Sunday’s game between Dallas and Atlanta pits a pair of teams that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations arriving at a crossroads as they prepare to embark on the second half of their schedules.
The Cowboys (5-3) have won three straight, putting up 101 points combined against the 49ers, Redskins and Chiefs. However, Dallas still finds itself staring up at Philadelphia in the NFC East standings and now must move forward without star running back Ezekiel Elliott, whose six-game suspension went into effect after his request for an injunction was denied by a federal court on Thursday.
Elliott had been one of the key catalysts during the Cowboys’ winning streak with 390 rushing yards and five touchdowns over the last three games. Without Elliott, the offense will rely on a committee approach in the backfield, more production from quarterback Dak Prescott and hope the defense can keep playing at the level it has been over the last few weeks.
The Falcons (4-4) have lost four of their last five games, including two at home to AFC East teams. The defending NFC champions haven’t been the same on offense following the departure of coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Matt Ryan hasn’t played anywhere close to his MVP level from last season while All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones has just one touchdown and two 100-yard games to this point.
Atlanta has been at its best when Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are leading the way on offense, rumbling for first downs and keeping defenses honest with their ability catch passes out of the backfield as well. The defense has done its part, holding five straight opponents to no more than 23 points. It’s just hard to win games when your offense is averaging less than that (21.3 ppg) on the season.
Dallas at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 12 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Falcons -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Moving forward without Zeke
Ezekiel Elliott’s ongoing legal saga took its latest turn on Thursday when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request for an injunction of his six-game suspension that was originally handed down in August. His next appeal is set for Dec. 1, meaning at minimum the NFL’s second-leading rusher will miss the next four games. Elliott has been a true workhorse for Dallas recently, logging 86 carries over the past three games, all wins. He also put up 390 yards and five touchdowns with those carries (and added a 72-yard touchdown catch vs. San Francisco in Week 7), but now that production must be replaced.
Alfred Morris figures to get the bulk of the touches, but he’ll share some of the work with Rod Smith and possibly Darren McFadden. Morris and Smith have combined for 24 carries for 185 yards this season while McFadden has yet to be active for a game. Quarterback Dak Prescott (26 att., 195 yds., 4 TDs) may get more involved in the running game and the Cowboys still have one of the best offensive lines in the league. Dallas also may be catching Atlanta at a good time after the Falcons gave up 201 rushing yards last week in their loss to the Panthers. But this defense also has shown flashes of brilliance against the run, holding the Packers, Lions and Jets to a combined 173 yards on the ground.
2. Julio vs. Dez
The receiver who is more active on Sunday in this matchup will give his team an advantage. Julio Jones has 43 catches on 68 targets, approximately five catches and eight targets per game, for Atlanta. Good teams feed their No. 1 receivers a lot more than that. He should be able to toast whomever Dallas throws his way, so the key is for Matt Ryan to find him in the heat of the moment. For Dallas, Dez Bryant has 75 targets and just 38 receptions. That's not a good percentage for a team's best weapon in passing game, although Bryant's usage has gone up over the last three weeks. He'll face some decent corners, including Desmond Trufant, on Sunday. Both Jones and Bryant are also dealing with various ailments and had not practiced as of Thursday, but both have gutted through injuries before and have no intention of missing this game.
3. Miscellaneous factors
There are several things to consider when taking a look at this matchup. It's the third road game for the Cowboys over their last four weeks, so there may be a bit of road weariness on their side of the ball. They have a huge home game next Sunday night against the NFC East-leading Eagles, so pardon Dallas if Atlanta doesn't get 100 percent of its focus. It's hard to believe that this happens in the NFL, but it's something to consider. Especially when you factor in the added attention regarding Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, and he even be with the team in Atlanta. On the other side, the Falcons are finally home after three straight on the road. They have lost their last two home games as a combined 22-point favorite, so you know Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and company will want to put on a show in front of the fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Will a slow start by the home team take the crowd out of it?
Week after week, we continue to wait for the real Falcons to show up, and they continue to fall short. To tell you the truth, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt one more time as they face off against a Cowboys defense that is due for some regression. Not having to worry about facing Ezekiel Elliott certainly doesn't hurt either, although I honestly don't think it would have mattered. I think a desperate Atlanta squad at home gets things done.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Cowboys 23
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.