FOXBORO — This is the type of matchup NFL executives wouldn’t mind seeing in the Super Bowl. And no, it’s not simply because it pits America’s Team versus the team America can’t stand.
This game features the high-powered offense of the Dallas Cowboys and the smothering defense of the New England Patriots. Statistically, it’s a showdown between the league’s best on both sides of the ball.
It’s strength against strength. Which side will crack? Which division-leading team will emerge? Therein lies the true appeal of this Week 12 matchup, with the Patriots, 9-1, hosting the Cowboys, 6-4, at Gillette Stadium in a 4:25 p.m. start.
“Any time you can go against a team that has a great offense like that is a fun moment, but it’s a big challenge,” said Patriots top corner Stephon Gilmore. “You get excited for games like this.”
Last week, the Patriots defense answered the bell against the Eagles, rebounding from its one hiccup against the Ravens with a dominant performance in a 17-10 win at Lincoln Financial Field. The Pats had some issues stopping the run against the Ravens, (and in general), but held the Eagles in check.
The Cowboys, the NFC East’s top team, pose a different set of challenges from the Eagles, and even from the Ravens. They have more of a complete offense than either of those teams. The Cowboys can certainly run the football behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. But, they also have a legitimate passing game.
Dak Prescott, an early MVP candidate, is having a career year, and his receiving corps is loaded. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb and Tavon Austin will be a handful for the Patriots secondary.
“They’re an explosive team, and Dak’s playing probably the best ball he’s ever played,” said Gilmore. “They can run the ball, they can throw it. They can do everything.”
That praise was tame compared to the bouquets Bill Belichick was tossing all week at Prescott and the Cowboys offense.
The Patriots coach isn’t taking Prescott, or the cast around him, lightly.
“He’s got good weapons, but he’s been super impressive. Just, great, great quarterback — sideline throws, inside throws, in-cuts, posts, over routes, flag routes, you name it,” said Belichick. “Possession passes on third down, best third-down team in the league, best passing team in the league, most big plays in the league — I mean, I don’t know where you want to start. They do it all. And, he does it all.
“He runs options, he runs read zones, keeps the ball in critical situations, tough guy to tackle, makes tough yards when he needs them, so he’s really good.”
Prescott threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns last week to lead the Cowboys over the Lions, 35-27. Both backs, Elliott and Pollard, caught touchdown passes, while the third score was grabbed by Cobb. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who had been the quarterbacks coach, has done a good job utilizing all of the talent he has at his disposal.
“We definitely have our hands full. There’s a lot that they do. They all bring something very unique to the table that could be a threat to our defense,” said Patriots safety Terrence Brooks. “We just have to have everyone on point. Have everyone keyed in on their guys . . . there’s a lot of guys to key in on. But the coaches are going to put us in the best position possible to make plays.”
From the Dallas perspective, they see what the Patriots have done to opposing offenses this season. They know about Sam Darnold’s game with ghosts, and they just saw the film of the Patriots essentially shutting down the Eagles after spotting their NFC East counterparts 10 points last week.
While the Cowboys may be the best passing, third-down and big-play offense, the Patriots can counter. They have the best defense on third down, they’ve allowed the second-fewest explosive plays, according to Sharp Football Stats and they’ve caused the most turnovers (28).
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was also effusive in his praise. He said he was impressed by everything when it comes to Belichick’s defense.
“They’re fantastic. They’re fantastic on their front, they’re fantastic at the linebacker level, on the back end, and teams are having a hard time moving the ball,” Garrett began. “Teams are having a hard time in situational football, third down, red zone. They’re having a hard time scoring points. Obviously, the stat that jumps out to everybody is the takeaways. They’ve been incredible taking the ball away all year long and making impactful plays for their team, but obviously they’ve got a lot of really good players.
“They’re really well-coached and they’ve been fantastic, really, for a long, long time and have been really good this year, as well.”
It sure shapes up as a can’t-miss proposition for football fans. There’s also the element of Tom Brady trying to get the offense back on track against a Dallas defense that now features former Patriot Michael Bennett. Brady turned up Friday on the injury report with an elbow problem, but is expected to play. All the intrigue, however, will be with how Prescott & Co. fare against the Patriots defense.
“They’re performing at a high clip, and we’re performing at a high clip, so it’s going to be a really good game,” said Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “I think they’re excited, and we’re excited as well. We’re ready to go.”
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Cowboys 20
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