It’s the New England Patriots hosting the Dallas Cowboys on FOX. What could you do with your time that would be more enjoyable than watching these two teams battle it out on Sunday? The Cowboys are trying to beat the reigning Super Bowl champs as they continue to make a push for the post season. The Philadelphia Eagles are right on their heels in the division race, and it would be super swell to pull off the upset at Foxboro Stadium this week.
What should we expect from this game? Here are five things to keep your eye on in this huge matchup.
1. What will the Patriots take away?
Bill Belichick is real good at taking a team’s best player away and forcing teams to execute in all facets of the game if they want to emerge victorious. Luckily for Dallas, they have a slew of “best players” that should be high on Belichick’s list as players to stop. Will they focus on taking away Ezekiel Elliott? The Patriots have the second-fewest rushing attempts against them this season as their opponents usually pass on them, but they aren’t a dominant run-stopping team. New England ranks 23rd in rushing yards allowed per attempt.
Will they try to take away Amari Cooper? A couple years ago, they signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal. It was a good move as he turned in an All-Pro season last year and will be a tough battle for Cooper this week. The Cowboys star receiver is coming off a game where where he was kept quiet after going against the Lions’ Darius Slay, but it didn’t slow the Cowboys offense down in the slightest. Despite the low production from Cooper, Dak Prescott still managed to air it out for 444 yards.
So, maybe the winning ticket is to come after Prescott? While he’s right in the middle of his best season as a pro, Dak has shown some vulnerability when defenses can bring pressure, but the Cowboys offensive line has done a great job of keeping him clean in the pocket. Will the Patriots get creative and use more defenders to come after him? Expect the Patriots defense to do everything in their power to keep Prescott from getting into a rhythm.
2. You whiff, you lose
If I had to hang my hat on one element of this matchup that would most likely influence the outcome, it would be how well the Cowboys defense tackles in this game. Brady loves to throw short stuff to his receivers and let them work up the field. Receiving back James White is dangerous weapon who will be a problem for the Cowboys defense, especially considering how they’ve struggled wrapping up backs on screen plays this year. Julian Edelman is another target whose start/stop suddenness allows him to scurry across the field for extra yards.
Keeping the Patriots from turning these small gains into big gains will be crucial for the Cowboys defense. Jaylon Smith needs to have a big game as he’ll be involved in all aspects of the defense. And that role should be expanded even more with news breaking that Leighton Vander Esch isn’t expected to suit up on Sunday. Smith will need help not only from his LB buddies in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but it’s going to take a collective effort from all the defensive backs to not whiff on tackling the opposition in the open field.
3. Quinn vs. Wynn - who wins?
Robert Quinn has been a pleasant addition to the Cowboys pass rushing squad as he leads the team with 8.5 sacks on the season. This week he’ll face off against Patriots 2018 first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn. It’s been a rough go for Wynn in terms of health as he missed last season with a torn Achilles and then he’s been on injured reserve this year with turf toe. He’s back now, but we don’t really know what to expect as he’s barely seen any NFL action. What we do know is that he’ll instantly be thrown in against a very good pass rusher in Quinn. Will the veteran prevail or with the youngster hold his own in this matchup? Who wins could go a long way in determining if Tom Brady has enough time to do what it is he does.
4. Bennett’s retribution
After having an issue with the Patriots’ position coach, Michael Bennett was suspended for a game and then later dealt to the Cowboys for a late-round draft pick. It was a low-risk/high-reward move, and early indication is that it’s looking like a great signing. Bennett already has three sacks in just three games with the Cowboys as he is proving to be a great substitute for the injured Tyrone Crawford.
New England got a good look at Bennett in training camp, so they’ll have an idea on how they’ll want to play him, but this Cowboys offensive line has plenty of players to keep the Pat’s offensive line busy. Bennett loves to move around all over the line, so look for him to show his former team a lot of love in the trenches on Sunday.
5. Protect the ball
The Patriots have the no. 1 defense in the league. They are first in both yards allowed and points scored. They give up the fewest yards per play, allow the lowest third-down percentage, and are top three in red zone defense. There are not a lot of things this New England defense doesn’t do very well.
And at the top of that list is their ability to take the ball away. The Patriots have a league best 2.8 takeaways a game. That is what they average! And with an offense that doesn’t turn the ball over very much, it goes without saying that the Patriots also have a league best +18 turnover margin and it’s not even close.
The Cowboys need to play a clean game to have a shot at beating the Patriots, but any hints of sloppiness and the Patriots will bury them. Players like linebacker Dont’a Hightower are sneaky, he’s all over the place in their scheme. New England will look to confuse Prescott and don’t be surprised if they try to bait him with some different looks.