There is good news and bad news. The good news is the Cowboys won on Sunday and the Eagles lost, meaning that Dallas (6-4) holds a whole one-game lead on the Eagles (5-5) in the NFC East, in addition to the head-to-head tiebreaker. The bad news? Dallas has to travel to Boston to take on the 9-1 Patriots.
It’s no surprise that the Pats are good this year, as it’s just another chapter in what’s been the most dominant dynasty in NFL history, but it’s how they’re getting it done that’s intimidating: Tom Brady isn’t the driving force anymore, but the defense is so good that describing them as stifling seems like an understatement. Oh, and there’s the fact that under Bill Belichick the Pats are 129-27 at home, and haven’t lost in Gillette Stadium since October 1, 2017.
Last week we touched on Belichick’s dominance and how his willingness to adapt his schemes have allowed the Patriots to be so good for so long. That’s evident this year, as the Patriots offense is aggressively average; they rank 15th in total yards, and issues have arisen in the red zone where they rank 25th in touchdown percentage. But their defense has stepped up big: aside from the Ravens game, the defense has only surrendered five touchdowns in nine games. The Ravens, on the other hand, scored four offensive touchdowns in their victory over New England. No longer is this a Patriots team where Brady will rack up points and opposing teams struggle to keep up. This is more akin to the Patriots of the early 2000’s, where opposing teams struggle just to score anything at all.
So, the odds are good that Dallas will lose next week. In fact, they’ve already opened up as a seven point underdog. But it’s not all gloom and doom. In many ways, the Cowboys are actually set up well for success this Sunday. Dallas has had the fortune of playing against two different teams this year that espouse Belichick’s core philosophy of being flexible.
First, it was the Dolphins under Brian Flores. And while the Dolphins don’t have anywhere near the talent of the Patriots - or any other NFL team, for that matter - the schemes and methods of attack were very similar to what the Cowboys will see on Sunday in Foxboro. And the Cowboys’ illustrious offense put on a show, with Dak throwing for 246 yards (which seems pedestrian for him now, crazily enough) and three total touchdowns and seeing both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard run for over 100 yards.
Next, it was the Lions, who served as a great primer for the Patriots. Led by Matt Patricia, another former Patriots defensive coordinator, Detroit operates the same kind of exotic, multiple defensive scheme that aims at taking away an offense’s best players. While Detroit managed to slow down the running game - the trio of Zeke, Pollard, and Dak only mustered 75 rushing yards on 24 carries - the Cowboys still put on a show, with Prescott racking up 444 yards and three touchdowns. Zeke and Pollard also found ways to produce in the passing game, with both catching touchdowns.
The point here is that the Cowboys offense is too talented at every position for opposing coaches to properly execute Belichick’s mindset of taking away what they do best. Prescott can throw all over a defense or run with it if nothing is open, and the running backs can impact a game in multiple ways. Furthermore, Kellen Moore’s multiple-look offense is diverse enough to use each of these players effectively, and he’s really starting to come into his own as a play-caller.
Granted, the Patriots have much better players than the Dolphins and Lions combined, so it won’t be easy by any stretch on Sunday. The Cowboys also have a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot in the first quarter, which will end games immediately in Gillette Stadium. Still, you can bet that Moore will be watching every snap of the Ravens’ victory over the Patriots to see what he can incorporate into the plans this week.
The Cowboys have already shown twice that they’re too balanced of an offense for the normal Belichick approach to work on its own. Coming into their underdog matchup against the Patriots, the Cowboys are battle tested against two of Belichick’s best apprentices. That’s more than most teams have, and it could help Dallas score an upset victory.