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Thursday Night Football: Will the Cowboys Derail the Streaking Saints?

The 10-1 Saints are trying to keep pace with the Rams for home field advantage. Can they knock off the red-hot Cowboys on the road?

For the third week in a row, we have a monster matchup on paper. Two division leaders are set to square off, with the Dallas Cowboys, tied for the NFC East lead, facing off with one of the looming giants in the NFC, the 10-1 New Orleans Saints.

Per our power rankings, the Saints lead the pack, while the Cowboys are a bit farther back at 17th. Don't count the Cowboys out, though -- they have won three in a row and have home-field advantage for this one.

So, who will come out on top and keep their stranglehold on their division race? Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

At the quarterback position, the Saints bring a decided advantage into this contest, thanks to an absurd 2018 campaign posted so far by Drew Brees.

In reviewing the 30 quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs this year, Brees has no equal. In peeping Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, he blows the field away with a mark of 0.48. In terms of Passing Success Rate, or the percentage of drop backs resulting in positive NEP, Brees continues to make a mockery of the competition, leading with a mark of 61.20%.

Things haven't been so great for Dak Prescott, who ranks only 24th in Passing NEP per drop back with a mark 0.05. In terms of Passing Success Rate, he's been even worse, ranking 28th among signal callers (43.32%). If there is one silver lining for Prescott, it's important to note that since the addition of Amari Cooper, in terms of Passing NEP per drop back, Prescott has posted three of his best four games in 2018.

Both signal-callers seem have been pretty average in pushing the ball downfield. In terms of Average Intended Air Yards (IAY), which measures the average air yards a passer throws on all attempts, Prescott's mark of 7.7 IAY ranks 22nd, while Brees' mark of 7.4 IAY ranks 26th.

In terms of situation-neutral pace, neither team is moving the fastest. The Saints clock in 19th (31.31 seconds), while the Cowboys rank 20th (31.45).

With the Saints having a clear-cut edge at quarterback, does anyone have a decided edge at the running back spot?

Running Back Play

If you like outstanding running back play, this is the game for you, as both teams feature a stable of fantastic running options.

Among the 44 running backs with 80 or more carries in 2018, Alvin Kamara checks in fourth among running backs in Rushing NEP per rush with a mark of 0.17. Backup Mark Ingram, if it's even fair to call him that, may have 60 fewer carries than Kamara after serving a four-game suspension to begin the season, but he's still be highly effective as a runner, ranking 12th with a Rushing NEP per carry mark of 0.07. It's a two-headed monster attack without a doubt.

While the Saints' duo has been amazing, ignoring the work of Ezekiel Elliott in 2018 would be a mistake. Among that same group of runners, Elliott has blasted his way to a 0.10 Rushing NEP per carry mark, good for 10th, and has done it with extremely high volume -- his 217 rushing attempts leads the NFL.

Name Rushes Yards Yds/Att Rush NEP/Carry Rank Rush Success Rate Rank
Alvin Kamara 150 706 4.71 0.17 4 47.65% 7
Mark Ingram 90 440 4.89 0.07 12 49.44% 6
Ezekiel Elliott 217 1,074 4.95 0.10 10 43.78% 17

Both teams have solid running games ready to go, but will these defenses be prepared to stop them?

Defensive Matchup

In looking at numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, this is a tale of two solid defenses, and the Cowboys have the advantage here. Dallas ranks 9th, while New Orleans comes in 14th.

Digging deeper into the 'Boys, they've been really good against the run and mediocre against the pass, ranking 4th against the run but only 19th against the aerial attack. New Orleans, on the other hand, has been similar -- they've balled out against the ran, ranking 6th, but drop to 14th against the pass.

The Saints have been good at bringing the heat to the opposing quarterback. In terms of Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate, which measures sacks plus intentional grounding penalties, New Orleans ranks 13th with a mark of 7.5%, while Dallas has been a bit worse at only 21st (6.7%).

While New Orleans ranks well per our metrics, they have espoused a bend-but-don't-break attitude, as they rank 27th in yards allowed per drive (36.65), while Dallas ranks far better at 11th (31.31).

However, the Saints have shined in forcing turnovers, ranking 11th (17). The Cowboys have lagged behind, forcing only 13 (7 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries).

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