Preparing to face a Bill Belichick coached New England Patriots team is never easy, but that is exactly where the 2-1 Dallas Cowboys find themselves coming off their first loss of the season. The Cowboys potentially gave the Patriots plenty of weaknesses to view on tape by falling 28-16 to the Cardinals, but just how much they missed starting linemen Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz, and Zack Martin remains to be seen. The Patriots certainly aren’t taking the Cowboys lightly, with Belichick having an incredibly detail-oriented scouting report that praises the Cowboys in all three phases Wednesday.
In the midst of a 3 for 11 stretch of converting red zone opportunities with touchdowns, the pressure is firmly on play-caller Mike McCarthy and his 2-3 career record against Belichick to come into this game with a better plan.
The Cowboys draw a Patriots defense that’s allowed two out of every three red zone possessions for their opponents to end in a touchdown. Still, the New England defense has been the team’s calling card to keeping games close, their two losses coming by a combined 12 points to playoff teams from a year ago. They even had to make a last-second stand against the same Jets team the Cowboys handled 30-10, with the offense only scoring 13 points in a tight 15-10 win in New Jersey.
Week three was the Patriots’ first without forcing a turnover this season. Rookie Christian Gonzalez intercepted Tua Tagovailoa, and Jabrill Peppers forced a late Eagles fumble recovered by Marcus Jones to give them a chance at a season-opening upset of the reigning NFC champions. While Cowboys fans will be looking for more than just ball security in this game from the offense, this is a game they should control at home if they simply continue to take what the defense gives them.
This will be the first meeting between the Cowboys and Patriots since October of 2021. CeeDee Lamb scored an overtime touchdown to cap off an epic performance by Dak Prescott, who finished with 445 yards and three touchdowns on 51 attempts. Unfortunately, this early season game would be the high water mark for the Cowboys offense in passing yards, total yards and first downs all season. The familiar season-long script of Kellen Moore’s offense fading as the year went on began with this win at the Patriots. Dallas lost three of their next five with a 30-16 letdown against the Broncos at home, a 19-9 loss in Kansas City where the defense played outstanding against the Chiefs, and an overtime Thanksgiving loss against the Raiders. Moore would survive the offseason after a Wild Card round exit to the 49ers, but 2022 would be his last under McCarthy when the season ended at the hands of the 49ers again in the Divisional Round.
With McCarthy now in his first season as play-caller alongside new OC Brian Schottenheimer, the Cowboys were willing to potentially trade some uncertainty on this side of the ball early for a proven offense that can take this talented group deeper in the playoffs. Not facing any game pressure at all in the first two weeks, the Cowboys offense failed their first close game test with a compromised offensive line, and now line up against a defense that’s thrived on keeping Mac Jones and the Pats offense in games long enough to be dangerous.
In 2021, the Cowboys came into that week six matchup at the Patriots with CeeDee Lamb accounting for 25% of their total passing yards through five games. In addition to the walk-off touchdown, he added 149 yards (a career high at the time) and another fourth quarter touchdown on nine catches.
Through three games in 2023, Lamb is 42% of the Cowboys passing yards. Not being able to get him downfield against the Cardinals with worries about pass protection holding up was a big part of last Sunday’s loss. Lamb’s yards per target at the Giants was 19.25, a more sustainable eleven on 13 targets versus the Jets, but just 7.57 against the Cardinals.
The Patriots have drawn tough receivers like A.J. Brown and the dynamic duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle so far, but still rank seventh in the NFL in opponent yards per pass attempt allowed. Limiting big plays and forcing offenses to function without their top receivers seeing single coverage has always been New England’s calling card, firmly putting the pressure right back on the hot topic of the week for Dallas which is red zone efficiency. The throws between the 20s underneath and ability to get their running backs in space against linebackers will be there, but how much Dan Quinn’s defense will be able to do what it does best and play with the lead is predicated on McCarthy’s offense finishing drives with touchdowns instead of field goals.
It was running back Rico Dowdle scoring the lone Cowboys touchdown against the Cardinals, while Tony Pollard added 23 carries and three receptions to continue his torrid pace of touches in the offense. The Cowboys backfield is coming along with room to grow, but this Sunday versus the Patriots will be a reminder of what it once was. The team will honor former back Ezekiel Elliott before the game, with Elliott now suiting up for New England and rushing 28 times for 122 yards in three games.
Elliott has yet to find the endzone for any team in his career other than the Cowboys, perhaps some bulletin board material for a Quinn defense that was regularly a step behind the Cardinals rushing attack of Josh Dobbs and James Conner in week three.
The permutations of possible outcomes when these historic franchises meet are all over the place, but Dallas stopping the run and making Jones be a one-dimensional pocket passer while protecting the ball themselves is one way for the Cowboys to get back to their dominant winning ways from the first two weeks.