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Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

So here we are again, bracing for a marquee matchup of the Patriots and a high-powered opponent from the NFC for the second time in three weeks.

Two Sundays ago, Al, Cris, Michele and the rest of NBC’s Football Night in America crew came to Foxborough to chronicle Tom Brady’s return and the arrival of a Buccaneers offense averaging a league-high 34.3 points per game.

Now, it’s the lead CBS trio of Jim, Tony and Tracy in the prime late-afternoon slot showcasing the Pats and a Cowboys attack spearheaded by Dak Prescott and putting up 34.0 points a week (trailing only Buffalo’s 34.4 points per game).

As recently as 2019, when top network billing was practically a given around here, these were the kind of early-season games that inspired thoughts of end-of-postseason rematches. But in 2021, while both the Bucs (5-1) and Cowboys (4-1) are legit Super Bowl contenders, the Patriots are 2-3 as they enter a five-game stretch that includes four opponents who are a cumulative 14-6.

Awaiting on the other side of that gauntlet is an encounter with Tennessee — which is 2-0 vs. New England under Mike Vrabel — and two meetings with the 4-1 Bills, who swept last season’s series.

On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this is the stage of any schedule – 6-8 weeks in – that a team determines what it should do more, and it should abandon altogether. McDaniels was speaking specifically about the offense.

Of course, it’s true of every unit.

And put another way, it’s when we all usually get a sense of a team’s true identity.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots sits on the bench after the loss to the New Orleans Saints after the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots sits on the bench after the loss to the New Orleans Saints after the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Through five weeks, the Pats are 0-3 at home (a first since 1993) and have a minus-3 turnover margin (minus-6 at Gillette). Their two wins are over two foes (Jets and Texans) who are a combined 2-8. Accomplishing the latter required 16 unanswered points in the final 23 1/2 minutes last Sunday in Houston.

They’re also two weeks removed from trading late leads with the defending champs, only to have a last-minute attempt to go ahead again carom off the goalpost to give Tampa Bay a 19-17 victory. That game, as you’ll recall, was played in a steady but generally light rain.

The last time New England entertained Dallas, they played in a much harder and colder downpour. And like this weekend, the Cowboys came to Foxborough on Nov. 24, 2019 with one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses — first in total and passing yards and fourth in scoring. They never reached the end zone, falling by a 13-9 final.

But much of what was then isn’t now for Dallas.

Although many of the names are the same, they’re not playing the same. They’re better.

Especially the quarterback. Remarkably, Prescott recovered from last year’s fractured ankle and this past summer’s shoulder injury to record the franchise’s best completion percentage (73.9 percent) through the first five games of the season in its history.

Prescott’s delivered three touchdown passes each of the last three games, carrying out the concepts of fourth-year offensive play caller Kellen Moore, who stayed on after Mike McCarthy replaced Jason Garrett as head coach in 2020.

The offense Prescott operates is varied and rich in talent. From its line to its backfield to its receivers.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 09: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys looks to pass against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

TAMPA, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 09: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys looks to pass against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Ezekiel Elliott (452 rushing yards), who hired a new trainer and adopted a new diet in the offseason, and Tony Pollard (325) give the Cowboys two 300-plus yard rushers. Both are also adept in the passing game.

Speaking of which, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz, a favorite third-down target, have totaled nearly 1,000 receiving yards to go with nine touchdown grabs. Plus, Cedric Wilson has two scores.

In last Sunday’s 44-20 rout of the Giants, Dallas overcame turnovers on two of its first three possessions and racked up 550 yards. More than 200 yards were covered on the ground for the second straight game.

Meanwhile, their defense is vastly improved under new coordinator Dan Quinn, who replaced Mike Nolan after the unit allowed a team-record 57 touchdowns and 473 points in 2020. Under Quinn, the ex-Seattle coordinator and Atlanta head coach, Dallas has forced 10 turnovers – second only to Buffalo’s 15 – in his Cover-3 scheme.

In fact, the Cowboys have multiple takeaways in all five games this season, including four in a Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay. Cornerback Trevon Diggs is responsible for all but four of them. He’s just the third player in the Super Bowl era with interceptions in each of the first five games. His six overall give Diggs nine picks in 17 career contests.

So what are some ways the Patriots, averaging 19.2 points offensively, can keep up with, or somehow overtake Dallas?

  • 'Starting better is a focal point'

    Oct 10, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 10, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    In Tuesday’s Zoom meeting with reporters, McDaniels mentioned an emphasis on the obvious. The Pats need to start faster on offense. They’ve been outscored 23-10 in the first quarter so far in 2021. Conversely, the Cowboys are outscoring opponents 45-24 in the first quarter.

    Last week at Houston marked the first time in six games that the Patriots scored on their first series, although Damien Harris’ 1-yard run occurred in the opening minute of the second quarter.

    On two earlier occasions, the Pats short-circuited a promising opening series.

    Opposite the Bucs, they started with great field position, went no-huddle and reached midfield with three straight completions, before Mac Jones was sacked by an unblocked rusher up the middle. A third-and-long incompletion left them to punt.

    At New York in Week 2, they ran eight plays and set up a manageable third-and-four at the plus 30-yard line. But another sack by a blitzing safety resulted in a 10-yard loss to derail the drive.

  • Exploit the exploitable...

    ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 03: Trevon Diggs #7 of the Dallas Cowboys after an interception during the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers at AT&T Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

    ARLINGTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 03: Trevon Diggs #7 of the Dallas Cowboys after an interception during the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers at AT&T Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

    …and avoid the avoidable.

    While there’s no denying the Cowboys are much better defensively in most metrics, the playmaking of Diggs is helping to obscure the opportunity to make plays at their expense.

    A subplot to this story line is the history of Jones and Diggs, former teammates at Alabama. Asked this week if Diggs ever picked him off in practice, Jones answered honestly with a laugh.

    “Oh yeah,” he replied. “He definitely made plays, and we had a lot of good players.

    “It’s not just him, too. There are other guys on the team that are also making plays, and they all play hard, and they play together. It’s a really good all-around defense. They play together as a team, and we’ve got to be ready to go. Obviously, you can’t be afraid of anyone.”

    Respect without fear, indeed.

    Jones, who’s been intercepted five times in the past three games, and the rest of the Pats, who’ve lost four fumbles, have to take care of the ball. Obviously.

    HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 10: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots reacts during the first half against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

    HOUSTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 10: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots reacts during the first half against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

    But they can’t play tentative either. To this point, theirs has been a high-percentage, low-risk passing approach. Marred by red-zone inefficiency, the Pats are averaging 1.92 points a possession (23rd), according to Pro Football Reference. And yet they’re scoring on a respectable 43 percent of their drives (12th).

    When asked a play-calling question citing a high red-zone sequence at Houston that featured three successive screens, McDaniels joked about the grief he sometimes gets at home.

    “I would never call something I didn’t have confidence and faith in,” McDaniels said before owning the responsibility for the outcome of plays and expressing an understanding of fans’ frustrations at times. “I have to do better.

    “I understand…I get it from my wife.”

    Several factors may give McDaniels the confidence to give Jones a green light to go deeper in this game.

    So far Jones is just 4-of-19 (.211) on passes of 20 yards or more depth and 24-of-37 (.649) in the 10-to-19-yard range, per Pro Football Focus. Still, the Cowboys’ ‘D’ shows vulnerabilities.

    For example, they’ve given up 18 pass completions of 25-plus yards. Granted, Brady and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert delivered seven of them. But another seven of those throws were made by Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, and Mike Glennon.

    TAMPA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 09: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks to pass during the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

    TAMPA, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 09: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks to pass during the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

    In addition, without injured DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas ranks 24th in sacks (9) and 30th in sack rate (4.33 percent of pass attempts). The Cowboys are also in the bottom-5 in pressure rate.

    When Jones is ‘kept clean,’ per PFF, his completion rate is .765 and his yards per attempt are 7.2. At Houston, he went 18-for-23 with an 8.78 YPA from a clean pocket.

    From the ‘something-has-to-give’ category, while the Pats own the second-worst red-zone percentage, netting touchdowns on 37.5 percent of their opportunities, Dallas has surrendered TD’s on 66.7 percent of drives inside their 20-yard line.

  • He's baaaaack!

    Oct 10, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New England Patriots inside linebacker Jamie Collins (58) reacts with defensive end Deatrich Wise (91) after getting a sack during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 10, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; New England Patriots inside linebacker Jamie Collins (58) reacts with defensive end Deatrich Wise (91) after getting a sack during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Jamie Collins, that is, for a third stint as a Patriot.

    A week ago, shortly after his re-acquisition, Collins logged only three snaps in Houston. But one of them produced a sack of Davis Mills.

    Two plays after the Pats tied the game at 22-22, Collins barreled up the middle and devoured Mills for a loss of eight. A short incompletion later, the Texans punted to give New England what proved to be the game-winning possession.

    “This is (Jamie’s) third time around, and it seems like every time he comes here, he plays his best football,” linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said Tuesday. “So hopefully we can kind of run that back again.”

    Just like the Cowboys’ last trip to New England, when Collins harassed Prescott throughout. He ended up with a team-high 10 tackles, forced a fumble, drew a critical holding penalty late and helped hold Prescott to a single four-yard run out of the pocket.