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Miami Dolphins vs Dallas Cowboys: Week 16 Preview & Prediction

My look at Sunday’s matchup between the Dolphins & Cowboys.

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins
Bradley Chubb turned in another excellent performance, the best among several strong showings by the Fins’ defensive players against New York.
Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

Count me among the many, many Fins fans who were very pleasantly surprised at last week’s win over the Jets. For those who didn’t see my Preview & Prediction article for that game, I had predicted a 20-17 loss. In my defense, a big part of that was based on earlier weather forecasts which were calling for heavy rains during game time. Well, the weather ended up being great, though the Fins were down a few more key starters than I had anticipated. By kickoff, I had steeled myself for a gut-wrenching loss. Instead, the Fins proved me (and more than a few others) wrong and re-ignited some real hope in my weary soul. Despite missing top-level players on both sides of the ball, Miami put the screws to the Jets right from kickoff and never let up, coming away with the shutout win.

My (thankfully) failed prediction dropped me to 9-5 in my straight-up selections on the year, and it marked the second time I was wrong about a predicted loss, the other being the season opener against the Chargers:

driftinscotty’s 2023 Straight Up Predictions

Game # Opponent Prediction Outcome My Straight Up Season Record
Game # Opponent Prediction Outcome My Straight Up Season Record
1 @Chargers L, 27-24 W, 36-34 0-1
2 @Patriots W, 27-20 W, 24-17 1-1
3 Broncos W, 34-17 W, 70-20 2-1
4 @Bills W, 34-24 L, 48-20 2-2
5 Giants W, 41-17 W, 31-14 3-2
6 Panthers W, 41-20 W, 42-21 4-2
7 @Eagles L, 27-24 L, 31-17 5-2
8 Patriots W, 31-20 W, 31-17 6-2
9 @Chiefs W, 27-24 L, 21-14 6-3
10 Raiders W, 31-10 W, 20-13 7-3
11 @Jets W, 24-10 W, 34-13 8-3
12 @Commanders W, 27-10 W, 45-15 9-3
13 Titans W, 38-13 L, 28-27 9-4
14 Jets L, 20-17 W, 30-0 9-5
Only the third time I predicted a loss, and I was wrong two of those times. That’ll learn me, I guess.

And now we enter the real Thunderdome of the season - a three-week stretch against top-level teams. It all starts with the Fins hosting the 10-4 Dallas Cowboys this Sunday at Hard Rock. What kind of team are we facing in Jerry Jones’ favorite toy?

Tale of the Tape

Here are the key team stats on the season for Miami & Dallas:

Key Team Stats: Dolphins & Cowboys

Stat Per Game Dolphins Cowboys
Stat Per Game Dolphins Cowboys
Points Scored 31.5 (1st) 30.8 (2nd)
Total Yards 414.1 (1st) 368.1 (6th)
Passing Yards 274.4 (1st) 251.6 (6th)
Rushing Yards 139.6 (4th) 116.5 (12th)
Points Allowed 21 (14th) 18.9 (5th)
Total Yards Allowed 293.4 (5th) 294.3 (6th)
Pass Yards Allowed 203.1 (10th) 176.9 (4th)
Run Yards Allowed 90.4 (4th) 117.4 (19th)
Net Turnovers 2 (14th) 9 (3rd)
Against Penalty Yards 47.7 (15th) 62.3 (31st),
NFL: OCT 08 Giants at Dolphins
Jalen Waddle broke out and spear-headed a relatively modest but highly efficient offensive showing for a unit missing Tyreek Hill and several offensive linemen.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

These are obviously stat rankings for two very good teams. Both rank in the top 5 in the NFL in several categories, and there are no obviously poor areas, aside from Dallas’ real issues with penalties. The Dolphins still boast the stronger offensive stats (as they do against every opponent), but the Cowboys are no slouch in this area.

Defensively, the two teams seem to be equal on balance, though their numbers against the pass and run are somewhat reversed from each other. This could set up some curious gamesmanship for the coaching staffs, as they try to scheme away from the opposing defense’s stronger areas.

What has Dallas actually looked like in the last two weeks?

Dallas’ Previous Two Games

These two games were an interesting watch. They featured just about every major strength and weakness the Cowboys have, in the span of just 120 game minutes.

Week 14: Vs Eagles: Two weeks ago, Dallas hosted their hated division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. This game was touted as a true heavyweight fight between two equally-matched, longtime NFC East Division rivals. What unfolded was the Cowboys playing fast and inspired, getting up fairly quickly on the Eagles, 10-0 by the end of the 1st quarter. Philly started committing tons of penalties and unforced errors (some of them were forced, though), and Jalen Hurts looked as out of sync as I’ve seen him in a couple of seasons. The Cowboys pressed the advantage by blitzing Hurts and using a sharp, balanced offensive attack to build the lead to 24-6 at the half. The Eagles did make it interesting for a few minutes after recovering a fumble by Prescott for a touchdown about five minutes into the 3rd quarter. Dallas responded by fighting through several of many penalties to keep tacking on field goals. The Eagles never found an answer to the persistent blitzing and tight man coverage by Dallas, and they were forced to watch the Cowboys steadily pull away on the leg of their outstanding placekicker, Brandon Aubrey. Dallas won a big one, 33-13 the victory moving them to 10-3 on the season.

Week 15: at Buffalo: In their followup to their seeming signature win against Philly, the Cowboys then went full Dr. Jekyl in Buffalo. The Bills' defense harassed Dallas into ineffectiveness early, forcing their way through a somewhat injury-hobbled offensive line and rattling Dak Prescott into being less than his usual precise self. On the other side of the ball, the Bills eschewed their typical aerial attack and opted for a bullying running attack that put them up 7-0 by the end of the first, then 14-0 before Dallas finally got on the board with a field goal to put it at 14-3. Dallas continued to commit dumb penalties, the Bills continued to lean into an effective ground strategy, and the refs threw the Bills a couple of bones, the result being a 21-3 lead at halftime. In the second, the Bills defense continued to harass a Cowboys offense that had little idea of how to play from behind, while the Buffalo offense doubled down on the run game. The Bills tacked on another field goal in the third, and then another touchdown a few minutes in the 4th to go up 31-3. That was pretty much all she wrote, except for a weirdly slow, 15-play touchdown drive by Dallas which felt more like an early scrimmage for next week than an earnest attempt to pull off a miracle comeback. In the end, the Cowboys take a 31-10 loss and drop to 10-4.

What I learned about Dallas from watching these two games:

  • Dak Prescott and this Dallas offense are a textbook front-running bunch. Let them get a two-score lead on you, and things get really difficult as they can keep their full playbook open and utilize the several solid weapons they have at the skill positions. In such situations, Prescott will look every bit the MVP candidate. If they get behind, though? Pretty different story, as Buffalo showed.
Dallas Cowboys v Buffalo Bills
Dak Prescott has looked like an MVP candidate for most of this season.
Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images
  • Their offensive line has been very good for nearly the entire year, but there may be some wear on those tires. Perennial All-Pro right guard Zack Martin went down in the Bills game with a leg injury and couldn’t return. His absence had an obvious impact, as the Dallas run game and pass protection were very pedestrian without Martin providing elite-level blocking.
  • The Dallas defense is amazingly quick, and Micah Parsons is an apex predator. As was repeated by the broadcast teams in both games, the Cowboys' defense is designed to play with a lead. In other words, to pressure the opposing quarterback up front and play man coverage in the backfield on obvious passing situations, confounding the QB into sacks and mistakes. It worked to a “T” against Philadelphia, against whom they jumped out early. Against Buffalo, not so much. To that point...
  • The Dallas defense, for all the speed and skill that they have, is susceptible to being bullied. Even before the Bills game, their run defense was middle-of-the-pack in the NFL. The Bills - who have a solid but not outstanding O line - were fully dedicated to the run game and steadily wore out and frustrated the Cowboys' defense (Josh Allen only went 7-15 in passing for 94 yards). Dallas dedicates most of its efforts to getting to the QB and blanketing pass catchers, and they seemed lost against a Bills offense that didn’t give them a chance to follow that script. In Buffalo, after the Bills went up 24-3, the vaunted Dallas defense just looked tired, frustrated, and virtually checked out.
  • Dallas is about as undisciplined a team as you’ll find this year. They committed 7 penalties for 60 yards against the Eagles, and (not as bad) five for 48 yards against Buffalo. They have the second-highest penalty yards per game average this year, so they will clearly give you free yards.
  • Dallas's special teams are really good, thanks in great part to Brandon Aubrey, who’s having an All-Pro year as a placekicker. You do not want to get into a field goal battle against this team.

So we have a Dallas team in a very similar spot to our Dolphins: 10-4 records built almost exclusively on blowing out vastly inferior teams. Rosters with plenty of top-level talent. Questions about whether either team can truly win a big game against a fellow playoff team. Dallas did answer that question two weeks ago against Philly, but Miami is still yet to do so. How do these two stack up against each other for Sunday?

Miami & Dallas Unit Matchups

Miami Offense vs Dallas Defense: Miami’s offensive line health will play a factor, since Dallas’ D line is all predicated on bringing fast and furious pressure. Curiously, their defense is somewhat similar to the Jets, another strong defensive unit that can blast through O lines, cause havoc, and force bad throws to their athletic backfield. While Tua and the offense didn’t light up that Jets defense, they did play a patient, clinical game that was plenty effective. And that was with three backups playing the entire interior O line. If the backup linemen can continue to hold down the fort, I think the Fins can get their impressive running back cadre going and replicate at least some of the success that the Bills had against Dallas’ defense. On top of that, Tua has always been strong against blitzes, which Dallas loves to do (they blitz the 8th-most in the NFL), and if Tyreek Hill is back (which looks likely), then they have two WRs who play extremely well against man coverage - something else Dallas runs quite often. Slight Advantage: Dolphins

Miami Defense vs Dallas Offense: The Cowboys' offense has plenty of legit talent on it, as evidenced by the many lop-sided wins they’ve put on the board this season. A roster that includes Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Tony Pollard, Zack Martin, in addition to several other above-average starters is going to run up the yards and points on any defense that lacks the talent, discipline, or intensity to keep up with them. If the Fins were playing this game in September or October, I wouldn’t think they could handle the challenge. Now, though? This has been a top-10, borderline top-5 defense since Jalen Ramsey returned to the field nearly two months ago, and the entire defensive crew has grown familiar with Vic Fangio’s system. The coaches kept three key defensive starters inactive last week - Jevon Holland, Xavien Howard, and DeShon Elliot - presumably to get the needed rest for this tough final run through December. If at least two of those players return to action (Holland and X are likely to), then I think Miami has the horses both up front and in the backfield to cause Prescott and the Dallas offense the kinds of problems we saw the Bills cause them. Slight Advantage: Dolphins

Special Teams, Coaching, and Other Factors

Special Teams: Miami’s special teams have arguably clawed their way to being “OK,” as opposed to well below average for the first half of the season. Mike McDaniel seems to have figured out not to rely much on Jason Sanders hitting any kicks beyond 50 yards, and Sanders has been doing fine with shorter kicks. The rest of the Fins special teams are fine. Dallas boasts a much stronger special teams group, mostly thanks to placekicker Brandon Aubrey, who has likely already punched his ticket as an All-Pro this year. The Cowboys are also solid in all other areas of the “third phase” of the game. Advantage: Cowboys

Tennessee Titans v Miami Dolphins
Mike McDaniel continues push the right buttons as a young head coach trying to learn from his mistakes. He’ll need to keep that progression on an upward trajectory this week, if he is to oversee what would be the biggest win to date during his time as Dolphins HC.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Coaching: I think it’s safe to say that we all know what Mike McCarthy brings to the table. He’s a sort of goofy uncle figure who knows NFL ball well enough to oversee very talented teams to double-digit wins, but since his Superbowl win nearly 15 years ago, his teams have had a penchant for losing focus or not having a counter-punch for a game or two late in seasons. For Miami, we’re now in uncharted waters for Mike McDaniel (also for us fans for the last 20 years or so) in that the team heads into the final three weeks of the regular season with a chance to scale the mountain and reach the summit to the #1 seed in the AFC. The team’s response to a gut-punch loss in primetime two Mondays ago was a great start to not repeating last year’s slide into nearly missing the playoffs. The win over the Jets also showed me that McDaniel is learning to vary the offensive schemes and adjust, based on roster limitations and the opponent’s strengths and tendencies. Both Dallas and Miami have excellent minds at the DC position in Dan Quinn and Vic Fangio, respectively, though Fangio has the more impressive resume. Advantage: Dolphins

Injuries: Though Miami does have several key defenders looking likely to return, they still have major health issues - you guessed it - on the offensive line. With two of the original starters already on IR (Wynn and Williams), the other three starters were all on the injury list this week. Robert Hunt has already been ruled out, right tackle Austin Jackson didn’t practice two days and is currently Questionable, and Terron Armstead is always a coin flip regardless of how much or little he practices. This will definitely hamper the offense to an extent, though we’ve seen Tua and this group circle the wagons and generate points under duress before. Dallas also has its issues with starters who are unlikely to play or will be battling through injury, most notably stud right guard Zack Martin. That, plus a couple of dinged-up starters on the Cowboys’ defense, may level the playing field in terms of any advantage conveyed by injury.

Penalties: Typically, penalties aren’t an area where the Fins are vastly different from their opponent, so I don’t mention it much. This week, though, it can’t be ignored. Since that criminally lop-sided officiating debacle in Philadelphia in week 6, the Dolphins have been pretty well disciplined, usually averaging a very acceptable 40 penalty yards per game. Dallas is another story. As mentioned already, they are ranked 31st in the league in penalty yards incurred. This is typically part of teams like theirs, with a defense that runs on max intensity and plays at MACH 10 speeds. In many games, the tradeoff in the form of big plays (sacks, interceptions, etc.) is worth the extra flags. Against talented, disciplined teams, it hasn’t worked out quite that way for them. Advantage: Dolphins

Locale: The game is at Hard Rock, and current forecasts are calling for a beautiful day. Temperatures in the 70s and mostly cloudy. Normally, I would call this a push since we won’t have the real South Florida heat and humidity to lend a helping hand. However, the Cowboys on the road have not been nearly as scary as when they play at Jerryworld in Arlington, Texas. At home, they’re 7-0 and the offense averages a whopping 39.9 points a game in the virtual dome that is AT&T Stadium. On the road, though, they are now 3-4, and the offense has put up a much more pedestrian 21.7 points per game. I think it’s fair to say that the game being in Miami offers an Advantage to the Dolphins.

Potential X-Factors: I never like the idea of a talented, playoff-bound team coming off an ugly, embarrassing loss like the Cowboys just did in Buffalo. I’m sure the Cowboys team captains will be working to fix some of the weaknesses that were exposed by the Bills, and the NFC East crown is still very much there for the taking. That’s plenty of motivation, though I feel like that’s blunted a bit by having a head coach who has come up short in these kinds of situations before. Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins, though they are coming off a very nice blowout rebound victory, also have a ton to play for. A win over the Cowboys would lock up the Fins’ playoff spot. There’s also endless chatter around the entire NFL mediaverse about how the Buffalo Bills are now hot on the Dolphins’ tail fins and ready to take everything that the Dolphins have the inside track on: the AFC East title, the #1 seed in the Conference, and the first-round bye that would come with it. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the entire team is still not over that late-game collapse against Tennessee two games ago. It certainly showed in the Jets game, and I feel like it was a hard enough slap in the face that one nice win over a Nerf gun offense isn’t enough to wash out the bitter taste.

Prediction: Dolphins 27, Cowboys 20

That’s right. I think we see our guys get their first truly big, signature win of the year over a playoff team. I think that with the return of several key starters, the defense will have enough to keep the Cowboys offense in relative check. On the other side, I don’t see this as being one of the “firework show” games that Tua and the lads have given us many times this year, but I think they do enough by using an effective ground game and timely passing. I do suspect that Tua throws a pick to Dallas’ ball-hawking backfield, but that he overcomes it and puts together a solid performance.

How are you all feeling out there, fellow Fins fans? Tight win? Blowout win? Head-spinning loss of some sort? Put it in the comments below.

Fins Up!!