The Dallas Cowboys enter their "Sunday Night Football" matchup (Dec. 4) against the Indianapolis Colts as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Since quarterback Dak Prescott's return from injury, America's Team is 4-1 while scoring an NFL-best 169 points.
Compare that to the Colts, a struggling organization that's put up 190 points for the entire season. Interim head coach Jeff Saturday has lost two in a row as the team continues to struggle to move the ball despite the presence of All-Pro running back Johnathan Taylor. Unsettled play at quarterback combined with a minus-10 turnover margin (31st in the NFL) has left them failing to reach expectations at 4-7-1.
With an 8-3 record, the Cowboys are in a much better spot, sitting with a real shot to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They'd need a little help, sitting two games behind the Philadelphia Eagles, but face them on Christmas Eve with a chance to win both the game and division tiebreaker. Add in a head-to-head victory over the Minnesota Vikings, sitting at 9-2, and it's not inconceivable to see Dallas rising all the way to the top.
To do so, the Cowboys need to take care of business on nights like these. Can they live up to a lofty 10.5-point spread against the Colts? Or will an Indianapolis team that's been in nine one-score games this season (producing a 4-4-1 record in them) find themselves fighting through another one, and in a position to pull off the upset?
Sunday Night Football: Indianapolis (4-7) at Dallas (8-3)
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Matt Ryan get the Colts' offense going?
Since being installed as head coach, Saturday's biggest move has been to reinstall the veteran Ryan as the starting quarterback. The decision has come with mixed results, a 1-2 record with the offense producing just 19.3 points per game. That's upped their average only slightly, to 15.8 overall, second worst in the NFL ahead of only the Denver Broncos.
Ryan also was charged with two turnovers in a 24-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, bringing his total to a league-leading 23 fumbles and interceptions on the year. Despite those glaring red flags, Saturday made clear this week that he still feels the former Pro Bowler gives the Colts the best chance to win over unproven Sam Ehlinger.
"Matt is going to continue to be the guy," Saturday said. "We're going to keep moving forward, pressing forward with what we've got."
To Ryan's credit, the quarterback has tried to keep the troops motivated despite a tough hill to climb. Four of the Colts' final five games are against teams with winning records; three of those are on the road, including Sunday night.
"It still matters," Ryan explained this week when discussing the Colts' remaining schedule. "We've got a young team. We've got a lot of guys who this might be their first time kind of going through that experience [of playing in the NFL] … every time you [step out on the field] it's your résumé. There's a lot to play for."
That leadership off the field can only go so far on it, as Ryan's presence should leave the Cowboys' defense licking their chops. In the past five games alone, they've forced a dozen fumbles, recovering seven, turnovers that have led to 24 points. Add in the Cowboys' league-leading 45 sacks and you'd expect Ryan to have a tough day at the office Sunday night.
2. Will Dak Prescott take better care of the football?
It's hard to criticize the Cowboys' signal-caller after a successful return to the field. The Dallas offense has been clicking on all cylinders, spreading the ball around as Prescott's 10 touchdown passes in the last five games have gone to five different receivers. Everyone from rising superstar CeeDee Lamb (31 catches) to a recovering Michael Gallup (63 yards last week against the Giants) has gotten their fair share of targets.
Where Prescott could be better is by reducing the number of careless turnovers. His six interceptions in just six games leave him on pace for a career high. In the only loss since his return, the Packers picked him off twice in the first half on route to 14 crucial points.
Can the Colts' defense give Prescott a run for his money? They're fifth in the NFL against the pass and held potential MVP candidate Jalen Hurts to 190 yards just two weeks ago. The problem has come in forcing turnovers; Indianapolis has only four interceptions all year and none have come in the last four games. In order for the Colts to hang around, they need that type of momentum-changing play early in the game.
3. Johnathan Taylor vs. Ezekiel Elliott/Tony Pollard
This one's just going to be fun. Taylor still ranks 10th in the NFL with 779 rushing yards despite missing three games due to injury. Pollard sits just behind him, posting 761 yards this season on an impressive 5.6 yards per carry.
Everyone knows about Taylor, perhaps the best running back in the league right now. But Pollard has come into his own this season, outstanding during this stretch when Elliott had to miss two games due to injury (two 100-yard rushing performances). With both defenses middling at best against the run, expect some quality fantasy performances during this game, especially from the Dallas duo if they're padding a comfortable lead late in the fourth quarter.
Some around the Colts are still scratching their heads over Saturday, who had minimal coaching experience before being picked by owner Jim Irsay to lead the team on an interim basis. So far, the team has played hard around him and took the Eagles down to the final minutes before a letdown against the Steelers last week.
But the more Saturday settles in, the less surprising his game plan becomes to potential opponents and Sunday night might be a dose of reality. The Colts are hitting the Cowboys at the wrong time and without the talent level needed to stay competitive on the road.
Prediction: Cowboys 34, Colts 14
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
*Price as of publication.