The last time the Dallas Cowboys beat the New England Patriots, Bill Clinton was in his first term as U.S. president. Troy Aikman led the way as the Dallas starting quarterback and Tom Brady? He was just an unknown college backup at Michigan. His future team, New England, had yet to win a single NFL championship.
That 12-6 victory on Dec. 12, 1996 came as the Cowboys were in the midst of defending their last Super Bowl title. So much has changed since then; America’s Team has yet to win another NFC championship, let alone a Vince Lombardi trophy, struggling through a malaise of bad coaching, tough-luck injuries, and poor performance. Across the country, the Patriots have won six Super Bowls, establishing the type of long-term dynasty Aikman and his Cowboys seemed on the verge of creating in the 1990s.
Can Dallas turn the tide, snuffing out the Patriots’ longtime win streak against them in a year the pendulum is swinging their way? Year two post-Brady has resulted in just two wins for the Pats, who had to sweat out the lowly Houston Texans and a rookie quarterback (Davis Mills) just last week. Their own freshman signal-caller, Mac Jones, has been inconsistent while the offense has scored 25 points or less in every game this season.
Compare that to the Cowboys, who average an NFC-high 34 points per game. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and company will be a tall order for legendary head coach Bill Belichick to fend off.
Will the Pats'defense find a way to keep Dallas in check? Or will they be the latest victim of a team gunning to earn not just a division title but home-field advantage in the NFC?
Dallas (4-1) at New England (2-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Dallas offense keep clicking on all cylinders?
After years of inconsistency, almost everyone on the Dallas starting offense is healthy in what’s become a dream fantasy lineup. Dak Prescott’s 116.9 quarterback rating is second to only Russell Wilson (who is now on IR with an injured finger) in the NFC. He’s thrown 10 touchdown passes in the last three games alone, turning the ball over only three times as Dallas continues to march down the field at will.
But it’s the rushing offense that has really taken off for the Cowboys. A 1-2 punch of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard leave this team second in the NFL with 172.8 rushing yards per game. Elliott, despite nursing a rib injury, leads the NFC with 452 yards and five touchdowns. Pollard is fourth in the conference as his backup, leading the NFL with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average that has allowed Dallas to bulldoze opposing defensive fronts.
The Patriots’ defense, despite being ranked fifth overall, is just 15th against the run. Expect Dallas to attack that vulnerability after piling up 201 yards in a 44-20 rout against the New York Giants last week.
“I anticipate them loading the box up more to play the run,” Elliott said. “We have to play a clean game… they’re very fundamentally sound. They’ll give you a lot of different looks.
“We’ll be ready regardless of what they throw at us.”
2. Mac Jones vs. a hobbled Dallas secondary
Jones has had the best two games of his NFL career the past two weeks. After going toe-to-toe with Brady in his return to New England, tying his record of 19 straight completions, Jones led a 10-point, fourth-quarter comeback against the Texans. The final drive (15 plays, over seven minutes long) wasn’t always pretty but it got the job done, building confidence for a rookie quarterback finding his footing.
Injuries might give him another leg up this Sunday. Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs, who leads the NFL with six interceptions, has been limited in practice with an ankle injury. He’s being called a “game-time decision” and is one of a handful of defenders questionable for Sunday, a list that includes two safeties, Damontae Kazee (hip) and Donavan Wilson (groin). Defensive end Randy Gregory might also miss this one with a bum knee.
Can Jones work around their potential replacements? He’s thrown five interceptions in the last three weeks alone and has been prone to the typical rookie mistakes. And that’s where Diggs has been so clutch for the Cowboys, forcing takeaways at a rate responsible for nearly all of the team’s plus-seven turnover margin (second in the NFL to Buffalo’s +11).
For the Pats to have any chance, their prized rookie needs to take care of the football. They don’t have the firepower to give away 7-10 points and still keep up. Jones is growing, but this Dallas defense could prove to be a tall task.
3. Controlling the game through the “little things”
Belichick has built a Hall of Fame career on doing the little things right. His teams aren’t flashy, they aren’t dramatic, but are taught to get the job done in the trenches.
That’s where the Cowboys (despite more personality) have been wildly successful in 2021. The offensive line has given up just nine sacks, including two in the last two games. The team is converting on 51.6 percent of their third downs on offense, second in the NFL to Kansas City. That’s led to an offense producing 26.4 first downs a game, also second in the league, as the ground game allows Dallas to control time of possession and limit offensive opportunities on the other side.
Compare that to the Patriots, producing just 19.6 first downs (22nd) and sitting dead last in Goal to Go percentage (42.86). It’s created dismal red zone numbers as they struggle to move the ball and close out drives.
It doesn’t help when you’re playing from behind, either. The Pats have scored just 10 first-quarter points this year, all of them against the Jets. The Cowboys? They’ve scored 45, never trailing early in any of their games thus far.
You get the picture. The Pats need to convert opportunities, sending a message right out of the box and protect themselves from falling behind. A 14-point Cowboys first quarter might be enough to get the job done with this fragile Pats offense.
These Patriots aren’t the team that won the Super Bowl less than three years ago. These Cowboys aren’t the team you’re used to watching fall apart down the stretch.
Expect Dallas to snap this 25-year drought with ease. The only question is how conservative they’ll be with some of their injured stars with their bye (and an extra week of rest) looming after Sunday’s game.
Prediction: Cowboys 34, Patriots 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.