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.
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.
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?