In 2009, we went into the season not knowing what kind of Cowboys team we would have; the previous season, you'll recall, had started with a lot of excited Super Bowl talk and had ended in embarrassment, with a tired, beaten-down team rolling over in a terrible loss at Philadelphia. After jettisoning Terrell Owens and several other problematic clubhouse characters, Dallas went into 2009 with uncertainty--with the primary, looming question being: who IS this team (and, more specifically, who will emerge to take Owens' place at wide receiver?). In the fifth game of the season, at Kansas City, with the Cowboys sitting at 2-2 after four up-and-down games, those questions were answered. Miles Austin enjoyed his career-starting breakout game, and from then on, the Cowboys--and their passing attack--were off to the races.
The fifth game of 2011 enjoys a certain narrative similarity to the fifth contest two seasons ago. A Dallas squad that has run hot and cold goes on the road still uncertain about its identity. This team, like that, has released a passel of players who had been integral to the team's identity in recent years. Their replacements have fared well, but questions still loom about who will win games and how they will go about winning them. And, even though its a long season, 2-3 has a very different feel that 3-2. The 2009 team knew that (remember the dog pile on Austin after he scored the game-winner in overtime?), and used the victory as a springboard to forging a 6-2 record at the halfway mark. It certainly seems, given this year's schedule, that a victory on Sunday could have a similarly catalyzing effect.
But can the Cowboys pull it off? The one obvious difference between 2009's and 2011's fifth games is the quality of the opponent. That Chiefs team, led by first-year coach Todd Haley, were a scrappy yet talent-poor bunch who entered the game 0-4 en route to a 4-12 finish. The Patriots, like it or not (NOT!) have been the NFL's model franchise for a decade, and boast an incredible 30-game home winning streak when their quarterback, Tom Brady, starts. Brady and his offensive mates have been lighting it up, chewing up yards and scoring at record-setting levels. That said, the 2011 Cowboys, over the first month of the season, have been playing better (and, yes, more consistently) than the 2009 iteration which, in weeks three and four, had struggled mightily on offense against Carolina and Denver.
So, what gives? Will history repeat itself? Or will the Patriots streak continue? In considering the outcome, I'd like to think about where each team has the advantage, weigh the respective advantages, and see whether that helps us come up with a final prediction. Let's tally up the respective advantages, after the jump...
Running game: On both sides of the ball, the Cowboys have an advantage in the running game. When the Pats have the ball, they will face the NFL's top run defense, a unit that has faced three run-first teams (Jets, 'Niners, 'Skins) and an explosive back (Jahvid Best) and held all of them to an average of just over 64 yards a game. When the Cowboys have the rock, they'll be at full offensive strength for the first time all season. As I mentioned in a recent post, the deep threat posed by Austin, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson (much more threatening as a group than the Pats' receiving corps) will help to open things up underneath, whether that be the short passing or running games. If they can hit a couple of 20+ yarders to a wideout (or two), then they'll have room to run.
Defense: Both of these teams have high-powered offenses. Most pundits are on record saying that this will be a track meet--one of those 42-37 type games. In such a contest, which defense is more likely to stop the opposing offensive unit/ juggernaut? Given how both teams have performed, the Dallas defense has a clear advantage here. Through the season's first five games, they have played well, and New England hasn't. In addition, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a good Patriots-related history; largely via scheme, his 2010 Browns stymied Brady and Co. Simply put: this will be the best defense New England has faced this season, and this will be the worst defense the Cowboys encounter in their first five games.
Square yardage: Now that they are at full health, the Cowboys can run out a pretty impressive arsenal: three tall, physical wideouts who can run; the best tight end in the game; at least one running back who excels in space (DeMarco Murray might prove to be this kind of player, but hasn't show it yet). In short, the Dallas offense is capable of putting pressure on the entire field, in terms of depth and width. Bill Belichick and his defensive staff can (and will) scheme to take away one, or even two, areas of the field, but that will leave others that much more open. New England, with the amazing Wes Welker and two very good tight ends (dinged-up Aaron Hernandez reportedly will play), can stress the seams and underneath zones. But do they have a player whose deep speed strikes fear into the Cowboys? Neither Deion Branch nor Chad Ochocinco any longer has that top gear. As a result, the Dallas defense will have to cover less of the field than the NEP's D.
Coaching: This is no knock on Jason Garrett, who I think is a fine head coach with a sunny future. But he's going up against one of, if not the best, head coaches of all time (I'm not sure who the best coach in NFL history is, but my two leading candidates are Belichick and Bill Walsh). There are only four players on the Patriots roster who played in their last Super Bowl (Brady, Vince Wilfork, Matt Light, and Branch). Their coaching staff, and even long-time general manager Scott Pioli, has gone elsewhere. Yet the Patriots keep on winning. The constant: Belichick, who manages every aspect of the process with precision and creativity. Is he a jerk? Sure; the recent two-part NFL Network special on him confirms as much. But he's a ruthless exploiter of other teams' weaknesses; we know he'll have a nasty surprise or two up his sleeve come Sunday. If I were Tony Romo, I wouldn't open any presents postmarked "Foxboro, MA"...
Quarterback: The other constant during the Patriots' run has, of course, been Brady, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and a guy who has to be included in any conversation about the best signal callers of all time. He's a surgeon who will dissect a defense, a prizefighter who will soften them up with short-pass body blows before going over the top for the knockout. He's accurate, competitive as hell, and (are you listening, Tony?) makes very few mistakes. The Pats scheme allows him to get rid of the ball quickly, so he doesn't experience much pressure. And when teams do decide send the house, his success rate beating the blitz is ridiculously high. For the Cowboys to have any chance of winning on Sunday, they'll have to be very patient--more patient than the zen-master Brady, which is a tall order.
No place like home: As noted above, the Pats have an obscenely long home winning streak on the line. This is largely due to the team, which has consistently welcomed guests into its beautiful home, Gillette Stadium, by punching them in the throat. The fans filling Gillette are knowledgeable and can make noise when necessary. So Gillette, while not as rude a place to play as The Linc or even the New Meadowlands, is just as inhospitable: the NEP's record at Gillette is a staggering 69-13. That's what I'd call a home-field advantage...
Simply put: If Garrett and Romo perform as well as Belichick and Brady, the Cowboys win. This can happen, but it would be an unusual occurrence. The more realistic successful outcome, to my mind, will be for the Cowboys to limit the Patriots' advantages. Its likely that Garrett and Co. will be outcoached--there's no shame in that, most people are when they face New England. But can Garret and, especially, Ryan do some things to make up the difference? Romo will probably be outplayed by Brady; who isn't? But can he limit the un-Bradylike mistakes that ruined what was otherwise a very Bradylike performance against the Lions?
If either of these things happen, the Cowboys have a fighting chance. If both happen, they win. So, it all comes down to whether or not you think both will happen. Its hard to bet against both Bellichick and Brady. Do you have the stones to do it? Right now, I'm not sure I have, but I'm working in that direction. By Sunday afternoon? I might just go fearless.
For now, I'm just gonna stay appropriately fearful. Pats 37-31.