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Biggest Movers

These teams experienced the biggest rise and fall from Week 4.

 

- As the vanguard of underachieving teams over the past few seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have totally bucked pessimistic preseason expectations in racing out to a 4-1 start.  The Cowboys experienced a nine-spot rise in the rankings this week, and enter the top 10 for the first time in any week over the past two seasons.

The Cowboys are just one of two teams with top-10 efficiency marks in both pass and run offense, along with the Saints and Browns.  DeMarco Murray is almost single-handedly staving off the increasing irrelevancy of running backs, posting a 53.2 percent success rate that trails only Chris Ivory among backs with at least 50 carries (Ahmad Bradshaw, who has 49 touts, would also rank ahead of Murray).

Murray's emergence as a throwback bellcow has significantly alleviated Tony Romo's burden.  The 34-year-old Romo has long elevated below-average teammates and coaching up to respectability, but after undergoing back surgeries in consecutive offseasons, he has evolved into a complementary threat within the Dallas offense.  Romo is on pace for his fewest attempts and touchdowns in years, but his current 69.2 percent completion percentage is also far above his 64.8 percent career rate.  Consequently, his 53.5 percent success rate is the highest mark of his career, and the third-highest in the league.

The Cowboys have also won both their one-possession games this season—their Week 2 comeback vs. St. Louis and last week vs. Houston—largely fueled by more clutch late-game performances from Romo.  I wrote last year about how Romo has actually been one of the league's most clutch quarterbacks over the past decade, a truth he has perpetuated in 2014.  In one-possession fourth-quarter situations, Romo has so far been in line with his exemplary career numbers:

Romo in 4Q, 1 possession games
 QB RatingTD:INT ratioCmp %Yds/Att.
2006-13100.52.364.08.6
2014109.22.070.68.1

That will become more important as the season goes on, as the Dallas defense is largely getting by with smoke and mirrors at the moment.  The Cowboys rank just 27th overall in defensive efficiency, but have managed to concede just 20.6 points per game because of a 3.6 percent interception rate that ranks fifth in the league and a 75 percent defensive fumble recovery percentage that ranks third.  The latter stat is almost entirely luck-based and practically unsustainable, while Dallas' lack of a consistent pass-rush and mediocre secondary personnel would seemingly indicate likely regression in the former stat.

But the Cowboys have still banked four wins, and those will not eventually disappear along with their good turnover fortune.  Dallas has yet to play a division game against NFC East competition that, apart from bumbling Washington, appears surprisingly formidable this season.  With even a .500 record over those six games, the Cowboys' out-of-division success would likely position them as strong playoff contenders.


- After entering Week 5 as one of just two undefeated teams, the Arizona Cardinals have plummeted all the way to 25th in the rankings, a 15-spot drop that exceeds any other free fall this week. 

Part of that simply stems from Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas posting a horrific combined performance against Denver.  Combined, the two accrued -0.03 WPA, -1.2 EPA and an average 24.3 percent success rate.  Those numbers would have been Jets-like if not for Thomas' fluky 80-yard touchdown throw to Andre Ellington, the rookie's only completion of the afternoon.

But severe issues with the running game remain, and a previously stout defense has likely taken one too many flesh wounds to continue on.  Calais Campbell's MCL sprain represents the straw to break the camel's back.  Widely considered the best mortal 3-4 defensive end in the game (i.e., non-J.J. Watt category), Campbell was having another sterling campaign, ranking in the top 10 of virtually every AFA stat for the position.

The remaining personnel have not exactly performed up to expectations, either.  After smart football minds waxed poetic about Arizona's secondary this offseason, the Cardinals have subsequently posted the second-least efficient pass defense in the game.  Being eviscerated by Peyton Manning is no shame, but Arizona's issues did not start last week:



The All-Pro cornerback duo of Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie has underwhelmed, combining to average 0.5 EPA per game.  If posted by a single player, that would rank 44th out of 45 qualified cornerbacks, ahead of only Philly's Nolan Carroll.

Cromartie's decline is simply a continuation of his poor final Jets season, but Peterson does possess a track record that would suggest future improvement.  Combined with the deepest safety corps in the league (one that should improve as Tyrann Mathieu returns to full speed), the Cardinals' secondary will improve.

However, the front seven issues might simply be too pervasive to overcome.  Campbell and outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy will eventually return, but John Abraham, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby are all long gone from last year's stout bunch.  Although Arizona's run defense has been solid against two woeful rushing attacks (San Diego, Denver) and two league-average ones (NY Giants, San Francisco), it remains to be seen if veteran retreads like Tommy Kelly, Frostee Rucker and Larry Foote can hold up over the long haul.

The Cardinals are not going to survive in the NFC West gauntlet if their offense must carry the load, especially given the uncertain health situations surrounding Stanton and original starter Carson Palmer.  Arizona is a vertically-based offense centered around big-play threats like Ellington and Michael Floyd, which is not exactly conducive to ball control and consistent production.  Unless the secondary tightens up quickly, however, those sudden strikes are going to have to arrive on a more frequent basis.