1. Completely shut down the Cowboys’ passing game
Containing Prescott within the pocket and getting pressure on him is just the start, however. New England also needs another stellar effort from their defense – particularly their star-studded secondary, given the overall talent and ability of the Cowboys’ weapons on offense.
After Prescott, the Patriots will need to shut down Amari Cooper. The fifth-year wide receiver out of Alabama has rejuvenated this Dallas passing attack ever since he was traded over from the Oakland Raiders, and he currently leads the team in receptions, targets, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. His seven scores on the year are tied with running back Ezekiel Elliott for the highest mark on the team amongst all Dallas skill position players.
Cooper figures to see a lot of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore this Sunday. Gilmore has been exceptional all year in shutting down opponent’s primary wideouts, and he’ll have another chance to prove his standing as the best corner in the league this weekend when he gets to match up against the electric Cooper. It remains to be seen just how much a knee injury is still bothering Cooper; he was a full participant in practices this week though, which is good news for Cowboys fans.
Outside of Cooper, the Dallas offense runs through Elliott. The former Ohio State Buckeye hasn’t received quite the same level of acclaim in his fourth season as he did during his first three years in the NFL, when he was regularly listed as either the best or the second-best running back in the league. Part of the explanation for that “drop-off,” if there has been one at all, can probably be explained by Prescott’s emergence as well as injuries along the offensive line.
Still, Elliott is a threat both in the run game as well as in the pass game. New England’s linebackers will no doubt be tasked with keeping an eye on him when he rolls out in the flat or on screen plays, and his production on Sunday will go a long way in determining whether the Cowboys are able to pull off the upset on the road.
Elsewhere around the Cowboys’ receiving chart, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, and the old-reliable Jason Witten represent problems for Bill Belichick and his defensive staff to pay special attention to this weekend. New England’s secondary is good enough to counteract these players on a man-to-man basis, but the Patriots also can’t afford any momentary lapses in concentration or effort while working their individual assignments. This Cowboys offense is too explosive, and will surely take advantage of those opportunities if presented to them, however slim they might be.
If the Patriots focus on these three key areas and execute well in each of them, they should be able to come out with the win on Sunday. Dallas might be a more well-rounded team than New England at this point in the season, but the Patriots certainly know more about winning in important games than the Cowboys. That experience could prove the difference this weekend at Gillette Stadium.