The Cowboys are on a two-game skid and most observers believe the losing will continue now that the defending World Champions are coming to town. We've seen all types of crazy things happen in the NFL, so what will it actually take for the Cowboys to come away with a win? Don't ask Michael Irvin who thinks it will take 'divine intervention' for Dallas to even have a chance.
The Cowboys are not strangers to pulling out an improbable win every now and then. Remember those undefeated 2006 Colts who were handed their first loss by a 5-4 Dallas Cowboys team trying out a new quarterback in Tony Romo? How about the 2010 Colts that got shocked by a breakout performance by then rookie Sean Lee and Jon Kitna playing QB? Nobody can forget those 2009 8-5 Cowboys who stunned the undefeated Saints in NOLA after losing two straight games in December, then surged to finish 11-5 and win a playoff game. The point is that strange things can and do happen in the NFL on a weekly basis. The odds are certainly stacked against them but with such parity in this league, they still have a chance.
So these Dallas Cowboys will be as close as possible to full-strength on the defensive side of the ball and they must make that known rather early. The New England Patriots are 11-4 coming off the bye week and have had ample time to prepare for the Cowboys. However, that stat about Brady is pretty telling for a Cowboys team desperate for a win. You must hit Tom Brady and do it often. New England is also bringing in the NFL's most powerful offense ranking first in points per game (39.7), yards per game (446.3) and passing yards per game (359.3). It has never been more imperative to get to the quarterback than right now. They have got to find a spark for a struggling front seven and having Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain is good news.
The Patriots lost four games last season. They began by losing their opener at Miami, they were throttled a few weeks later against the Chiefs, lost a close one to the Packers and didn't play many of their starters in week 17 against the Bills. Other than the Packers game and a Bills game that was all but useless there was a common theme - sacks. The Dolphins managed to bring Brady down four times and the Chiefs got him three times. Both of those contests were on the road. There is your formula, Dallas. New England is also starting three rookies on their offensive line, undrafted center David Andrews and fourth-round guards Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason. All of these players have done well thus far, but Dallas must find away to disrupt this offense. Quarterbacks can often figure out ways to counter pressure from the edges but when the penetrating tackles are coming up through the middle, that spells trouble for anyone.
This is a game where Tyrone Crawford and the versatility of guys like Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey becomes huge. Rod Marinelli will need to get creative here and use this rotation to his liking to keep the heat on Tom Brady. That ball is going to come out quick but if Brady is under duress, he's likely to go down and avoid risking an errant throw. Dallas can use multiple stunts and linebacker blitzes to help but they have to be there from the word go. This defense must, must, must get to the quarterback.
Another issue that has been haunting these Cowboys is their ability to get turnovers for their offense. Over the past several weeks we've seen a defense that ranked near the top of the league in that category since Marinelli's hire become cellar-dwellers . Too many dropped interceptions and missed fumble opportunities have plagued this defense in the early quarter of this season. Rolando McClain may help in this area, in the first portion of last season he sealed a couple of victories with interceptions. However, the man the we're looking at here is Sean Lee. He's got perhaps the best eyes of any linebacker in the league and is playing top-notch on a struggling defense. With his partner back and a new pressure-player added to the line, Lee needs to feast on opportunities if they come his way.
Addressing the elephant in the room, covering Rob Gronkowski has been nearly impossible but those who have had success jam him at the line of scrimmage. With Gronkowski, you are going to lose a lot more battles than you will win, but you can't bust a coverage and just leave him wide open. The Cowboys will try using Byron Jones, a corner with size and length, to hopefully try his best and re-route the beastly tight end. Jones has had some success with tight ends in the early portion of this season but this is the toughest test he could draw. I see some safety help over the top in Jones' future to give this defense a better shot at defending this monster.
This would be a perfect game for the Cowboys to attempt to create some offensive identity. The New England Patriots have not been world-beaters on defense and will give way to some big plays if the Cowboys are dialed in. Dallas needs their offensive line to return to the unit they've been billed to be. That starts with running the football early and often. That is the identity that this team will need to steer this ship back on course while they wait for the returns of their two top stars. They need to do a better job at opening holes and the running backs need to be more patient with their opportunities.
Offensively, they have to get Brandon Weeden into more manageable situations instead of these third and nines or elevens. New England is giving up 117 yards per game on the ground, the Cowboys need to find a way to exploit their defense. If they can run the ball with success much like they started against the Falcons, they should be able to put points on the board. However, it all starts with this offensive line getting back to their fundamentals and dominating style again. You hear it all the time, "if you've seen it once, show it again." There is just no way that we can believe this offensive line isn't capable of dominating once again. Of course, not having Tony Romo changes these things as well as not having an elite running back. It's even more on the offensive line than ever before and they've got to open up the flood-gates in the running game.
At this point, none of the receivers are creating much confidence in their abilities to beat single-coverage or make the plays through the air that are necessary. That is simply unacceptable and these guys need to step it up in a big way, which it's uncertain if they are even capable of doing so. The Pats are giving up 369 yards a game, can we get some sustainable offensive production? Bill Belichick will do everything in his power to take Jason Witten out of this game and that means one of these guys will need to make him pay for it. It's been hard to watch these receivers hand fighting and missing opportunities. Maybe give New England a dose of their own medicine and get Cole Beasley involved. These receivers need to start earning their roster spots because right now they are earning premier seating on the bench.
The reality is that this was perhaps the toughest game on the schedule before all these injuries and it's even harder to win now without the two biggest catalysts that make this team go. However, an improbable victory before the bye week against the defending World Champions would be huge for this team moving forward. Heck, just a scrappy, but competitive performance with something to build on could be a moral victory. Wait, that doesn't sound right...there are no moral victories! Go get the W boys and make sure Tom Brady will retire without winning at AT&T Stadium...Defend this house!