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Cowboys recent history vs Bills a stark reminder of how far they’ve come under McCarthy

Sunday’s game is going to be pretty epic, isn’t it?

Buffalo Bills v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has only played the Buffalo Bills once in his career, on Thanksgiving in 2019. In what ended up being the last year of Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach, the Cowboys needed a win sitting at 6-5 coming off a 13-9 loss to the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Their offensive output against the Bills was equally uninspiring, losing 26-15 after scoring a touchdown on their opening drive and no further points until a garbage time Ventrell Bryant touchdown. It was Devin Singleltary and Josh Allen hurting the Cowboys on the ground, with Allen accounting for one rushing touchdown and another through the air to former Cowboy Cole Beasley.

Now in first place in the NFC East, the current Cowboys are making their first trip to Buffalo since December of 2015. Former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore got the start at quarterback near the end of another lost season for Dallas, and two Dan Bailey first half field goals was all the Cowboys would score in a forgetful 16-6 loss. It was the tandem of a mobile quarterback in Tyrod Taylor and running back Karlos Williams carving up the Cowboys on the ground for the Bills to come out on top.

The Cowboys having Dak Prescott playing at a MVP-favorite level is just the tip of the iceberg (weather game pun fully intended) when it comes to how different this matchup between cross-conference contenders is expected to play out in America’s Game of the Week Sunday afternoon. Prescott is in full command of an offense being called for the first time by Mike McCarthy, and is more than ready to duel Josh Allen should this turn into a high-scoring affair. The Cowboys offense put up 33 points against the Eagles in primetime last week, 12 of which came from the automatic Brandon Aubrey making long field goals that never gave Philadelphia a chance to get back in the game on a short field. Of course, unlike the previous week against the Seahawks, the Cowboys didn’t need all of these points, as the defense kept the Eagles offense out of the endzone all night - holding the team to a season-low 13 points.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

The Cowboys showed they can win defensively by playing coverage even when their frenetic pass rush isn’t firing on all cylinders, locking up A.J. Brown with Stephon Gilmore and seeing DaRon Bland fare well against Devonta Smith. The Cowboys forced Hurts to beat them from the pocket, something he was able to do in a previous win against them this season, but playing from behind as the Cowboys jumped ahead 10-0 in front of one of the loudest crowds McCarthy has seen inside AT&T Stadium proved too difficult.

All of this is another reason why the Cowboys should be considered more than ready for this late-season road test at the Bills, facing another dual threat QB in Allen that will get the ball out of his hands when plays are there, but also hold onto it and give the defense a chance at takeaways when things break down. Allen and the Bills will be coming off their biggest win of the season to meet the Cowboys at home; they went to Arrowhead and beat the Chiefs for the second time in a row, 20-17. Allen threw the ball 42 times in the win, his second highest number of attempts this season only behind an overtime loss at the Eagles. His completion percentage of 54.8% was also his lowest of the season, but his second quarter rushing touchdown gave the Bills a 14-0 lead they’d never look back from. Although the Chiefs tied the game at 17 in the fourth quarter after a quick Bills three and out following a fumble recovery, the Buffalo offense answered with 1:57 left on Tyler Bass’ second field goal of the game.

The Bills climbed a game over .500 with the win, but still have plenty of work to do in a crowded AFC. Their losses to New York (Jets), Jacksonville, New England, Cincinnati, and Denver have them well behind in crucial tiebreaker scenarios. A win against the NFC East-leading Cowboys won’t change this, but it’s a win the Bills still need, in a way searching for their own signature victory the way Dallas was before toppling the Seahawks and Eagles back-to-back.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys keeping Prescott upright in the rematch against the Eagles was the key to their passing game finding it’s usual rhythm at home for a 14th straight win. The theme of the season for the offensive side of the ball is to continue adding wrinkles and presenting new challenges to defenses. Their balanced ground game against Philly is particularly encouraging when it comes to sustaining drives in potential windy and icy conditions this week, and testing a Bills defense that’s allowed the third highest yards per carry this season. In the spirit of both teams coming into this Week 15 heavyweight fight playing their best football when it matters most, the Bills held the Chiefs to just 82 yards last week though.

Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle consistently tested the Eagles defense physically between the tackles, where normally stout interior players Jordan Davis and Fletcher Cox struggled to keep contain with their defense committing more numbers to coverage. Jordan Phillips and Ed Oliver can present a similar challenge for the Bills defense, but the Cowboys will take their offensive line playing downhill and on the move against anybody, especially with Tyler Smith at left guard who earned praise from the national broadcast alongside ageless veteran Tyron Smith on Sunday night. The Bills have also allowed a higher yards per passing attempt in their losses compared to wins, and some staggering numbers of 8.5 against Trevor Lawrence, 8.1 against Tua Tagovailoa, and 7.9 against Joe Burrow. The weather in Buffalo at this time of year can force teams into a shorter passing attack, which the Cowboys West Coast base is happy to utilize, but setting up shot plays with the play-action game should be there for Prescott to give his team a great chance at six straight wins.

It is not often when the history between the Cowboys and their upcoming opponent brings back so many ghosts of the past, like Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore, but all of this serves as another reminder of how well McCarthy has implemented not just his offense, but a new culture around Dallas. He has a QB playing at a MVP level, while McCarthy himself should be considered for Coach of the Year, as Dan Quinn and John Fassel continue to have this team prepared better than most in all three phases come game days. The Bills might not quite be the marquee opponent this game could have been, but they’re certainly formidable enough for the Cowboys to not lose sight of how significant it is they can be expected to go on the road and get this type of win now. They’ll need help along the way in the division race still, but controlling what they can in front of them has slowly but surely earned them plenty of respect, playing for even more of it the next two weeks with the trip to Buffalo followed by a visit to Miami and the Dolphins.

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