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Monday Night Preview: Prepare for a Close Battle Between the Cardinals and Cowboys

Per our metrics, the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys are two evenly-matched teams. Which squad will get a win tonight and move to 2-1?

This week's Monday Night Football contest features the Dallas Cowboys visiting the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. To this point, the Cowboys and the Cardinals have each had their ups and downs, and both squads are 1-1.

Last week, the Cowboys were dominated 42-17 by the Denver Broncos. Conversely, the Cardinals bested the Indianapolis Colts, 16-13, in a contest that required overtime.

According to our team rankings, which are based off our nERD metric, the Cowboys sit 17th in the league, and Arizona is one spot behind in 18th.

With these teams so close in our rankings, here are some key position breakdowns that could decide tonight's game.

Quarterback Breakdown

Beginning with the Cowboys, Dak Prescott has not matched his level or play from his rookie season. To start the year, he failed to eclipse 270 passing yards in each of his first two games. Additionally, he has only passed for three touchdowns, while accounting for two interceptions in these contests.

So far this season, among quarterbacks with at least 40 drop backs, Prescott ranks 23rd in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back with a clip of -0.09. For a point of reference, the 2016 league average for Passing NEP per drop back was 0.12. In terms of Passing Success Rate (percentage of drop backs that contribute to a positive NEP), Prescott ranks 17th overall (45.65%). While these numbers don't look great, Prescott has faced off against two notable defenses in the Broncos and New York Giants.

On the other side, Carson Palmer has been up and down through his first two games. On the year, he has 600 yards passing, but he has only thrown 2 touchdowns with an ugly 4 interceptions. Palmer is slightly above Prescott in terms of Passing NEP per drop back (-0.04, 20th). Conversely, he finished below Prescott in Passing Success Rate at 42.70% (also 20th on the season).

With both of these quarterbacks underperforming so far, a strong showing from either passer could determine the outcome of this game.

Running Back Breakdown

The running back position has been roller coaster ride for both teams -- to say the least. While Ezekiel Elliott's off-the-field issues have been debated ad nauseam, he will play in Monday's game, and it appears he may be available for the entire season.

Elliott started the season on a positive note, rushing for 104 yards in the win over the Giants. However, Elliott was a disaster in Denver, accounting for a mere eight yards rushing. On the season, he has yet to score a touchdown.

Looking at NEP statistics, Elliott comes in around the league average. Of the 21 running backs with at least 25 carries, Elliott ranks 10th in Rushing NEP per rush with -0.02. For context, the league average was exactly -0.02 in 2016. At the same time, Elliott ranks sixth in Rushing Success Rate. In 2016, Elliott ranked first in Rushing Success Rate among running backs with at least 200 carries. Week 2's performance appears to be an outlier, with Elliott's near flawless track record establishing him as one of the league's premier running backs.

On the other side, the Cardinals lost star running back David Johnson to injured reserve. In his place, they have turned to a committee consisting of Kerwynn Williams, Andre Ellington, and Chris Johnson.

In Week 2, Johnson led the team in rushing with 11 attempts for 44 yards. On the week, this was good for a 36.36% Rushing Success Rate (40.28% was the league average in 2016). Williams struggled even more than Johnson. He toted the rock nine times and finished with an abysmal 22 yards rushing. His Success Rate came in at 21.43%. Ellington was only mixed in sparingly in Week 2, getting two carries (his only two carries on the year). However, he led the teams in snaps with 30, after Williams and Johnson only played 18 and 17 respectively.

For the time being, this backfield is a three-way timeshare filled with inefficient runners, making the Cards a one-dimensional offense.

Defensive Matchup

As you can imagine, with both teams starting a little shaky, neither team's defense has been elite. The Cardinals rank 12th in defense, per our schedule-adjusted per-play metrics. Coming in a bit worse, the Cowboys rank in 23rd.

Starting with Arizona, their rush defense has excelled, ranking fourth in Adjusted Defense Rushing NEP per play. Their pass defense has solid, ranking 12th in Adjusted Defense Passing NEP per play. On the other side, Dallas comes in ranked 19th in pass defense and 21st in rush defense, per our metrics.

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