The New England Patriots’ victory against the Texans was U-G-L-Y. While fans were not impressed, players and coaches were impressed with the team’s effort to fight through adversity. While it wasn’t a dominant effort, these ugly wins sometimes provide momentum. Case in point? 2001, Week 5. Patriots are 1-3 coming into the game and trail by 10 in the fourth quarter. A certain young QB threw his first career touchdown pass before the Pats won the game in overtime, 29-26.
This year? Pats are 1-3 entering week 5, trail by seven entering the fourth quarter, and get the comeback. The league, especially the AFC, is loaded with top-end-talented teams this year; maybe the comeback against Houston gets this team rolling. The Pats have shown to have the talent to lock down the Buccaneers and exhibit incredibly balanced offensive talent; they just need to execute better. If they do, watch out.
They’ll get their first chance to do so this Sunday against a very talented Dallas Cowboys team. Everybody knows the Cowboys tout an extremely talented core of offensive players, but their defense has been stealing headlines throughout the season. While it’s an extremely improved group over last year, their passing defense is surviving on takeaways. New England fans will appreciate that effort but know the dangers in playing that sort of game.
The only difference? Dallas has been truly elite in taking the ball away. Weird stat for this one? The Cowboys won the first seven matchups between these two teams before the Pats ripped off six straight of their own: historical standings head-to-head? 7-6, Cowboys. We’ll dive more into this in the breakdown below. So, without further ado and continuing the “who has the advantage when…” format, the breakdown!
The New England Patriots’ Passing Attack
Two shocking stats about Mac Jones and the Patriots passing game; Mac Jones has more 20+ yard completions than Patrick Mahomes this season and according to PFF, Mac only had two turnover-worthy plays against Houston. That second stat certainly felt like a lot more.
Jones hasn’t been an unstoppable downfield thrower, but he has become an opportunistic downfield shot guy and as long as he stays smart with the ball, the Pats’ offense is in good hands. The biggest complaint is McDaniels conservative playcalling once the Patriots enter the red zone. After his dime of a touchdown throw to Henry on Sunday, hopefully, Mac has shown enough to stop the three consecutive screen calls.
The Cowboys have given up yards in the passing game, ranking 31st in the league in passing yards allowed. However, their ability to get the takeaway is incredible. They have an incredible ten (!!) interceptions through their first five games. CB Trevon Diggs has six of the ten interceptions. It would be wise for Mac to look elsewhere in the passing game.
The good news? Diggs does not often travel into the slot meaning security blankets Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry should draw favorable matchups. The Cowboys often engage their opponents in high-scoring affairs and part of that is the plethora of yards they let up through the air.
Advantage: New England Patriots (as long as Mac avoids Diggs on the outside)
The New England Patriots’ Run Game
For how loose the Cowboys are against the pass, they are equally stingy against the runs. The Cowboys feature the fifth-best rushing defense while the Pats boast the sixth-worst rushing offense. While the Cowboys are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, this is not an area the Pats want to have to rely on to win the game.
The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last week and the return of Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu hopefully means even more success. Ted Karras did a wonderful job standing in at LG against the Texans and perhaps a shuffle might lead to better results for the Patriots’ offense. Sliding Onwenu out to RT where he starred as a rookie and keeping Karras at LG might be the lineup the Pats need to move the ball on the ground while also being sturdy in pass protection.
The Cowboys feature an active LB corps and a stalwart along the defensive line in Demarcus Lawrence. The Pats had a ton of success of play-action against the Texans and should try to establish the run game if only for this reason. Mac has been fantastic off of play-action throughout the season, continuing that aspect of the game will benefit everyone in the Pats offense.
Advantage: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys’ Passing Attack
Before the season most fans would’ve been extremely concerned to hear that Jalen Mills was the key to the pass defense while playing CORNER. Mills’ absence was apparent last week as the Texans picked on Joejuan Williams, eventually forcing slot man Jonathan Jones to play to the boundary. Mills’ return this week is going to be a must for the Pats.
Dallas’ talented WR trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup is a big test. In the last matchup, Stephon Gilmore erased Cooper while JC Jackson mirrored Gallup. They won’t be able to do that this year with Gilmore gone. The Pats should utilize a similar game plan as they did against the Bucs with “cat” coverage across the board. Jackson should draw Cooper, Jones on Lamb, while Mills’ return asks him to cover Gallup. It should be a battle on the outside all game long.
Safety Devin McCourty had an extremely rough game against the Texans and a return to the norm for him will go a long way towards the Pats defense having success on Sunday. The safeties will be involved in limiting the suddenly productive Dalton Schultz at tight end. He has become a security blanket for Prescott, seeing seven or more targets in the last three weeks, hauling in six in each of those contests.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has been fantastic in his return from a brutal ankle injury last year. To have success against him, the Pats must get pressure while also maintaining containment-something they have struggled with this season. Matt Judon continues to be a force on the outside, leading the league in tackles for loss (8), second in sacks (6.5), and sixth in QB hits (10). He’ll need to be at his best for the Pats to be disruptive here.
Rookie DT Christian Barmore is slowly rounding into form, and while his stat line remains quiet, he’s impacting the game elsewhere. He drew two holding penalties last week while facing the second-most double teams in the NFL. Sacks will eventually come for the talented second-rounder. Jamie Collins quickly reacquainted himself to the New England defense getting a sack in one of his three snaps. He should see more action this week.
Advantage: Dallas Cowboys (but not by as much as expected)
The Cowboys Run the Ball
This is where the game will be decided. The Cowboys are second in the NFL in rushing yards (864) while the Patriots are 15th against the run. The Patriots run defense comes as a surprise as they’ve been a sieve against the run thus far. The good news? Dont’a Hightower is rounding into form, playing his best game on Sunday. Hightower had five tackles, including four run stuffs. Hightower rounding into his normal disruptive forms will help immensely in steadying this defense down the stretch.
Thumper Ja’Wuan Bentley’s return will also boost the Pats’ run defense but expect to see some matchup utilization out of the Pats’ linebacking corps. With Elliot and his bruising running style on the field, expect Hightower and Bentley to man the middle. When the Cowboys deploy change of pace back Tony Pollard, Van Noy should draw the card and see some playing time.
The Cowboys no longer have All-Pros all along the offensive line but do have a sturdy group that can do the necessary dirty work. The Patriots’ defensive line doesn’t need to blow up every play but they must slow the offensive linemen from getting upfield. If the d-line can keep the linebackers clean, expect the Pats to be stingy.
They must also be disciplined in staying in their run fits to contain Dak and the designed QB runs and from keeping Dak from pulling it on an option read and skirting around the edge. The Pats won’t be able to completely stop the Cowboys running game but must contain it and limit the damage.
Advantage: Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have attempted only four kickoff returns this season, good for second least in the NFL. The Pats should try to take advantage of the lack of experience with a few kickoffs short of the goal line. The same goes for the Cowboys in the punt return game, only attempting five here as well. The Cowboys have struggled in the kicking game going 9/11 in field goals and 17/19 on PAT’s. The Pats would be wise to have the Cowboys going into the open end of the stadium in the fourth quarter in case it comes down to a field goal.
For the Patriots, Nick Folk has been incredibly consistent since joining the Pats last year and has continued to be this year. His four made field goals last week, including two from 50+ earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Folk now joins Stephen Gostowski as the only Patriots kickers to make two 50+ field goals in one game. It was also his third time as a Patriot with four made field goals in a game. And in a “brag about your kicker” kind of way, he’s second in the league in points scored.
Belichick’s affection for special teams is well known and the mismatch here might allow for the Pats to steal a possession or get some very important hidden yards.
Advantage: New England Patriots
The stuff of legends: Mike McCarthy vs. Bill Belichick. Just kidding. McCarthy was scared to answer questions from Boston Media on Wednesday for fear of Belichick gaining valuable information. While McCarthy isn’t a rookie coach, he has been prone to making rookie decisions. His decision-making process for going for two or going for it on fourth down is not based on analytics or old-school football knowledge but more in a “well why not now?” sort of way. As we saw last week, some coaches can’t help but get out of their own way against Belichick. There should be a couple of situations that fall into this category on Sunday.
Advantage: New England Patriots
Despite obvious concerns regarding the New England Patriots, it feels like a “trap game” for Dallas. Essentially, the Pats will do just enough to get an ugly, if not signature win. Mac Jones has been steadily progressing and may be on the verge of putting it all together. Hightower rounding into form with the talent of Judon, Van Noy, and Collins will assist a typical Patriots defense while Belichick shows that the Texans game was a mere blip on the radar (he was honestly extremely proud of the teams’ effort last week, something that hasn’t been making the national media rounds).
A loss on Sunday would drop the Pats to 0-4 at home this season, something that feels unprecedented. The offensive line keeps Mac mostly clean while the defensive game plan reverts to the old bend-but-don’t-break.