A 23-16 victory over the Giants on Monday night pushed the Cowboys to 2-1, and 3-0 all-time with Cooper Rush as the starting quarterback. Rush didn’t exactly light the world on fire, especially in the first half; Dallas took a tenuous 6-3 lead into the locker room with 81 yards of passing and a 57 percent completion rate for its quarterback. CeeDee Lamb didn’t help matters when he inexplicably dropped a deep ball that probably would have produced a touchdown, but when it mattered most, Rush came through, thanks in large part to the play of his star wide receiver.
Lamb was the most pivotal player in the second half of the game. It was never more apparent than on the Cowboys’ last touchdown drive, and there’s one number that tells that story.
That was the percentile change in win probability in the Cowboys’ favor when Lamb was targeted on their final touchdown drive. Let’s break that down a bit more.
The Cowboys took possession shortly after the fourth quarter started. The score was tied at 13. Neither team had taken control of the game. The Giants had racked up 284 yards of total offense (130 passing) while Dallas had tallied 280 total yards (145 passing). After forcing a punt, the Cowboys took over at their 11-yard line. Given the way the offenses were moving the ball, at first glance this drive didn’t appear likely to end in points. Although the Cowboys had driven for a game-tying TD on their previous possession, It seemed as if whichever team had the ball last and managed to get into field goal range would win.
Using the win probability model from nflfastR, we can see just how much of a tossup the game was at that time.
At that point, the passing attack under Rush hadn’t been too impressive. Lamb had only 39 yards receiving on seven targets. Noah Brown was the leading receiver once again, with 49 yards through three quarters.
Everything changed on the go-ahead drive.
A couple of Tony Pollard runs and a timely offside penalty gave Dallas a first down and a little breathing room. Then came this 17-yard pass to Lamb to get the Cowboys across midfield. The play also pushed the Cowboys above a 50 percent win probability for the first time in the final quarter.
After two short runs and a misfire to Lamb (the only incompletion of the drive), coach Mike McCarthy made an aggressive decision. On fourth and 4 from the Giants’ 41, McCarthy decided the best course of action was neither a long field goal nor a short punt. Instead, it was time to get the ball in the hands of his best offensive player. Rush was looking for Lamb the whole way on a quick strike four yards downfield, and Lamb made the play despite absorbing a big hit, keeping the offense on the field. (And for the record, both the nflfastR and ESPN win probability models suggested that going for it was the right call.)
This play, more than any other, swung the win probability numbers the hardest. If Lamb doesn’t make the catch, the Giants get the ball near midfield in the fourth quarter of a tie game, which would have put their win probability at around 60 percent. After Lamb made the catch, the numbers instead swung to a 60 percent win probability in favor of the Cowboys.
And Lamb wasn’t done.
After a quick pass to tight end Peyton Hendershot, Rush went back to Lamb on a reception he turned tantalizingly close into the go-ahead touchdown. Lamb was credited with 12 yards after the catch, and he earned the last few of those yards when he put his shoulder down and barrelled through Fabian Moreau.
The final bow of this phenomenal drive came on the next play. Lamb lined up one-on-one against Adoree’ Jackson—a very good cornerback. But on Monday night, particularly in the fourth quarter, Lamb was simply too hot to handle. Rush sailed a pass over the head and out of the reach of Jackson, to a place where only Lamb could get it. Lamb not only got it, but he also reeled in the pass with just his left hand. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, this pass had just a 31.5 percent completion probability, based on factors such as separation from the nearest defender and proximity to the sideline. A pass that more than likely should’ve fallen incomplete finished off an 11-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that put the Cowboys firmly in the driver’s seat.
All told, the Cowboys increased their odds of winning by 35.7 percentage points on that drive. The majority of the yardage came on big plays to Lamb. In that six-minute stretch, he caught 4 of 5 targets for 48 yards, producing four first downs and the game-winning touchdown. Football may be a 60-minute game, but sometimes a six-minute drive is enough to tell the whole story.