Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. This week, they debate the key matchups that will decide the Patriots-Cowboys game in NFL Week 12.
What is the key matchup that will decide Patriots-Cowboys in Week 12?
The main reason Dak Prescott’s an MVP candidate and Tom Brady is the frontrunner for MDP (Most Disappointed Player) comes down to the people in front of them.
Prescott gets an exquisite amount of time from his offensive line. Enough to make potent washed-up players like Jason Witten and Randall Cobb. Enough time to help Amari Cooper go from Oakland bust to Dallas star. Enough time to throw for more than 400 yards three times. He leads the NFL in passing yards with 3,221, he is second in QBR (77.8), first in yards per attempt (8.82), fourth in completions (247), tied for second in touchdown passes (21) and eighth in passer rating. He’s only been sacked 12 times.
Prescott gets 2.9 seconds per attempt to get rid of the ball according to NextGen stats. He’s second in the NFL in average completed air yards (how far his completions went in the air before being caught) and is third in intended air yards with eight and 9.9 yards respectively. Those numbers speak to an offense that has the luxury of waiting for plays to develop so receivers can uncover and find space.
Can the Patriots speed up Prescott and – even if they don’t sack him – get him to be a little less accurate than the 67.7 percent completion rate he’s got? Last week, the Patriots got to Carson Wentz for five sacks. Wentz and Prescott are similar in terms of mobility but Wentz didn’t have the protection Prescott enjoys and he sure doesn’t have the offensive firepower at his disposal Prescott does.
The Patriots have 37 sacks in 10 games – a tremendous pace. The pressure up front is what’s helped the Patriots secondary be as effective as it’s been.
Can the Patriots’ front-seven (and assorted blitzers) get the heat on Prescott necessary to keep Dallas under 25 points? They need to.
Let's turn this into a good, old fashioned Rush vs. Coverage argument, why don't we?!? Of course the two are inextricably linked, but the way in which the Patriots have built their roster would tell you they favor one over the other.
They let Chandler Jones walk. They let Trey Flowers walk. They signed Stephon Gilmore to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history. Coverage is what will determine whether or not the Patriots come away from their matchup with the Cowboys standing at 10-1.
More specifically, if the Patriots can erase Dak Prescott's No. 1 receiving option Amari Cooper, they'll win. It's that simple. Getting to Prescott with pressure will help, but don't overestimate the importance of his offensive line. They've shut down some of the worst pass-rush units in football, including Miami (32nd in sacks), Detroit (28th), Washington (24th), the Giants twice (23rd), and they got worked over by mediocre units in Philly (20th, sacked Prescott three times) and Green Bay (17th, sacked Prescott three times).
Against the blitz, a Patriots staple this season, Prescott's protection is decidedly below-average. The Patriots shouldn't be worried about their pass-rush. (Did we mention Cam Fleming could be starting at right tackle for injured lineman La'el Collins?) The key will be covering Cooper on the occasions Prescott does have time to throw.
Prescott's statistical explosion has coincided with Cooper's arrival last season, as the former Raider has asserted himself as far and away the team's most efficient wideout. If Stephon Gilmore does his weekly trick of making top options disappear, Prescott will be forced to go to Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb. Both are talented players, and both helped the Cowboys put up 35 points on Detroit when Cooper (three catches, 38 yards) was largely shut down last week.
But the Detroit defense New England is not. Despite having Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay (who shadowed Cooper), the Lions are arguably the worst pass defense in football, allowing 288.6 yards per game (30th) and a 7.3-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio (32nd).
Prescott is at his best when he gets rid of the football quickly. His 115.8 quarterback rating when he releases less than 2.5 seconds after the snap is tops in the NFL. There will be plenty of plays where the Patriots pass-rush has no chance. But down-to-down, the coverage will have to be on point. If it is, the Patriots win.
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