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Cowboys vs. Patriots: Each team’s X-factor player for Week 4

Fresh off a tough Week 3 showing, the Cowboys need to bounce back at home in Week 4.

NFL: OCT 17 Cowboys at Patriots Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With an awful Week 3 performance in the rearview, the Cowboys head home in hopes of getting that bad taste out of their mouth and bouncing back in a big way in Week 4. Anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for the Cowboys in Arizona, and after their first loss of the season, there seems to be a lot more questions than answers about this year's team.

With the New England Patriots coming to town, it is another scary proposition for this Cowboys team. What the Pats may lack in talent, they always make up for in intelligence and scheme. The Patriots understand what the Cowboys' weaknesses are and with Bill Belichick at the helm, he will absolutely look to exploit them on Sunday. Dallas will need to bring their A-game or live the reality of being a .500 team heading into a Week 5 clash with the hated San Francisco 49ers.

Let’s take a closer look at this matchup and see who, on both teams, may end up being X-factors for Sunday’s matchup.

Dallas Cowboys X-factor:

Leighton Vander-Esch

New York Jets v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Cowboys' run defense was a problem last year, and once again it looks to be a problem this year. The Cowboys made it a point of emphasis this offseason to try and shore up the one real weakness on their otherwise strong defensive group, but through three weeks, it looks like a lot of the same for them. Leighton Vander Esch needs to step up, be a leader, and make a concerted effort to get his team ready to fight in the trenches versus a team this unafraid to attack weaknesses.

The Cowboys only have two true linebackers on the roster in Vander Esch and Damone Clark, and as the elder statesman, Vander Esch is going to have to take it upon himself to find a way to shore things up at his level. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is going to have to be better and help put this team in better positions to make plays, but it comes down to the guys on the field stepping up and locking in.

There is a saying around the pass rush of this team that goes “earn the right to pass rush,” meaning do the work on the early downs, defend the run, be consistent in getting the opponent to distance situations, then to pin your ears back and rush. All that sounds good, it just needs to be executed on Sunday.

It won’t be all on Vander Esch, this isn't a one-man fix. However, if he is able to secure the second level, be a leader for that group, and play the run relentlessly against this Patriots team, it could go a long way in getting this team back on track.

New England Patriots X-factor:

Ezekiel Elliott

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Yes, this is going to be uncomfortable during pregame for a lot of players and fans, but when the pads come on and that whistle blows, Ezekiel Elliott becomes just another nameless, faceless opponent for this Cowboys defense. You know Zeke is going to bring his very best, and the Cowboys' defense needs to be prepared to do the same.

The Patriots know the emotion involved in the game, and they understand the Cowboys can be had in the running game, all that adds up to one scary proposition in Week 4. Look for Zeke and company to get handed the rock early and often, and depending on the returns on those efforts, it could play a huge factor in the outcome of this game.

Zeke is fresh off a 16-carry, 80-yard, day against a good Jets defense that plays the run well. If the Cowboys do not make it a focal point on Sunday, a motivated Elliott could do far worse damage than he did the week prior. Stop the run and you can stop the Patriots. Unfortunately, that has been a lot easier said than done for the Cowboys over the last few seasons.

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