By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sometimes, when the NFL schedule is released in mid-April, we think we know a thing or two about which games will be the good ones. And sometimes, we end up being correct.
Such is the case this week, as a game that was circled on many calendars back in April is finally here. And though the win-loss records of the 9-1 Patriots and 6-4 Cowboys may appear to present a significant mismatch, an upset by the visiting team is very much on the table.
Of course, at the same time, Jason Garrett is going on the road to a place where most teams crumble. And the memory of the Cowboys’ flop in the Meadowlands against the Jets remains fresh on everyone’s minds.
So, really, anything is on the table. But isn’t that the way of life in the NFL?
For now, we’ll do our best to spotlight some areas that will assuredly play a factor in the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Strength Vs. (Relative) Weakness
The Patriots’ defense? Overall, it’s phenomenal. But specifically the run defense? It’s not great.
While a single number doesn’t tell an entire story, the fact is that the Patriots allow 4.63 yards per rush, which ranks 24th in the NFL. That’s not hurting them, as they’re still holding opponents under 100 rushing yards per game, though that can be attributed largely to the Patriots’ owning large leads in the majority of their games.
Flipping it around, the Cowboys are — as you might expect — quite good at running the football. They rank seventh in the NFL with an average of … 4.63 yards per rush, the exact same number that the Patriots allow. At just a tick under 132 yards per game, the Cowboys rank seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game. Ezekiel Elliott (833 rushing yards) has done the bulk of that damage, though Tony Pollard’s averaged nearly 5 yards per carry on the year. QB Dak Prescott has proven elusive too, with his 193 rushing yards on 33 carries (5.8-yard average) this season.
Adding to that, the Cowboys ranks first in the NFL with 24.6 first downs per game. Take it all together, and the Patriots’ defense will have to come ready to disrupt a potent rushing attack if they hope to keep the Cowboys from controlling the pace of this game.
Can Brady and McDaniels Conjure Some Magic?
In case you haven’t been following too closely, the Patriots’ offense has been strugg-a-ling. They’ve averaged just 320 yards per game over their last four games, and their scoring output has steadily decreased each week for the past five games. That’s led to a week spent analyzing Tom Brady’s feelings.
While nothing should ever be ruled as impossible when it comes to Brady and Josh McDaniels, it does seem fair to say that it would be inadvisable to anticipate the Patriots’ offense will snap out of its funk this week.
For one, the Cowboys have a very good defense. They rank seventh in total defense, seventh in pass defense, and third in third-down defense. They rank ninth in red zone defense as well, and that’s been a major area of concern for the Patriots’ offense.
On top of that, the Patriots appear to be walking into Sunday’s game with a limp. Mohamed Sanu almost certainly won’t play due to his ankle injury, and Phillip Dorsett’s ability will be unknown until he’s actually on the field, as he’ll be just one week removed from suffering a concussion. If he can’t play (or can’t play effectively, or has to leave early), the Patriots will be left to lean on Julian Edelman, Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry at receiver.
If there is a positive route the Patriots can take, it may be on the ground. Though the Patriots’ run game has been a mess (their 3.31 yards per rush ranks 30th in the NFL), the return of Isaiah Wynn could help them against a Cowboys defense that ranks in the middle of the pack in rushing yards. Opponents have rushed for over 100 yards against Dallas in seven of their 10 games this season. Take Leighton Vander Esch out of the mix, too, and there should be some opportunity for the Patriots to run the ball.
Of course, it’s never wise to fully count out a Tom Brady-led offense, or to expect a downright ugly day. Still, expectations should remain tempered.
For Pats Secondary, The Challenge Begins
The Patriots have the best defense in the league. There’s no doubt about that. And with Stephon Gilmore, two McCourtys, Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung, J.C. Jackson, Duron Harmon and now Terrence Brooks, they’re overflowing with talent.
Now, we’ll get to see if it really matters.
Over the next three weeks, the Patriots will be facing a trio of dynamic passing attacks, featuring some of the better (and in some cases, the best) wide receivers in football. For now, the Tyreek Hill-Mecole Hardman-Sammy Watkins trio (plus Travis Kelce) is a few weeks away, and the DeAndre Hopkins-Will Fuller-Kenny Stills trio remains next week’s problems. This week, it’ll be all about limiting the productivity of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb.
While Cooper remains the best of the bunch, Cobb is coming off a ridiculous four-catch, 115-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Lions, while Gallup caught nine passes for 148 yards in that same game. Cooper was quiet in that game but has six games this season with 80 yards or more, including four games with 100 yards or more, and one game of … 226 yards. (That one came in a losing effort against Green Bay.) Cooper’s tied for fourth in the NFL with seven receiving touchdowns, just one behind the trio of leaders.
Long story short, the coaching trio of Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo has no doubt been hard at work at devising their best possible strategy to try to limit that receiving corps. While employing Gilmore against Cooper could work as a neutralization of sort, last week’s game showed how dangerous Gallup and Cobb can be even when Cooper’s held in check.
Considering all of that, it’s easy to see how and why Dak Prescott leads the league in passing yards and why he’s tied for second in touchdown passes. It’s been a good year for Dallas’ passing offense.
The job will not be easy. How the elite Patriots’ defensive backfield handles the challenge will be fascinating.
Can Dallas Handle The Moment?
Here’s the thing: On paper, it’s a tremendous matchup. Here’s the other thing: About 10 million times over the past 18 years, that’s not mattered one bit once the game begins.
While Gillette Stadium is not the loudest or most intimidating stadium in the league, it’s certainly wreaked havoc on countless “worthy” opponents over the years. The question now is whether or not Jason Garrett and Co. will be prepared to overcome those issues.
In Garrett’s only prior trip to Foxboro, all the way back in 2011, he certainly was not capable. In that game, Dallas held a lead late, but a conservative approach on offense led to Dallas punting the ball to Tom Brady with about 2:30 left to play. Unsurprisingly, Brady did what he’s done so many times before, driving the Patriots 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
This year, the Cowboys’ resume in terms of wins and losses is … quite unimpressive. Their six wins have come against five teams with a combined winning percentage of just .258. For all of the flak the Patriots have taken for beating up on a weak schedule, New England’s strength of victory is at .356, a good deal higher than Dallas’.
Dallas has faced a slightly tougher schedule than New England … but has also lost all of those challenging games. The Cowboys lost at New Orleans (against Teddy Bridgewater), at home vs. Green Bay (by 10 points) and Minnesota, and (worst of all) at the Jets. On the road, they’ve had some potent performances, along with some duds.
How all of that translates to a late-Sunday game in Foxboro against a championship-driven Patriots team that’s had just one slip-up all year? It cannot be properly forecast. But surely, for as much as folks in New England might tab this game as New England’s toughest test of the year, the same can certainly apply to the team that will be making its way to Gillette on Sunday.