Last week, I introduced the concept of win probability graphs. Developed by Advanced NFL Stats, the graphs chart increases and decreases in each team's chances of winning a game in real time. The graphs aren't just blind guesses; they actually look at historic NFL data to estimate with great accuracy how often each team can be expected to win a particular game given the situation—score, possession, field position, down-and-distance, and time remaining.
Today, I'm going to use the graphs to run through some of the Cowboys' biggest plays in 2012. The seven plays listed below dramatically enhanced the Cowboys' probability of winning each contest. We all know that a big turnover or touchdown can alter the course of a game, but it's unique to see such a change in momentum quantified. I've marked the plays with a white star on each graph.
@NYG - DeMarco Murray 48-yard run: 10 percent WP
Up by four points and facing a second-and-three at their own 27-yard line, the Cowboys owned a 70 percent chance to take down the Giants in Week 1. That number jumped to 80 percent when DeMarco Murray made something out of nothing, dancing behind the line on a broken play and taking a toss 48 yards.
@BAL - Pass Interference on BAL: 42 percent WP
As you'll note, the biggest swings in win probability come late in games. That was exactly the case when the Cowboys faced the Ravens in Week 6. After a Dez Bryant touchdown and a failed two-point conversion, Dallas was down two points and possessed a one percent chance of winning. When they recovered a Dan Bailey onside kick, that win probability jumped to 11 percent.
On the first play following the recovery, Tony Romo looked deep to Kevin Ogletree. The pass fell incomplete, but the Ravens were flagged for pass interference. Dallas got the ball at Baltimore's 35-yard line with 32 seconds remaining, shooting their win probability all the way up to 53 percent.
@PHI - Dwayne Harris 78-Yard Punt Return Touchdown: 25 percent WP
In their first meeting with the Eagles, the Cowboys were in the midst of a back-and-forth battle. When Nick Foles threw incomplete to DeSean Jackson on a third quarter third down play, Philly was forced to punt. Tied at 17, the Cowboys' odds of winning were just better than a coin flip.
That changed in a hurry when Dwayne Harris took a Mat McBriar punt 78 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys' win probability shot up 25 percentage points.
CLE - Pass Interference on CLE: 35 percent WP
At one point in the third quarter against the Browns in Week 11, the Cowboys had just a seven percent chance of winning. That number was as low as 11 percent with under a minute to play in the fourth quarter.
Facing a first-and-10 at the Cleveland 49-yard line, the Cowboys were still heavy underdogs with time ticking down. Romo looked deep to Harris, but the pass fell incomplete. Just as in the Ravens game, though, the 'Boys were bailed out by a pass interference penalty. Cleveland was flagged 35 yards, increasing the Cowboys' probability of winning by 35 percent.
PHI – Morris Claiborne Scoop-and-Score: 27 percent WP
Morris Claiborne didn't make a ton of splash plays in his rookie year, but he came up big in the Cowboys' second matchup with the Eagles. Owning a 31-27 lead late in the fourth quarter, Dallas was giving up ground to the Philadelphia offense. The Eagles were at their own 41-yard line with a first-and-10 and just over four minutes to play.
The handoff went to Bryce Brown, who worked for four yards before putting the ball on the ground. Claiborne was there for the fumble recovery, eventually rumbling 48 yards for the score. The Cowboys—who could be expected to win only two out of every three games given the situation prior to the play—had a 94 percent chance to win after the touchdown.
PIT – Brandon Carr Overtime Interception: 55 percent WP
As you might have expected, the Cowboys' biggest play all year was the Brandon Carr overtime interception against the Steelers. Pittsburgh faced a second-and-three at their own 27-yard line when Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass. Carr said that he knew that Roethlisberger suspected the 'Boys were in Cover 3—meaning Carr would be playing off of receiver Mike Wallace.
Pittsburgh had been running curls against the Cowboys all day, with much success. Carr gambled on the play, successfully reading the Steelers' intentions and jumping Wallace's route despite the conservative coverage. He picked off the pass and returned it to the one-yard line, amazingly increasing the Cowboys' odds of winning from 44 percent to over 99 percent.
NO – Miles Austin 19-yard touchdown: 46 percent WP
The Cowboys' biggest offensive play of the season came in their thrilling Week 16 matchup with the Saints. Down by a touchdown with 21 seconds to play, Dallas faced a fourth-and-10 at the Saints' 19-yard line. When Romo hit Miles Austin in the end zone, the Cowboys' win probability soared from one percent to 47 percent—and eventually a coin flip when the teams went to overtime.