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Cowboys @ Falcons: The beginning of an interesting journey

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Today marks the beginning of a (likely) six-game stretch without Ezekiel Elliott that will tell us a lot about the Cowboys.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

32.4, 32.3, 34.3, 33.8, 31.8, 33.8.

Random numbers with no context?

No, these are the passes attempted per game for several big-name quarterbacks this season. Former MVP’s, former Super Bowl winners, at least one future Hall of Famer.

The names that those stats can be attributed to are Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, and Derek Carr. The funny thing is that nobody would dare call Ryan or Brees or Newton game-managers, and certainly nobody would call the supposed future face of the NFL, Wentz, a game-manager. The perception is that these are franchise quarterbacks who can carry their team no matter the circumstances, as if they and they alone are capable of carrying an offense no matter what they’re surrounded by.

Obviously this is a ridiculous notion, just as it is a ridiculous notion that Prescott is nothing but a high-level game manager. Yet many outside observers continue to discredit his play and write him off as just that, despite the fact that Prescott mostly carried the offense in impressive performances against the Cardinals, Rams, and Packers without much help from Ezekiel Elliott at all.

The dirty little secret amongst the national media that nobody likes to mention is that Elliott simply was not very good until the fourth quarter of that Green Bay game when he finally woke up. He grinded out 3.6 YPC over the first four games and that wasn’t simply the result of one poor game against Denver. He averaged just 3.6 YPC against Arizona and 4.0 against the Rams. Against the Packers he had about 30 yards rushing over the first three quarters, yet that didn’t stop Prescott from leading the offense to 28 against the Cardinals, 30 against the Rams, and 31 against the Packers.

But the narrative continues.

So today will be the beginning of an interesting thought experiment in Dallas Cowboys football as Elliott will miss the first of seemingly six games. In many mind’s it will be a litmus test for Prescott, to see whether or not he can win without the benefit of one of the best running backs, and running games in the league. In my mind it’s not much of an issue as Prescott did carry the offense in many respects early in the season when Elliott most certainly was not playing like one of the best backs in the league, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is the perception for most neutral observers, and some Cowboy fans.

Either way it will certainly be interesting. The way today’s game is expected to shake out screams for the Cowboys tried and true philosophy of controlling the clock with Elliott in order to keep an explosive Falcons offense off the field in what should be a hostile environment. Atlanta is 4-4 and still very much in the playoff hunt despite the lamentations of those in the media who would have you believe that their record is closer to something like 2-6 with all the talk of “what is wrong with the Falcons?”

In reality this is just Atlanta regressing to the mean, 2016 was the outlier, not their 2017 performance so far. In 2015 they were 8-8, 6-10 in 2014, 4-12 in 2013, and 13-3 in 2012. Going into 2016 Ryan had thrown 202 touchdowns to 107 interceptions, a 1.89:1 ratio. In 2016 he threw a career-high 38 touchdowns to a career-low 7 interceptions, a 5.43:1 ratio. He also posted career highs in yards and completion percentage.

So while many may be asking “what is wrong with the Falcons?”, in reality they are simply coming back to Earth from what was in many respects a fluke season. Ryan is a very good quarterback, capable of taking over a game at any time, but he’s more the guy you saw from 2008-15 than the guy you saw in 2016, especially after the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan. His play, and perhaps the play of the Falcons overall, may be a bit below what they’re capable of but in truth they are more the 8-10 win type of team who struggles with consistency than they are the dominant team that got hot and rolled to the Super Bowl last year.

Keep in mind that at different points during last season Atlanta was 4-3 and 7-5, barely over .500, before catching fire. So this idea that they are this overpowering, mauling force of a team playing well below capacity is a fallacy based simply on what people saw most recently.

Of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t a dangerous team. They most certainly are, especially when everybody is writing their obituary and showing highlights of Julio Jones dropping a wide open 40+ yard touchdown last week on a loop.

They know that time is starting to run out on 2017 as we inch towards Thanksgiving and you better believe they will come out ready to play, especially against a team that could be seen as ripe for the picking in their first game without Elliott, and Tyron Smith for that matter. The fact that this game could have tiebreaker implications down the line makes it even more critical.

So the Cowboys will have their work cut out for them today. Even though Atlanta’s offense hasn’t lived up to expectations they are still one of the most balanced and explosive units in the league, on paper at least. The monster known as Julio Jones will be ready and waiting after a disappointing performance last week. Devonta Freeman is still averaging a very solid 4.5 YPC and is also a threat out of the backfield. Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper are decent complementary pieces and Ryan is poised for a breakout at any time.

The offensive line also looks good on paper but they have struggled this season, and if the Cowboys want to limit their explosive skill players the defensive line and linebackers will have to win this matchup. Limit the running game, force the Falcons into second and third and long, and then unleash Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving.

Offensively the formula remains the same, Elliott or not. Run the ball, stay balanced, work play-action, and rely on Prescott to keep doing what he’s been doing. Perhaps you mix in just a bit more designed quarterback runs without Elliott, but for the most part the game plan should be the same. Atlanta’s defense has plenty of team speed off the edge (Vic Beasley Jr., Takkarist McKinley) and at linebacker (Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell) but they are 18th in the league against the run. They are built to play the pass, run around and get after the quarterback against teams playing from behind after their offense builds a lead.

If Atlanta is able to jump out to an early lead and force the Cowboys to lose balance it could be a long day with how this defense is built, but if the score remains manageable then the running game should be able to keep the offense balanced and on script, even if it’s not quite as effective as it was with Elliott.

At the end of the day I feel like the Cowboys are the better team overall and have a great shot at taking it, but the circumstances aren’t in their favor. It’s the first game without Elliott so the offense will surely be poking and prodding to find what works. Throw in that Smith is out, that it’s on the road, and the Falcons are desperate and I think it may end up being just a bit too much. A loss here could end up coming back to haunt Dallas if a wild card spot comes down to a tiebreaker, although in the back of my mind I just get the feeling that this is one of those years where the Falcons aren’t able to really build any momentum and end up winning only 8, perhaps 9 games, especially with a very difficult second half schedule. Atlanta takes this one, 27-23, but I’ll make a little bonus prediction and say that it won’t come back to hurt us later in the year, at least not in a direct tiebreaker scenario with the Falcons.