The Dallas Cowboys traveling to Foxborough to face the legendary Bill Belichick is daunting, no matter how talented the Patriots roster is. Being intimidated by a Belichick-coached team is almost human nature at this point. After all, Dallas hasn’t won in Foxborough in 34 years. To compound this fear, Belichick has a career winning percentage of 79.4% when playing at home.
However, at the risk of spoiling the final prediction, the Cowboys should not be intimidated by the Patriots. Based on EPA through five weeks, the Patriots are marginally worse than the New York Giants, a team that Dallas beat by 24. The Cowboys are favored by 3.5 points (DraftKings SportsBook) after starting the week as four-point favorites.
The 20-year New England dynasty appears to be over for now. Belichick is still a great head coach, but he no longer has the weapons around him. Given all of that, the possibility of an upset exists, so what should Cowboys fans look out for?
The Cowboys offense
Death, taxes, and Bill Belichick coaching a good defense. The New England defense is once again impressive, and they have been able to limit their opponent’s success on offense. But does it even matter?
The Patriots currently land as the fifth-best defense by points per game, ninth-best by DVOA, and eleventh by EPA per play. There is no arguing that Belichick has once again coached an above-average defense. But it ultimately doesn’t matter.
When the Cowboys played the “dominant” Panthers defense, which ranks top three in all of the metrics listed above, Dallas put up 36 points with ease. Here are a few metrics where the Cowboys’ offense ranks in the top three; rushing DVOA, yards per play, PFF run-blocking grade, points per play, third-down conversion rate, points per game, and both rushing and passing success rate.
Maybe Belichick is able to find the Achilles heel of the Cowboys offense, but it doesn’t seem like this team has one. There are weaknesses on the offense, highlighted by the center position, but the Cowboys have to make mistakes and stop themselves from scoring if they are to be contained. And as the Giants game proved, even miscues will only slow down this offense for so long.
So how should we expect the Cowboys to exploit this defense?
While the Patriots possess the tenth best team by EPA per play allowed on dropbacks, their rushing defense is not as intimidating. They land as the 12th worst team against the run, eighth-worst on first down.
The Cowboys’ ability to successfully use Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on the ground will continue through week six. You should expect Zeke to get the bulk of the carries through the first half, ripping off five-plus yards per attempt. And then, when Elliott has worn out the New England defensive line, Pollard will come in and use his speed on the edge.
With Elliott playing possibly the best football we have ever seen him play (you can read about that here), it has only been easier for Pollard to use his speed. The Patriots will not be the team that slows the Dallas run game.
You can guess the formula from here. The ground game will open up Dak Prescott to find any of his elite pass-catching options. To prove the depth of the Dallas offense, the Cowboys are one of three teams in the NFL with five pass-catchers graded above-average by PFF’s receiving metric.
The only area in the passing game Dallas has to be concerned with is turnovers. While Dak has exceeded all expectations this year, he has made the occasional mistake. And with the Patriots currently forcing the sixth-most interceptions in the NFL, they can create takeaways.
So the game plan will be similar to the last four weeks. Let Elliott’s power and Pollard’s speed march down the field and create short-yardage situations. Dak will be able to convert when needed, but he will not be asked to shoulder the burden. As long as Dallas keeps the ball safe, it will be another successful week for the offense.
The Cowboys defense
In 16 games last year, the Cowboys allowed less than 22 points in a game just three times. They have done it three times in the previous four weeks alone. And here is where it gets fun; the Patriots’ offense is the worst the Cowboys have seen thus far.
It would be obvious to point out the fact that Mac Jones is tied for the sixth-most interceptions thrown through five weeks, while Trevon Diggs leads the NFL in interceptions by a wide margin. However, remember that it is Belichick we’re dealing with. He is likely going to avoid Diggs at all costs.
But that won’t matter. Even if the Cowboys do not force a single turnover in this game, which is unlikely, the defense should still win.
By EPA per play, Mac Jones has been the best rookie quarterback through the first five weeks. But that isn’t saying a lot considering he still falls in the bottom ten of starting quarterbacks by EPA per play. Jones will likely become a decent starting quarterback in the future, but for now, he is simply a game manager.
Only 10% of Mac Jones’ passes are longer than 20 yards, leading to the fourth-lowest yards per attempt in the NFL. Even when Jones has more than 2.5 seconds to throw, when his receivers can get downfield, his yards per attempt is the lowest in the NFL.
Belichick is not a coach that likes to take unnecessary risks, and he has proven that with Jones. The story was similar with Brady, Belichick does not want a gun-slinging quarterback. Instead, the Patriots’ offense will keep the passes close to the line of scrimmage to live another down.
However, the Patriots do not have a run game to set up the short passes. They rank as the sixth-worst team by rushing DVOA, currently averaging 3.7 yards per attempt on the ground. And with the Cowboys’ offense presumably being able to march downfield, New England will have to play catch-up. So Jones and Belichick will have to find ways to score, which they have struggled to do this year.
The one area where the Cowboys will be tested is in the pass-rush. Behind one of the fastest times to throws in the NFL, Jones has only seen a league-average amount of pressure and sacks.
But when pressured, there is a sizable drop-off in Jones’ game. In passes with a clean pocket, Jones ranks as the fourteenth-best quarterback by PFF. His ranking drops to 25 when the pass-rush gets through.
Dan Quinn thus has his blueprint for stopping the Patriots’ offense. With the weaker New England rushing game, he will not need to send extra pressure through the middle. Instead, he can bring more pass-rushers around the edge to get to Mac Jones. From there, the secondary will press up, forcing Jones to throw it over the top.
Since Jones is still a rookie, he will be forced to make passes that he isn’t comfortable making. This will either result in incompletions or turnovers, meaning the defense will be successful regardless. Make Jones play a game he hasn’t had to play yet since this isn’t an offense the Cowboys should be particularly concerned about.
Coaching and special teams
Coaching is the one facet of the game where the Cowboys are outmatched. While Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore, and Dan Quinn have put together an impressive start to the season, there is no debating Belichick’s impact on the game.
This is nowhere more evident than with penalties. While Dallas enters this matchup as the sixth most penalized team in the league, New England is in the bottom ten. Put simply, the Patriots are more disciplined than the Cowboys.
However, it has not seemed to matter thus far for Dallas. The offense can overcome any lost yardage, and the defense has generated stops when needed. However, Belichick is able to take advantage of mistakes better than any other coach in the league.
If Belichick sees a backed-up offense or a defense on its heels, he will strike. This is a game the Cowboys should win, but it will get exponentially more competitive if they make unnecessary mistakes. Dallas needs to let the on-field talent dominate this game, not coaching.
Avoid penalties that give the Patriots an advantage, manage the clock well, and play the same football the Cowboys have played over the past four weeks. If that can be done, the game is all but won. However, if not, Belichick will be able to take this game into his own hands.
As for special teams, the Cowboys simply need to force the Patriots to drive the length of the field. Kick away from the return men on both punts and kickoffs. Mac Jones will then have to carry the offense 75 yards for a touchdown. With his conservative style of play and the Cowboys’ improvement on defense, Jones will not be able to continually sustain long drives. At least not enough to keep up with the Cowboys offense.
Zuerlein has not missed a field goal since week one. Outside of the missed PAT against the Eagles, he has played perfect football. If he keeps this up, Cowboys fans will not have to worry about a missed field goal influencing the outcome of the game. Zuerlein only needs to continue this momentum.
It is difficult to believe that the Patriots should not be seen as a threat, especially with Bill Belichick on the opposing sideline. While this game will not be a breeze, the Cowboys walk into the bye week as a 5-1 team if they can avoid two consecutive ugly performances.
This is not to get too confident; the Patriots are a decent football team. But they are not the Chargers, Buccaneers, or even the Panthers. This is the best chance the Cowboys have ever had to beat Belichick. A matchup against the Patriots should be a manageable game for the Cowboys, so let’s see what Bill has up his sleeve.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 74.9%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 31, New England Patriots 17