Back when this year’s schedule was released, everyone looked at the upcoming game as the biggest challenge for the Dallas Cowboys. It is against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. They have what is almost certainly the greatest head coach/quarterback partnership in the league in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They have a 9-1 record. Oh, and it is at their stadium. Which is outdoors. In Massachusetts. In November. With a forecast of temps in the 30s or low 40s and rain. Or, not ideal conditions for a team that plays most of its games indoors.
It still looks like one of the biggest challenges of the year for a team that has not done so well facing those kinds of games. And as Jason Witten agrees, as reported in the DMN, it means a bit more than most.
Witten was asked Tuesday if Sunday’s meeting is a measuring-stick game.
“Yeah, I think it is,” Witten said during a community function where players dispersed hundreds of Thanksgiving meals at a Salvation Army site. “There are defining games that happen. You look at last year’s season ... and you beat a good New Orleans team. This is one of those games. There’s still a lot of games out there, so I don’t think it’s make or break. But at the same time, to be able to go on the road and play against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and their team — they’re 9-1 like they are. A great opportunity for us.”
So not a must-win game. But another “really need to win” game.
Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle also have this one on their minds, and as usual, have some things to share.
Tom: The Cowboys are a big road underdog according to the oddsmakers. It is, I have heard, the first time they have not been the favorite all season. My fan side kinda feels like they are being underestimated, while my objective side sees why the line is so big.
I will say that it is not all bad to be expected to lose, and by a pretty big margin as these things go. Dallas has nothing really to lose and everything to gain in this one. Sure, things would be a lot better if they win, but it is not a disaster if they don’t.
Here are some Week 12 playoff odds for the Cowboys via NYT:— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 20, 2019
Cowboys win, Eagles lose = 84%
Cowboys win, Eagles win = 74%
Cowboys lose, Eagles lose = 69%
Cowboys lose, Eagles win = 50%
Michael: Well, that’s a pretty big spread, from 84% to 50%. I mean, if Dallas loses and the Eagles win the Cowboys still have a 1-in-2 chance to make the playoffs. But for me, this is an opportunity for this team to stand up and proclaim themselves a true contender. Many have noted they haven’t beaten a quality team. Well, taking the Patriots down in Foxborough (where they haven’t lost since 2017) would certainly qualify.
I’m with you. I think the Cowboys have a shot. They’re a bad matchup for the Patriots. The Dallas offense is as dangerous as any team in the league. The only good offense the Patriots faced this year was Baltimore, who literally ran over New England (217 yards rushing yards). We know Belichick’s objective is to stop what the opponent does best.
But what is that when it comes to the Cowboys? You’re gonna stop Dak to Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup? Okay, that still leaves Randall Cobb, Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, Tony Pollard and, oh yeah, Ezekiel Elliott. I’m not saying it can’t happen (see New Orleans) but this unit is as well-equipped to go against this defense as any.
I’ll specifically be looking at the offensive line. The Patriots have a seriously dangerous pass rush and if they’re able to get to Dak Prescott then it won’t really matter who the receivers are. But I don’t see New England recording five sacks like they did against Philadelphia. With time, I think Dak again makes plays and opens things up for a running game that’s due a breakout performance.
Tom: For me, the other key to the game is whether the Dallas defense can do better - much better. Tom Brady may be showing some real signs of nearing Medicare eligibility, but he still is a very dangerous quarterback, and no quarterback in the league knows how to read defenses better. Plus, the Patriots run game has to be accounted for, and we have seen the Cowboys get gashed at times this season.
I think the way to counter is to get pressure on Brady, because that is one thing he does not always handle well. Keep him uncomfortable and get him to the ground. Of course, you have to do that gently, because no QB is more protected by the refs than he is, as opposed to, say, Dak, who often gets the Cam Newton level of care and concern from the zebras. But if that pass rush can get to Brady, this game gets a lot more winnable. The New England offense was not exactly impressive in their last game against the Eagles.
This is also a big game for Jason Garrett. I think this will have a big influence on whether he gets offered a new contract. This would be a chance to show he can beat good teams.
There is that argument that the Pats have padded their record with a collection of patsies, and lost against the only really good team they faced in the Ravens. But 9-1 is still tied for the best record in the NFL, and how many games you win is the only real factor in getting to the playoffs.
Michael: I think this is a monumental game for Jason Garrett. He enters the game armed with a better roster than New England. If the Patriots win it will be because Jason Garrett got less from his roster than Bill Belichick got from his.
This will also be an opportunity for Dak Prescott to contribute a signature performance to his burgeoning MVP candidacy. Dak has all the stats necessary to be a legit candidate. What he doesn’t have is a win over a quality opponent, a notable, high-profile performance on a national stage, a come-from-behind win, or a meme-worthy play (beyond his pre-game hip-thrust exercise). If Dak outplays Brady and the Cowboys win in Foxborough that can change. On the other hand, if Dak struggles or even simply comes up short at the end then his stats will be considered empty.
Dak has met pretty much every challenge this year (it’s not his fault the Cowboys called run plays at the most crucial juncture against the Vikings). This is another opportunity in a breakout season for him to prove he’s an elite quarterback.
Tom: There’s one other hope that I have - for Dallas to come out and unequivocally show that they are a passing team. That does not mean that they should just ignore Zeke. It means they should:
- Hand the ball off to Elliott mostly in short-yardage and goal line situations, with just a few early down runs to stay unpredictable and maybe catch the Patriots dropping into coverage. Those 11 packages help empty the box anyway.
- Incorporate Tony Pollard and Blake Jarwin more. I would love to see them line up with both of them and Zeke on the field at the same time, and then empty the backfield and let Dak do his thing.
- Mostly, though, let the new three-headed monster at wide receiver cook.
- Throw in some uptempo early.
I was one of the early Kellen Moore supporters, and I think he has not just lived up to what we hoped to see from him, he has exceeded expectations by a pretty good margin. Now that Garrett has taken the governor off, I am absolutely giddy to see what he can do the rest of the way.
It’s another big game, on a national stage. If the Cowboys can win, and maybe put up 400 yards and 30 points along the way, it will show us that this team may be getting their act together just in time.
We will soon see.