The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in every game of the 2023 NFL season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.
Below I present 2023’s fourteenth edition of this analysis for the Bills Week 15 clash with the Dallas Cowboys. Included is my “patented” 👏 scale which ranks the advantage in each matchup from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage) to 👏 (Minimal Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Cowboys Pass Defense
MVP talk regarding Josh Allen is beginning to heat up, for good reason. He leads the NFL in touchdowns (35) and yards (3,821) while coming off a game where he led his team to victory over Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs in their house. And he didn’t just outplay Mahomes in neutrality, he outplayed him despite being pressured more (38.8% vs 22.2%), having his players drop a higher rate of passes (5.4% vs 5.1%), and by doing what he did against a better overall defense (#9 DVOA Defense vs #15 DVOA Defense). The praise is well deserved for a Quarterback who at points this season has struggled but despite those struggles has a very real chance to lead his team to a division title. That will take four more weeks of MVP-level play, beginning this week against a Cowboys team that feasts off turnover-prone Quarterbacks, an attribute many attach to Allen.
Heading into Sunday’s game the Cowboys feature a defense that ranks sixth in Passer Rating against (80.7), fourth in Interceptions (13), and eighth in sacks. Not only do they make opposing Quarterbacks’ nightmares come true, but they also turn them into points racking up an astounding six defensive touchdowns on the season. Even wilder is that five of those, a league record, have come via the hands of second-year, fifth-round pick, CB DaRon Bland. Despite that and his eight total interceptions, Bland remains far from the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year due in large part to his reputation as a feast-or-famine defensive back. In fact, that moniker can be levied on almost all of the Cowboys defensive backs this season who have played both some exceptional and sub-par football. Opposite Bland is ex-Bills CB, Stephon Gilmore, who is the most consistent of the bunch and still playing at a Pro Bowl level at the age of 33. In the slot is Jourdan Lewis, who despite being solid against the run can struggle at times against the pass. And back behind those CBs are Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse the former of which is dealing with an ankle injury. All-in-all this is an above-average defensive backfield but one where the Bills should be able to facilitate plenty of mismatches.
Where matters get more difficult for the Bills will be in protecting Allen. Dorance Armstrong, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Sam Williams are all capable pass rushers and should draw the eyes of at least one pass rusher, but all also pale in comparison to the force that is Micah Parsons. He’s the current odds-on favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year and just produced his third consecutive season of 12.0+ Sacks and is well on his way to surpassing his career high of 13.5 For Chess players, imagine you could combine the powers of the Queen and Knight and realize that that is exactly what Parsons is as a player the Cowboys can literally line up anywhere on the field and trust him produce. Most likely to face his wrath this week are one or more of Spencer Brown (RT), O’Cyrus Torrence (RG), and/or Connor McGovern (LG), players that the Cowboys will look to attack due to either inexperience or familiarity. Parsons is going to get near Allen at least once, likely many more times, this week forcing Allen to make plays outside the pocket, something that he is uncannily good at.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Cowboys Rush Defense
It’s easy to maintain the Allen MVP talk when discussing the Bills’ rush offense because he is the singular most dominant force in the Bills run game. He’s currently 26 yards shy of his sixth consecutive 400+ rushing yard season while his 48 career rushing touchdowns rank #93 in NFL history. Further, he’s taking off more lately, with nine and 10 rushing attempts in his last two games respectively, both higher than his previous season high of eight. Make no mistake, if the Bills want to win this game that nine rush total seems likely to be a minimum as Buffalo will need Allen to not only pick up multiple first downs on the ground but also force the Cowboys’ defense to respect his abilities as a runner in order to open up passing lanes downfield.
The Cowboys will look to counter that with a run defense which may be middling but has the resources to slow down running quarterbacks. Of course, we could dive deeper into the force that is Parsons, but there are other horses up front that are worth mentioning for the Cowboys. On the inside their most consistent player has been Osa Odighizuwa, who despite being just 280 pounds has excelled this season as a run defender. He’s often paired with the 320-pound Jonathan Hankins to produce a duo of Defensive Tackles that can both push into the backfield and keep blockers away from their linebackers. Flanking them, outside of Parsons, is often DeMarcus Lawrence or Dorance Armstrong. Lawrence’s best days as an edge rusher are behind him but he is aging gracefully into a plus edge run defender that can maintain contain, something required against a team like the Bills. As for Armstrong, he’s undersized for a Defensive End but has speed and agility more than makeup for it as a solid counter to heavy-handed Offensive Tackles.
The Cowboys will need to rely heavily on their defensive line to maintain the point of attack against the Bills because if they falter Buffalo should have a massive advantage in this matchup. Allen isn’t the only player that can win at the edge as James Cook is proving to be one of the more unheralded runners in the NFL that can catch an edge or the B-gap and turn what should be a small gain into a massive one. Against a Cowboys defense whose greatest weakness is their linebackers this could prove a fruitful avenue of attack for the Bills. At linebacker the Cowboys will trot out Damone Clark and Markquese Bell, neither of whose names reverberate in most NFL fan’s ears. Clark was a fifth-round pick in 2022 who relies heavily on his athleticism (9.86 RAS) to win but can be susceptible to play action and misdirection. As for Bell, he’s a Safety turned linebacker who is still learning the finer points of the position as he fills in for Leighton Vander Esch who was lost earlier in the season to a neck injury. If the Cowboys linebackers can play above their pay grades this week it would be a massive boon for the Cowboys defense, if not, expect Joe Brady to attack and attack again until Dallas counters with a less comfortable look.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Cowboys Pass Offense
The Bills defense has been playing undermanned for most of the year but still is maintaining a solid level of play. That trend of losing players looks set to continue in Week 15 as Micah Hyde looks unlikely to play while Taron Johnson may be forced to play through an ankle injury. That next man up mentality will force the Bills to lean more heavily on veteran Safety Jordan Poyer, the sneaky good Christian Benford, and newcomer Rasul Douglas. All are capable of making a play or two that can change a drive against most teams. The question this week though, are the Cowboys most teams, or are they a completely different animal?
If the season ended today Dak Prescott would be the MVP. That is not a typo. He has been the best Quarterback through 14 weeks and is currently on a heater that has included a 23:3 TD:TO ratio over his last seven games. He’s been accurate at every level while throwing the ball with an attacking mentality the likes of which we have never seen him attempt. It makes life easier when you have the weapons Prescott has, and he has plenty of them. CeeDee Lamb is his bonafide WR1 as a player Dallas likes to move all over formations which has caused him to play 58.5% of his snaps out of the slot and 40.5% of his snaps out wide. At wide receiver he is joined by Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup, with Cooks being their outside speedster and Gallup a solid third option at the position. But their pass catchers don’t stop there, they also have an impressive second-year Tight End and a Running Back which can be threats in their own right in the passing game. Jake Ferguson is their second most targeted player this season with 74 and an impressive 570 yards while Tony Pollard has the third most receptions at 49 making him a dangerous option of the backfield.
The Cowboys are just as versatile and strong on the Offensive Line with the capability to win on the outside and on the inside. On the outside Tyron Smith is proven to be one of the best Left Tackles in all of football while his partner on the right side, Terence Steele, is solid but at times can be exposed. On the inside all of Tyler Smith (LG), Tyler Biadasz (C), and Zack Martin (RG) are all above average blockers who have the ability to keep Prescott’s pocket clean. For Buffalo that means rooting for Ed Oliver to have one of those special days in the middle while one of their edge rushers can consistently beat Terrence Steele off the edge. The Bills will need pressure on Sunday to flip the script here because if they can’t the Cowboys may just throw this game out the window for Buffalo in Orchard Park.
ADVANTAGE: Cowboys 👏👏👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Cowboys Rush Offense
The most unexpected part of the Buffalo Bills thus far in 2023 is that they have been able to maintain success against the run despite the losses of Matt Milano (LB), DaQuan Jones (DT), and with second-yard linebacker Terrel Bernard starting. Despite all of that they still have a -10.3% Rush Defense DVOA as they continue to bottle up opposing teams’ runners. They are occasionally susceptible to a big run or two but for the most part they are winning enough at the line of scrimmage to avoid opposing teams running all over them. Against Dallas they should have a hard enough time slowing down the pass, if they can’t win against the run this game will be a no contest.
For the Chargers the heavy majority of their rushing attack leans on the franchise-tagged Tony Pollard. Pollard hasn’t quite lived up to expectations coming off a leg and ankle injury in 2022 and struggling to a 4.1 yards per attempt thus far in 2023. That being said, Pollard is a player that must be respected as he could round back into form at any given moment. In the meantime, the Cowboys have found another option out of the backfield in Rico Dowdle who himself has a 4.1 yards per attempt this season. Dowdle is a power runner who has the ability to pick up yards on any given play due to his consistent ability to fall forward when being tackled. There are a few other options out of the backfield outside of Pollard and Dowdle but don’t expect too much from those running backs in Buffalo as the weather could force the Cowboys to go with more trusted players.
Dallas does have some auxiliary options worth speaking on though. Prescott, though not as mobile as he was in college, is running the ball more than he has at any point in his career since 2018. He may only have 185 yards on the ground this season, but he has picked up a touchdown or first down on 45.5% of his runs this season allowing the Cowboys to extend drives. On top of that they have 21 rushes by Wide Receivers this season: nine by KaVontae Turpin, nine by CeeDee Lamb, and three by Brandin Cooks. That is something Bills defensive ends and linebackers must be wary of as they avoid a big trick play changing the game for the worse at some point this game. Buffalo can win this matchup though and should as their linebackers are better than Dallas’ running backs and their defensive line is good enough to win against the Cowboys against the run. Dominate this matchup early and it should be possible for the Bills to control this game defensively.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Cowboys Special Teams
Tyler Bass was much better in Week 14 than he was in Week 12 but there are still some concerns with him. There seems to be something wrong with the way he is kicking as the confidence has dropped off in a player that was an early All-Pro favorite. After him things get much worse at Punter where Sam Martin has been a disaster. Buffalo’s offense needs to cook for multiple reasons but the issues at Punter shouldn’t have to be one of them. Last, the return game has been pretty poor for the Bills. Regardless of who is returning kicks it would behoove Buffalo to fair catch every return opportunity while on punts Deonte Harty must make a big return at some point if he wants to be viewed as anything more than a massive offseason bust.
The Cowboys are the borderline opposite of the Bills on Special Teams as they have been dominant. Brandon Aubrey is going to be this season’s First-Team All-Pro Kicker as he is 30/30 on Field Goals, including EIGHT 50+ yard attempts, while also drilling 39 of 42 extra points. After him is the rarely-used Bryan Anger who has only punted for the Cowboys 32 times this season. The difference for the Cowboys is that when called upon he has generated a 50.9 yards per punt and 45.6 net yards per punt, both well above average numbers. Lastly, Kavontae Turpin remains an untapped option in the return game. His skillset points to an elite option on both punts and kicks but to date we have yet to see it. That being said, avoid putting the ball in his hands, it’s only a matter of time until he takes one to the house.
ADVANTAGE: Cowboys 👏👏👏👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
Right now, Dallas is probably the second-best team in football, behind only the juggernaut that is San Francisco. Yes, they are a better football team than the Bills and on a neutral field if both teams showed up the Cowboys would probably win at least six out of 10 times. Add to that that Prescott is playing the best football of his career as he is absolutely slinging it and the Bills matchup in a miserable manner against the Cowboys’ passing attack.
On the other side of the ball the Cowboys’ entire goal is to force turnovers, something Buffalo isn’t great at feeding into. All Dallas likely needs this game is two takeaways to guarantee victory and with the way Allen is playing right now he is good for at least one. Look for Bland or Gilmore to try and jump multiple passes and change the game quickly. If they can’t do that it’s not the end of the world for the Cowboys who still have Parsons lurking ready to wreck any and every plan Buffalo has.
Why Buffalo Will Win
When Allen puts the team on his back, he can will them to special things, and they need him to will them to those things. The Cowboys are going to try and goad him into stupid mistakes this week but as long as he can avoid multiple, he should be able to dominate the Cowboys. That means feeding Stefon Diggs, utilizing the advantage that is Dalton Kincaid and/or Dawson Knox against Dallas’ linebackers, or even seeking out James Cook short or Gabe Davis deep. Add to that Buffalo having an advantage in the run game and why can’t the Bills score 30 points?
On the other side it all comes down to this game being in Buffalo and in the cold. All three of Dallas’ losses are in away games this season as leaving their cushy dome for the elements has proven difficult for the offense. On Sunday, it will be sub-50 with significant wind which has the potential to cause this trend to continue. Can Dak Prescott sling it through the elements will be answered quickly and if he can’t expect players like Rasul Douglas or Taron Johnson to answer the bell. Add to that a defensive line that has been solid all season and Buffalo may have enough to down the Cowboys.
Prediction: Bills 31 – Cowboys 28
There’s no reason Buffalo can’t win this game and I don’t expect them to lose. Josh Allen looks primed to take this team on a run and with newfound hope that the AFC East may be in reach expect him to treat every game like it’s his last. That’s not to take anything away from the Cowboys who are a very good football team, but in moments and big games like this Allen is a more proven commodity than Dak Prescott.