By Gregory Hunt

After enjoying a bye week, a well-rested New England Patriots team will now face a wounded Dallas Cowboys team Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys have struggled ever since losing starting quarterback Tony Romo to a broken collarbone in Week 2, and the team was already shorthanded on offense after losing star wide receiver Dez Bryant to a foot injury in Week 1. The 3-0 Patriots hope to remain one of the six teams still undefeated in the NFL this season.

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Season Record

After a 2-0 start, Dallas now holds a 2-2 record after consecutive losses to the Atlanta Falcons (39-28 at home) and the New Orleans Saints (26-20 in overtime on the road). Still, the Cowboys are in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.

The all-time series between Dallas and New England dates back to 1971, one year after AFL/NFL merger. Dallas holds a 7-4 advantage in the series, winning the first seven games from 1971-1996 before New England won the next four from 1999-2011. The last meeting was a 20-16 New England victory at Gillette Stadium on October 16, 2011. The last time the teams played at Dallas, New England came away with a 48-27 win at Texas Stadium on October 14, 2007. Sunday’s game will be the first time the Patriots have played at AT&T Stadium, which opened in 2009. The teams have never met in the postseason.

Cowboys on Offense

After Romo’s injury, the Cowboys acquired former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, but he has yet to see the field in part because Romo’s backup Brandon Weeden has played relatively well during Dallas’ two-game losing streak. Weeden is completing 76.3 percent of his passes (45-for-59) and his quarterback rating of 108.8 ranks 6th in the NFL.

Even New England head coach Bill Belichick is impressed with Weeden’s play. “I thought he did a good job for them last week,” he said Monday during a radio interview. “It obviously didn’t quite work out there but they moved the ball, they scored a lot of points. He did a good job of getting the ball to his outlet receivers, used the backs well.”

His receivers include three players that are averaging more than 10 yards per catch. On the ground, running back Joseph Randle is the leading rusher with 229 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.

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Cowboys on Defense

This season, the Dallas defense hasn’t been able to get stops with the game on the line. In the 4th quarter against the Saints, the Cowboys gave up a two-minute drive that the defense survived only because New Orleans kicker Zach Hocker missed a 30-yard field goal with 16 seconds remaining in regulation. Then in overtime, the Cowboys gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to C. J. Spiller to lose the game.

However, help is on the way. Dallas’ best run defender, middle linebacker Rolando McClain, and best pass rusher, defensive end Greg Hardy, will both return to the lineup after serving four-game suspensions at the beginning of the season. The Cowboys made only three sacks in its first three games before sacking Brees three times on Sunday night.

Cowboys Players to Watch

Former Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden is a threat in both the running game and passing game. While he’s not the feature back like he was with the Raiders, he’s still capable of making explosive plays. On defense, linebacker Sean Lee has been a tackling machine, but he suffered a concussion in the first half against the Saints and did not return to the game. If he is cleared in time to play against the Patriots, the presence of McClain and Hardy should free him up to make even more plays.

Outlook

Even if the New England defense continues to be inconsistent, it’s tough to see Dallas scoring enough points to beat the Patriots. New England quarterback Tom Brady, who was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for September, has been playing like he’s possessed, so he could potentially tear the Dallas defense to shreds despite the return of two of its key players. Historically, Belichick-coached teams perform very well following a bye week (11-4 since 2000), so the Patriots will likely return to New England with a 4-0 record.

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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.