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Cowboys @ Patriots: A Week 12 primer for the 2019 regular season

Aggressive decision-making by the Cowboys could be the key to the game.

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

If the NFL had their way, these two teams would meet in the Super Bowl. Both teams have massive and passionate fan bases while being hated by everyone else, which would likely make a Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl the most watched Super Bowl in history.

But just in case that doesn’t happen, the NFL at least gets a regular-season bout between these two with Dallas traveling to Boston. Slated as the Fox Game of the Week, it’ll feature America’s Team going up against America’s most dominant sports franchise this century, and a face-off between dark horse MVP contender Dak Prescott and struggling Hall of Famer Tom Brady.

The narratives write themselves, and it should make for some wildly entertaining football. Nevertheless, the 9-1 Patriots are 6.5 point favorites over the 6-4 Cowboys, not surprisingly. The Patriots have struggled offensively, especially in the red zone where they rank 25th in touchdown percentage, but their dominant defense has carried the team to its impressive record.

The Patriots’ +179 point differential leads the league by a wide margin, with the Ravens sitting in a distant second at +145; of course, it was the Ravens who dealt New England their one loss so far. The Pats defense has been an integral part of that impressive differential, allowing only 10.8 points per game.

But the offense has struggled, and much of that can be attributed to inconsistency in personnel. This is the first time since 2009 that Brady has been without Rob Gronkowski. They also brought in Antonio Brown after the season opener, but famously cut him after one game. Josh Gordon, who the team acquired during last season, was waived after Week 6; shortly after, New England traded for Mohamed Sanu.

This meant that Phillip Dorsett, who’s been a role player in the offense the last two years, has had to take on a bigger responsibility behind Julian Edelman, as has undrafted rookie wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. New England’s first-round pick this year, N’keal Harry, made his NFL debut last week after spending the first half of the season on the injured reserve. Listed at 6’4” and 225, Harry could become a central figure in their red zone offense, but the rookie is still getting his feet wet.

Now, both Dorsett and Sanu are uncertain for Sunday’s game with injuries, while Edelman is once again questionable with a shoulder injury that he’s been playing through. The good news for the Patriots offense is they’ll be getting left tackle Isaiah Wynn back, and he is expected to start. A first-round pick in 2018, Wynn missed all of his rookie year with an injury. He made his NFL debut this year, but was placed on the injured reserve after the second week of the season. Now, he’ll be making his third career start at left tackle against Robert Quinn, who’s third in the league in pass rush win rate off the edge and seventh in sacks.

Despite the Cowboys’ superb pass rush, though, their overall defense has been less than impressive. After all, they just gave up 27 points to a Lions offense led by Jeff Driskel and Bo Scarbrough. Now, the struggling defense will go up against an offense that’s faced just as many issues. Will the Cowboys defense contain the Patriots, as many others have this year, or will they help Brady have a “get right” game?

This dynamic is the complete opposite from the matchup between the Cowboys offense and the Pats defense, which can most easily be summed up as an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. It’ll be the top offense in yards and DVOA against the top defense in yards and DVOA, and whoever blinks first will likely win.

However, this game could come down to coaching decisions. So far this year, the Ravens are the only team that’s been able to beat New England. Part of their success was the willingness to go for it on fourth down frequently, which head coach John Harbaugh explained a few weeks prior:

“Absolutely not,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t play scared.”

Playing a team as skilled and well-coached as the Patriots requires calculated risk-taking, and unfortunately, that’s been a thing the Cowboys have rarely done this year. Per The Football Database, Dallas has the second-fewest fourth down attempts this year. Baltimore, on the other hand, is tied for fifth most.

If the Cowboys want to win in Foxboro, something no team has done since October 1, 2017, then they cannot play scared. That starts with the coaching decisions. If Jason Garrett and others can put the players in a good position to succeed and play unafraid, Dallas has the talent to pull this thing off. If not, chalk up another loss. Either way, it’ll make for some darn good football.