 74.7% 5 72.1% 27
ANPY/A 6.888 6 5.218 10 6.945 5 6.266 24
Turnovers 2.28 30 1.82 15 1.87 23 1.78 16
Yds/Drive 32.84 9 28.31 12 33.38 7 32.94 28
ToP/Drive 2:39.0 21 2:25.0 2 3:01.0 3 2:40.0 14
Yds/Play 5.913 5 5.254 21 5.691 6 5.802 28
Orange Zone Eff 59.8% 8 56.2% 21 64.4% 4 62.5% 30
First Downs/Drive 1.85 12 1.57 7 1.88 10 1.77 26
3rd/4th Down 42.1% 9 32.3% 2 47.2% 1 45.0% 31
Avg Start Pos 30.0 16 26.8 2 29.5 19 29.0 13
3 and Outs 3.76 17 4.77 4 2.65 2 3.25 27
RZ Eff 66.9% 11 65.2% 17 77.3% 3 72.3% 26
Plays/Drive 5.626 18 5.257 3 5.890 10 5.642 18
Penalty Yds / Play 0.749 11 0.849 14 0.693 7 0.821 17
RB Success 44.4% 14 47.4% 26 51.9% 4 44.3% 17
Yds/Carry 4.24 11 4.60 29 4.75 5 4.54 26
Overall 10 9 5 29

Keys to the Game:

  • Dallas's running game has been one of the best in the league this year, in large part to DeMarco Murray, but I think it's more a function of that Offensive Line, which is easily the best in the NFL at both run and pass blocking. Because I think the OL is a much more important piece, I actually think (like I said above) that it will be to the Colts benefit if Murray plays the majority of the snaps over Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. The Colts run defense isn't that good, and if Davis is out, there goes a Safety that could creep into the box, as he'll be needed to double Bryant. Not many times do I think the running game plays a big part in the outcome, but Sunday I believe it will.
  • Having said that, Tony Romo and the passing game are a top 5 unit in the NFL, and compliments the run game very well. I don't want to get into the chicken-egg game of which helps the other more, but regardless the Cowboys can and will throw the ball successfully, and the Colts will have to stop them.
  • The Cowboys drive stats are excellent, ranking in the top 10 in every category, so it's going to be imperative to get stops. Also, they rank tops in the NFL on 3rd/4th Down, so it's strength on strength, with the Colts ranking 2nd on Defense. Whoever wins on those plays will most likely win the game.
  • Why does the Dallas Offense rank just 5th, even though they have a lot of single-digit ranks? Turnovers (sound familiar?) We all know it's been the Achilles Heel of the Colts, but the same goes for the Cowboys. Winning the Turnover battle will probably win the game, which means getting at least two because I don't think the Colts can go a full game without one.
  • Much was made of how bad the Cowboys Defense was going to be before the season, but the talk has mostly subsided, thanks to their Offense winning them a bunch of games. As you can see, the Defense is still at the bottom of the league, and gets worse when you use just the home stats. If the Colts Offense can't get out of their two-game funk Sunday, I'm going to be really worried.
  • The Cowboys can't get anyone off the field on 3rd/4th down, ranking 31st, so we need to see the Colts staying in 3rd and manageables, then converting them to keep drives alive. They were awful last week, so they'll need to turn it around this week against a team that loves letting opposing Offenses stay on the field.
  • Look for some shots down the field against the 28th ranked Defense in Yards per Play, something we saw the last time the Colts Offense looked good against the Redskins. Airing it out will also open up everything underneath, as well as the running game.
  • They like giving up points when they are deep in their own territory as well, ranking 30th in Orange Zone Efficiency and 26th in the Red Zone. The Colts have actually been really good recently converting deep drives into points. They just haven't got there often enough.
  • Did I mention Turnovers? Please, just keep the Dallas Defense out of the end zone. That's all I ask. Their Offense doesn't need help scoring points, like Houston's did. A Cowboys defensive TD would be a killer.

For the first time since Week 1 (yes, really), the Colts are an underdog, getting three points. We've all seen the Cowboys struggles at home, and their Defense is just what the doctor ordered to get the Colts back to where they were a month ago, humming along at a blistering pace. I think the Colts will use this game as a dry-run for the Playoffs, as the Cowboys will be giving max effort, and they're going to finally beat a good team, on the road, giving them a leg up on the 3 seed over the AFC North teams. Andrew Luck is going to win a lot of people Fantasy Football championships Sunday.

Colts 27, Cowboys 24

Thursday Night Pick: Jaguars 21, Titans 18, viewers watching 10