Sunday Night Football Preview: Can the Saints Ride Home-Field Advantage to an Upset Win?
Week 4's matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints gives us our third straight Sunday night game featuring a home underdog, as the Cowboys are favored by 2.5 points in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. With 70% of the bets and 73% of the money backing the road Cowboys, according to oddsFire, the betting public doesn't think the Saints home-field advantage will produce a win. Bettors see this as a high-scoring game, as 87% of the bets and 94% of the money is backing the over of 47.0 points.
Will the Superdome continue to be a high-scoring environment even without Drew Brees at quarterback? Can the Saints scratch out a win with help from their raucous home crowd? Let's see what our projections say.
Passing Game Preview
The Cowboys come into this game relatively healthy in the passing game, with wide receiver Michael Gallup, who is missing his second straight week with a knee injury, being the lone exception. At 0.56 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, the Cowboys' passing offense ranks second in the NFL behind only the Kansas City Chiefs through three weeks of play. Dallas has certainly faced an easy passing schedule thus far, however, as the New York Giants, Washington, and Miami Dolphins rank 31st, 29th, and 32nd, respectively, in pass D, per our schedule-adjusted numbers.
Regardless of the opponents, Dak Prescott's efficiency has been impressive. Prescott ranks among the league leaders in most passing categories while playing for one of only three offenses to have more rushes than passes in 2019. Amari Cooper and Gallup have been big beneficiaries of Prescott's efficiency, as the receivers rank 11th and 12th, respectively, in Reception NEP per target among all players with more than 10 targets. Filling in for Gallup, Devin Smith has been even more efficient than Cooper and Gallup on his eight targets and just needs an expanded workload to benefit in this explosive passing game.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints' defense is healthy, as well, with only defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins looking questionable for Week 4. The Saints' D has struggled so far in 2019, ranking 23rd in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. While they have played a tough slate of opposing quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, and Russell Wilson, there are reasons to be concerned about their ability to contain the Cowboys' efficient passing attack. The Saints have given up big games to opposing number-one receivers, such as DeAndre Hopkins, Tyler Lockett, and Cooper Kupp, while also allowing chunk plays to deep threats like Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller, which bodes well for the Cowboys' receiving corps.
For the Saints' passing attack, the question remains whether Teddy Bridgewater can keep this offense afloat while Brees misses action. Bridgewater's Week 3 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back of 0.43 actually compares favorably to Brees' 0.42 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back from Week 1, and the two have combined to give the Saints the seventh-best passing attack in 2019 going by that metric. It will be interesting to see if Bridgewater can maintain this efficiency, as he certainly benefited from playing with the lead after the Saints produced first-half punt return and fumble return touchdowns last week.
Bridgewater found success targeting Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara in Week 3, but the rest of the passing game was non-existent. If the Cowboys' defense can limit the damage from Thomas and Kamara, Bridgewater may struggle to find success with his secondary options. With Tre'Quan Smith already ruled out, the Saints have one less option to turn to.
The Cowboys have the 15th-ranked pass defense, according to our metrics, and will be without standout safety Xavier Woods for the second straight week. The Cowboys have yet to face an above-average quarterback, and the fact that they still are without an interception is a bit concerning. They also have the third-worst sack rate in the league heading into Week 4, recording a sack on 3.8% of drop backs. In Week 1 the Cowboys were able to limit Saquon Barkley to 19 receiving yards on six targets, an encouraging sign for their chances of bottling up Kamara through the air. Evan Engram has done the most damage on this Cowboys defense through three weeks, but the Saints don't appear to have a tight end capable of matching that production.
Rushing Game Preview
It should come as no surprise to see the Cowboys with the fourth-best rushing attack in the league, as they have recorded 0.24 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush in 2019. Ezekiel Elliott remains one of the league's best runners, and his 0.22 Rushing NEP per rush ranks among the league's best -- significantly ahead of Tony Pollard's mark of 0.10.
The Saints' defense enters Week 3 with the 21st-ranked run defense, allowing 0.06 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush. They have given up efficient games to Carlos Hyde, Todd Gurley, and Malcolm Brown this year. They were able to shut down Chris Carson last week, but this Cowboys offense poses a much bigger threat, especially if they don't fall behind early like the Seattle Seahawks did.
When the Saints have the ball, they will feature the league's 20th-ranked rushing attack with -0.09 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush. They had success against the Houston Texans 30th-ranked rushing defense in Week 1 but have struggled otherwise and will likely look to get the run going in Week 4 as they keep adapting to life without Brees. Kamara's mark of -0.06 Rushing NEP per rush will need to be improved if the Saints want to pull off the upset against the Cowboys.
Defensively, the Cowboys have allowed -0.13 Adjusted Defensive NEP per rush this year, good for the ninth-best mark in the league. Week 1 provides some hope for the Saints' rushing attack, as Barkley ran for 120 yards on 11 carries for the Giants in their matchup against the Cowboys, and Kamara is a similarly gifted runner. Otherwise, the Cowboys locked down the rushing games of Washington and Miami. This may end up the key to the matchup, as a big game on the ground could help spark a home upset for the Saints.
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