When the NFL Schedule was released earlier this year, this game had the look of a heavy weight fight between two teams that could be battling for a spot in Super Bowl 50. Unfortunately, significant injuries to key Cowboys’ players has taken some of the luster off of this matchup. These two storied franchises have met only 11 times since the NFL merger with the Cowboys leading the series 7-4. However, New England has won the last four meetings dating back to 1999.
Dallas (2-2) enters this game having lost two in a row and are in a three way tie at the top of the NFC East with the Giants and Redskins. New England (3-0) comes off a bye and are looking to keep a game ahead of a resurgent Jets teams. So in yet another futile attempt to be non-bias and analytical, both teams are broken down in key areas to see how they will match up against each other and which one may have the key to a victory.
Quarterback – Patriots: Brandon Weeden gets his third start for the Cowboys this week and actually enters the game with a gaudy 108.8 Quarterback Rating. However, as the Sunday Night announcing crew talked about at length, Weeden has been quite conservative with the ball and does not seem to have the ability or confidence to throw to the left side of the field. The Patriots, on the other hand, have Tom Brady who might be off to the best start of his career.
Running Backs – Push: Neither team is fielding a top rated running game (Dallas #16 and NE #25) though the Patriots may have found a gem in the likes of Dion Lewis who has done a nice job complimenting the passing game.
Wide Receivers – Patriots: Normally this would be hands down in favor of the Cowboys if Dez Bryant was active. However the Patriots may not have the flashiest group of wideouts but they have all been contributing positive plays.
Tight Ends – Patriots: The Cowboys have a very solid pair of Tight Ends in Witten and Escobar. However with Witten nursing a bad back and two sprained ankles, the scales are tipped towards the Patriots’ Tight End group.
Offensive Line – Dallas: The Patriots line rotation has garnered quite a bit of buzz during the bye week for a new and innovative way to keep players fresh and to provide valuable playing time in meaningful situations. That all sounds nice but Dallas still has one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines.
Defensive Front Seven – Push: Though the Patriots piled up sack numbers against Buffalo a few weeks ago, neither team’s front seven has distinguished themselves as being able to consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Dallas has fared better against the run than New England but the unknown status of LB Sean Lee evens out these two defensive units.
Secondary – Push: Through the first quarter of the season, both secondary units have done little to distinguish themselves as being in the upper half of the league. One could argue that much of Patriots passing yards allowed was in ‘Garbage Time’ when games were out of reach, but yards given up are still yards given up.
Special Teams – Push: Dallas’ Dan Baily has had a solid start to the 2015 season but it’s hard to bet against a Special Teams unit featuring Stephen Gostkowski.
Coaching – Patriots: Under the circumstances, Jason Garrett has done a fine job with the Cowboys having a 42-33 record that most franchises (*cough* Dolphins *cough*) would love to have. However no coach in recent seasons has done a better job of masking team deficiencies and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses like Bill Belichick.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Key’s to a Patriots Victory:
1) Don’t Forget the Running Game: Lost in all the press clipping about how the 2015 Patriots look better than the 2007 Patriots is the fact the Patriots are not running the ball. They are near the bottom of the league in attempts and near the bottom in Yards per Game. Ironically, they are near the top of the league in Yards per Attempt which signals they can run the ball but are choosing not to. It’s nice to run up the score but controlling the game speed also would help their defense.
2) Controlling the Dallas Offensive Line: Though Dallas’ offensive line is not getting the headlines like 2014, this is a formidable group that can wear down opposing defenses. The Patriots have not demonstrated that they can consistently stop the run on the edges, or for that matter, up the middle as well. The Patriots front seven have to be disciplined in their gap/lane assignments and do a better job at setting the defensive edges against this group in Dallas.
3) Don’t Overlook the Backups: Brandon Weeden, by no means, fills anyone’s heart with fear. However statistically he has played efficiently which, for many teams, would be enough for them to win. The fact that Dallas is without their starting Quarterback and starting star Wide Receiver should by no means lull the Patriots into a false sense of security.
After Tom Brady’s triumphant victory in court, this game looked like it had the potiential of being one of the best matchup early in the 2015 season. The luster seems to be gone but the stakes are high for both teams. New England seems to have unexpected competition in the division and Dallas is in a dog fight to stay afloat until their team gets healthy.
Whether by fault or design, the Patriots, on occasion, have a bad habit of playing down to their competition. The most recent example of this was their Week 2 matchup against the Buffalo Bills where the Patriots became sloppy, both offensively and defensively, and gave Tyrod Taylor the opportunity to look like Russell Wilson for a quarter. With having a bye week so early in the year, the next opportunity for them to have a week off would be in January assuming they can lock up one of the two top seeds in the AFC. With a huge ‘revenge’ game looming against the Colts next week, that Patriots must stay focused on Sunday’s game and not let one slip away that can cost them seeding position later in the year.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 27 – Cowboys 23