When the Dallas Cowboys last hosted these Atlanta Falcons in AT&T Stadium, it took a furious comeback effort to get the win. Even then, Greg Zuerlein had to save the day twice. First, Zuerlein successfully pulled off the storied watermelon kick, and then he drilled a 46-yard field goal to officially win the game.
Zuerlein won’t suit up for this week’s rematch as he’s on the COVID-19 list, so Dallas will have to avoid a situation that calls for any kickoff magic. Of course, the Cowboys want to avoid just about everything that happened in last year’s game anyway.
They also want to avoid everything that happened in last week’s game, too. For the second straight week, Dallas is hosting a 4-4 team that’s viewed as a heavy underdog. Last week, with the Broncos a 10-point underdog, the Cowboys laid an egg and got beat bad. Right now, the Cowboys are favored by nine points over Atlanta, so this is a chance to make a statement that last week’s performance was an aberration, not the new normal.
However, that’s about where the similarities end between the Broncos and Falcons. Atlanta is in its first year under head coach Arthur Smith, the FedEx royalty who became an NFL darling by turning around Ryan Tannehill’s career in Tennessee. Smith’s Falcons are currently stuck between win-now mode and rebuild mode, but they’ve been very comfortable playing in close games this year. All four of their wins have been by one score, with three of them being won by field goals as time expired.
That’s quite the reversal of fortune from what Falcons fans have become accustomed to under the likes of Dan Quinn and even his predecessors. Quinn, in his five-and-some-change years as head coach, came closer than anyone to bringing a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta. But his teams never recovered after the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in overtime, and it’s led to Quinn reinventing himself in Dallas.
While the Falcons have gotten better at winning the close games under Smith so far, they haven’t really gotten better as a whole. The combined record of teams they’ve beat is 12-22; the only team with a winning record among that bunch was the Saints this past weekend, who were playing with a backup quarterback.
All in all, this team is struggling to find an identity. Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan has started to get into a groove, gelling with electric hybrid weapons like running back/wide receiver/return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, but Atlanta still finds themselves 25th in offensive DVOA.
The defense has been even worse. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees came out of retirement for the second time to rebuild a defense that features Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and an assortment of backup-level players. It hasn’t gone well, with Atlanta ranking 31st in defensive DVOA.
All of this bodes well for Dallas, who should be playing angry after shooting themselves in the foot last week. Dak Prescott, especially, will be looking to get right after playing the worst game of his career. Getting Michael Gallup back goes a long way towards doing just that. And while Terence Steele is expected to be back at left tackle after a dismal performance against Denver, Atlanta has struggled to generate any pass rush off the edge. Steven Means and Dante Fowler are the Falcons’ leaders in pressures at EDGE; Means has yet to register a sack, while Fowler has missed the last four games, although he may return this week.
Defensively, Quinn’s unit is in need of its own get-right game, though it won’t be easy. Patterson is a dynamic threat in both the run and passing game, and his 737 yards from scrimmage are the 15th-most in the NFL. Pitts leads the team in receiving, and over the last four games he’s got 21 catches for 357 yards, or an average of 17 yards per catch. How Quinn attacks these two will be fascinating to watch.
Quinn’s job was made harder by the news Thursday morning that Randy Gregory will be out for this game and a few more. Gregory has been the team’s best pass rusher all year, so losing him deals a big blow to a defense trying to atone for last week. Will that move Micah Parsons to EDGE again, or does Quinn have other plans? The last time Dallas faced this conundrum, they held Justin Herbert to 17 points on the road, so it’ll be interesting to see what Quinn draws up against his former team.
The overall sentiment for this game is much like last week’s: it’s a game the Cowboys should win comfortably. Now that they’ve learned their lesson about treating every game like it’s the toughest one, we’re about to find out the mental resolve of this team. We know their talent is like none other, but their ability to rebound from last week and lay down a beating against an inferior team will speak volumes about the Cowboys’ actual Super Bowl chances.
We discussed everything you need to know about Sunday’s game on our Dallas Cowboys Preview Show on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel. Make sure to subscribe to our channel (which you can do right here) so you don’t miss any of our videos!