Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Cowboys Preview
The Cowboys have won three of their past four after a three-game losing streak that included a humiliating defeat by the Jets (!!!!!?????). Dak Prescott last week ripped the Lions apart, going 29 of 46 for 444 yards and three touchdowns. It was the third time that Prescott has thrown for at least 400 yards in a game this season and the fifth time that he has thrown at least three touchdowns. They are 6-4. They lead the NFC East. They have gotten fat on bad teams (15 wins among the six teams they’ve beaten). But the 9-1 Patriots have scored just four offensive touchdowns in their past three games and – coming off a 17-10 win over a banged-up Philly team – they face the third consecutive challenging opponent after a relative walk in the park for the first two months of the season.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Maybe Isaiah Wynn (pictured) changes everything and the Patriots have a productive game on the ground. But I think this will be a bloodbath. The speed of the Dallas linebackers is as good as any team in the league and that’s even without second-year phenom Leighton Vander Esch who is out with a neck injury. The slow-developing Patriots attack is a wounded caribou to the Cowboys hungry grizzly. There’s really nothing else to say. The Patriots can’t generate yards on the ground on anything close to a consistent basis. It’s not about to start.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The Cowboys have been pretty solid against a mixed bag of quarterbacks this year. They’ve only allowed 11 touchdown passes and have rolled up 26 sacks. They’re holding opponents to 216.9 yards per game through the air. One game they won’t live down is the 24-22 dismantling of their defense by Sam Darnold when the Jets quarterback returned from injury. He’s been mostly horrific since. But through 10 games, Dallas has shown it can get to the quarterback with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn and they are one of the best in the NFL in terms of red-zone defense. The Patriots have struggled to get anything going in the passing game outside the numbers and down the field with success. Mohamed Sanu is questionable with an ankle injury. Phillip Dorsett is still working through his concussion. Julian Edelman has a painful shoulder injury. That means extra pressure placed on N’Keal Harry (pictured) and Jakobi Meyers. James White and Rex Burkhead will also have a big role, most likely and it is going to be hard to get many easy looks. The Patriots do their damage from 0-10 yards from the line of scrimmage and that’s where Dallas is at its best because of its speed. The best chance the Pats will have to make yards is in the screen game where they can use Dallas’ speed against them.
WHEN THE COWBOYS RUN
Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton are all playing Pro Bowl-level defensive line. We haven’t discussed it much but the job being done by defensive line coach Bret Bielema is terrific this year. It will be interesting to see if Ezekiel Elliott (pictured) can make any headway. He’s been bottled up the past two weeks – 36 carries, 92 yards against the Vikings and Lions. Prescott is a threat to run three of four times per game and he’s a shrewd scrambler so that’s worth keeping an eye on but the Patriots should be able to handle Elliott overall though I’m sure he’ll get some.
WHEN THE COWBOYS PASS
Dak Prescott is having an outstanding season. He’s accurate (67.7 completion percentage, just one game under 60 percent completions and that was 59.4). He’s been sacked just 12 times. His YPA is a gaudy 8.82. He’s got 21 touchdowns and nine picks. By contrast, Tom Brady’s at 63.7, 6.85 YPA with 14 TDs, five picks and 16 sacks. It speaks to what’s around Prescott in terms of offensive line protection, running game (his two top backs have combined for 1,071 yards; Brady’s have combined for 663). It also speaks to the talent level of his receivers. Prescott’s got five capable and complementary ones: outside guys Amari Cooper (56-886-7), Michael Gallup (42-678-3), tight end Jason Witten (41, 371, 2), slot Randall Cobb (35-495-3) and Elliott out of the backfield (28-220-1). The Patriots have been so good defensively this year because the rush and coverage have been in sync. The entire key to this game will be how often the Patriots front can speed up Prescott. Given time, he’s going to find guys. Steph Gilmore will take care of Cooper. It’s the Gallup, Elliott, Cobb and Witten supporting cast that causes concern. Prescott is the best quarterback the Patriots have faced.
Cowboys kicker Brett Maher (pictured) has got a big leg. He made a 63-yarder earlier this season. He’s an underwhelming 16-for-22 this season but Dallas puts him out there for some long attempts – he’s 4-for-8 beyond 50 yards. He went 3-for-4 outside 50 yards in two games at MetLife so he shouldn’t be too undone by the elements. Dallas’ punter is Chris Jones. He’s got a modest net of 37.2. Returners are averaging 10 yards per return. The Patriots have no established punt returner currently having released Gunner Olszewski. Mohamed Sanu’s been fielding them since he got here. Julian Edelman’s been relieved of those duties. Tavon Austin is the Cowboys lead return man and he’s getting just 4.8 per return. Punter Jake Bailey and gunners Justin Bethel and Matt Slater have been on fire lately and making a huge difference. The Patriots kick coverage has also improved. Nick Folk has been outstanding since the team signed him.
QUESTIONABLE: QB Tom Brady, linebacker Ja'whaun Bentley (knee), tackle Marcus Cannon (illness), safety Patrick Chung (heel/chest), wide receiver Phillip Dorsett (concussion), safety Nate Ebner (ankle/back), wide receiver Julian Edelman (shoulder), running back Damien Harris (hamstring), cornerback Jason McCourty (groin), wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (pictured, ankle), defensive end John Simon (elbow), and wide receiver Matthew Slater (hamstring).
LB Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker Joe Thomas (illness), safety Donovan Wilson (illness) and left guard Connor Williams (knee) as questionable
The officiating crew led by Scott Novak gets this game. Novak is a first-year ref and his crew has been refreshingly light with the damn flags. Only once this season has a team had double-digit penalties in a Novak game. In the past six games the totals have been 11, 11, 7, 12, 6, 11. This crew hasn’t yet worked a Patriots game.
The Patriots are favored by 6.5 and the total is 4.5. The Patriots are 7-3 against the spread and seven of their 10 games have gone under the total. Seven of Dallas’ 10 games have gone over. They are 6-4 against the spread.
Cowboys 23, Patriots 16
Week 1: Patriots 16, Steelers 13
Final: Patriots, 33-3
Week 2: Patriots 30, Dolphins 0
Final: Patriots, 43-0
Week 3: Patriots 20, Jets 6
Final: Patriots, 30-14
Week 4: Patriots 19, Bills 13
Final: Patriots, 16-10
Week 5: Patriots 30, Redskins 13
Final: Patriots, 33-7
Week 6: Patriots 16, Giants 3
Final: Patriots, 35-14
Week 7: Patriots 16, Jets 13
Final: Patriots, 33-0
Week 8: Patriots 27, Browns 10
Final: Patriots, 27-13
Week 9: Patriots 23, Ravens 13
Final: Ravens, 37-20
Week 10: Patriots 26, Eagles 13
Final: Patriots, 17-10