By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
On Wednesday, Bill Belichick characterized the Dallas Cowboys as a "good situational football team".
Are they, though?
You could have a "good" team when it comes to situational awareness, perhaps one of the better teams in that regard, and still fall woefully short of the situation gurus operating out of Foxboro. That's why on Sunday in Foxboro, in a game loaded with talent on both teams, the result could ultimately come down to the guys on the sidelines wearing the headsets.
Jason Garrett will arrive in Foxboro on Sunday just two weeks removed from a 28-24 loss to the Vikings in which poor situational football doomed the Cowboys in the closing minutes. Down that same 28-24 score with just 1:33 left in regulation, Garrett ordered two straight running plays. Both failed to convert and bled 63 precious seconds off the clock.
It gets better! Now having just 24 seconds to work with and the Vikings punting from their own 1-yard line, Cowboys returner Tavon Austin inexplicably took a fair catch at his own 46 when he had at least 10-15 easy yards in front of him. The Cowboys badly needed those yards to have a chance at even a Hail Mary, and they got one attempt off. But the damage had been done.
Garrett came under fire for the Cowboys' lack of situational awareness in that loss, and reportedly took accountability for his mistakes in a team meeting after the game. Dallas went on to rebound with a 35-27 win over the Lions last week, but going to Foxboro to face the Patriots is a different challenge altogether.
The Cowboys better have that situational stuff buttoned up against Belichick. A repeat of the Vikings game would prove disastrous. Dallas has all the talent in the world, but it would mean little if Garrett doesn't have them prepared for as many situations as possible.
Is Garrett spooked by the Ghosts of Foxboro? Give him credit - he at least doesn't sound like Freddie "We're not going in to play a normal team" Kitchens.
"Yeah, [situational football is] such a priority for us every week," said Garrett during a Wednesday conference call. "So, we’re always emphasizing that it’s so important to the outcome of ball games. You think about all of the different situations over the course of the game, and if you win those situations, that typically is what gives you the best chance to win the ball game. So, we really try to focus on ourselves and what we need to do best to win those situations throughout a game."
Garrett took responsibility for the "miscommunication" that led to Austin's fair catch decision against the Vikings. It's fair to wonder how tightly he's running the ship if Austin is getting different orders from different coaches in such a crucial moment. That rarely, if ever, happens with the Patriots. And those wires can't cross up at Gillette Stadium.
On the field, the Patriots face one of their toughest matchups of the season. Dak Prescott is a smart passer who can make any kind of throw and is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Their offensive line and power running game with Ezekiel Elliott have a chance to give the Patriots similar problems to what the Ravens and Browns accomplished. They have a deep group of pass-rushers that could wreak havoc on the Patriots' offensive line and an experienced defensive coordinator in Rod Marinelli who may have new wrinkles ready for Belichick.
But if the score is within a touchdown and the minutes are dwindling, are they going to play every situation the right way? Is Garrett going to have them ready for those moments? Is everyone on the Cowboys going to be on the same page?
That decidedly wasn't the case just two weeks ago against Minnesota. So Garrett will have to hope that everything is in its right place now. Because against a team as situationally sound as the Patriots, just a couple of decisions that go sideways could mean the difference between pulling the upset and shooting themselves in the foot.
That starts and ends with coaching. It's up to Garrett to prove whether the Cowboys have enough of it.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].