Cowboys Injuries and QB Regression have caused Setback in Standings
The annual NFL Thanksgiving Day football games are upon us in Dallas and Detroit, but the Cowboys game is taking a back seat this year with neither the Cowboys (5-5) or Chargers (4-6) sporting a winning record while the NFC North division-leading Vikings (8-2) travel to the motor city to tackle division-rival Detroit (6-4) in a key contest. The Lions have beaten the Vikings in the past three meetings. The other turkey day treat is the nightcap, which may make many football fans wish they had not eaten too much at Thanksgiving dinner, as the bottom feeders in the NFC East Washington Redskins (4-6) host the NY Giants (2-8).
Opening and Current Betting Odds
The Dallas Cowboys opened a 1-point favorite at the leading offshore sportsbooks, but the San Diego Chargers are now favored less than 24 hours before kickoff at many betting shops including BookMaker and reduced juice shop 5Dimes. The total is 47.5 at a majority of sportsbooks, but 5 Dimes is holding at 48.
San Diego Chargers (-2)
Dallas Cowboys (+2)
This line is another exercise in understanding adjustments, current form, injuries and the perception vs. reality concept that can sometimes be influenced by the media and market perception and influence. While Dallas is just 3-3 SU and 0-6 ATS in their last six Thanksgiving Day games at home, and the Chargers are 8-2 SU vs. the NFC East with QB Rivers at the controls, it's the recent results and change in perception that has really influenced this line.
Remember when the Chargers started the season 0-4? Los Angeles was a 3-point 'Dog at Denver in week 1, and were never a threat until a late rally and missed field goal on the final play resulted in a 24-21 defeat. In week 2 Dallas traveled to Denver, and the Cowboys were a 2.5-point road favorite but were blown out by the Broncos 42-17. Elliott had just 8 rushing yards on 9 carries.
On Oct. 1 in week 4, Dallas closed a 5-point home favorite to the upstart LA Rams. That was the closing line, as I recall having a solid wager on the Rams +8 before the line was hit downward. Same with the total, as I had an even a stronger play and recommendation 'over' the total in an expected shootout. That number was also hammered up to 50 at kickoff, and I was scratching my head at the end of the first quarter with the game tied at 3. But the offenses did explode with each going over 400 yards in the Rams upset road win 35-30. That may have signaled the changing of the guard and a forecast of what was ahead for the Cowboys. That same week, the Chargers were a 2-point home favorite vs. the Eagles, and Rivers had to lead a one-dimensional pass attack from behind the entire game before falling to 0-4 in a 26-24 defeat.
That line tells you that the Chargers were still thought of pretty well despite a 0-3 start, while the market did not yet realize how dominant the Eagles would become. The Cowboys would have been approx. a 7-point home favorite over the Chargers had they played then, so you can see the market influence and impact of injuries as those two teams now prepare for a Thanksgiving football feast match-up. The Chargers 0-4 start put a sour taste in their fans and bettors mouths, yet sure enough, Los Angeles is on a 4-2 SU and 5-1 ATS run and won three straight games as underdog following their 0-4 start. We targeted the rematch with a bullseye against the Broncos, which the Chargers won 21-0. I thought Denver (3-7) was going to really struggle this season, and explained in our season over/under win article which has nearly cashed.
Injuries and especially key player injuries (or suspensions) impact so many teams, and the Cowboys are going through their rough stretch now without RB Ezekiel Elliott, Tackle Tyron Smith and LB Sean Lee. Kicker Dan Bailey has also missed four games but could return this week, while linebacker Anthony Hitchens (groin) was injured last week but is expected to play Thursday.
Dallas Dropoff and Struggles
No NFC team is poised for a bigger drop from last season than the Dallas Cowboys, who went 13-3 last year and secured a #2 playoff seed before losing to Green Bay. The Packers (5-5) are the other division winner and playoff team that has fallen hard this season, as the loss of QB Aaron Rodgers to injury has been just too much to overcome. Both teams look like they will be home watching the playoffs this season in the very competitive NFC, while the other two division winners last season, Atlanta (6-4) and Seattle (6-4) are also on the outside looking in at another division title. The Falcons hold the wild card tiebreaker over the Lions (6-4) and Seahawks, but still trail the Panthers (7-3) and Saints (8-2) in the NFC South. The Cowboys and Packers have some serious work ahead if they want to join the postseason party, but the NFC East is going to have a new champion this year as the Eagles (9-1) continue to dominate.
In comparison, three of last year's AFC division winners are leading their divisions again heading into Week 12 and Thanksgiving: New England (8-2), Pittsburgh (8-2) and Kansas City (6-4). Jacksonville (7-3) is trying to be a worst-to-first division champion in the AFC South after winning just 3 games last season, while the NFC's surprise is the LA Rams (7-3), who won just 4 games last season and lead the Seahawks in the chase for the NFC West crown.
The Cowboys went 7-1 last season at home and 10-6 against the spread (ATS) overall. This season started with turmoil amid the Ezekiel Elliott suspension before the star running back was allowed to play. The Cowboys are 5-5 both SU and ATS, but the recent injuries and one-sided losses at Atlanta (27-7) and home to Philadelphia (37-9) have put the Cowboys up against the ropes. Dallas has just one quality win this season vs. a winning team, beating Kansas City 28-17 during the Chiefs recent struggles. The loss last week to the Eagles was the third home loss for Dallas this season. The Cowboys do have hope with their next four games against teams with a losing record, but if Dallas does toss-up their turkey with another home loss Thursday, you can put the fork in them and carve up the rest of the turkey for leftovers as Dallas will be done. Elliott returns from suspension in week 16 vs. Seattle, but it could be too little too late by then.
Clearly the injuries to star linebacker Sean Lee and left tackle Tyron Smith have been significant. Smith's injury (back/groin) is more so than running back Ezekiel Elliott's, although the media and fans reactions would tell you that Elliott's suspension is more important. All three are Pro Bowl players, and the Dallas defense has allowed 138 rushing YPG in their last three contests including 215 last week against the Eagles. Lee's absence is significant in trying to stop the run, as Dallas had allowed 105 YPG with him in the lineup prior to the recent slide. Quarterback Dak Prescott posted a miserable QB rating of 26.7 in the two recent losses while playing without Elliott in the backfield, but the return of tackle Smith for Thanksgiving Day against the Chargers should give the offense and QB Prescott a big boost. Smith says he'll play, but certainly can't be at his best or full health. They will need him, as the Chargers have one of the league's premier pass-rushing and defensive duos in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and LA will be pressuring the QB throughout the contest with Prescott being sacked 12 times in the last two games. Unfortunately, the Chargers have the league's worst run defense allowing 138 rushing yards per game and rank No. 31 allowing 4.9 yards per rush. The Cowboys season stats still show them as a top-4 rushing team (140/game, but 115 last 3 games) and tied on top at 4.8 YPR, yet it's clear that Smith's return for Dallas is significant but must be seen before making a wager on Dallas.
Quarterback Dak Prescott's Regression
So what about QB Dak Prescott? While the offensive line is not as strong this season, it's still a top-rated unit and the running game has averaged 140 rushing yards per game this season even with Elliott missing some games. But Prescott's numbers have fallen off from last season. His QB rating is down from a strong 104.9 to 89.8. Yards per pass attempt last year was 8.0, but this year 6.7. Passing yards per game down from 229 to 214. Completion percentage down from 68% to under 63%. Prescott threw just 4 INT's all of last year in 16 games, and has tossed 7 interceptions in 10 games this year. He's also lost 4 fumbles and has been sacked 22 times after 25 all of last season. Is Prescott not adjusting as well to the added defensive pressure? Is his throwing motion off a bit? The scrutiny continues on the Cowboys, Prescott and all teams and especially those that are struggling or underperforming (we'll bash the Browns another day).
Two teams seemingly heading in opposite directions when the Cowboys host the Chargers. You know it's bad in Dallas when 7 of 8 local media members pick the Chargers to win this game. The Cowboys are struggling mightily and desperate for a win, but I'm not betting on it. Three weeks ago, many would have called for the Cowboys to win this match-up by two touchdowns. Now we're wondering if Dallas can even score two touchdowns. However, I'm not pulling the trigger on the Chargers, although I expect QB Rivers to have a strong game as the Cowboys couldn't slow other strong gunslingers in losses with QB's Wentz, Ryan, Rodgers and Goff all performing well and having success. The Chargers are in much better form and righting the ship following a 0-4 start, but their special teams remain very poor. I'm passing on this turkey treat, but will enjoy our turkey dinner and dessert and try to knock the stuffing out of the bookmaker on Saturday with some big rivalry games and live college football 'Dogs, and Sunday with one of the seven big NFL underdogs catching more than a touchdown.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Read more great insights from Jay here and follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay