Goliath in the Air

IRVING, Tex. - Not a week goes by without players and coaches around the National Football League showering their upcoming opponents with praise.

To hear most tell it, the next team on the schedule — whether that team is the defending Super Bowl champion or a squad so bad it is on the fast track to the first pick in the next NFL Draft — presents a Herculean foe, a threat so daunting the game might as well be cancelled to save everyone the bumps and bruises every team suffers on a weekly basis.

Dallas head coach Jason Garrett is particularly adept at the art of talking up an opponent. Even though he is in just his first full season as the Cowboys' head coach, he can build up a player faster than Leigh Steinberg. Ask him about any player on any team, and even if the player in question is relatively low on the talent scale, the answer will center around the player's intelligence and intensity and competitiveness, and — oh yeah, by the way, he's as talented as any player Garrett has ever seen. Every opposing receiver seemingly becomes "a lot like Jerry Rice." Running backs remind Garrett of Emmitt Smith; linebackers, of Lawrence Taylor.

But when Garrett and the Cowboys met the media Wednesday to talk about Sunday's road game against the New England Patriots, the praise for their opponents — especially the compliments afforded to New England quarterback Tom Brady — sounded genuine.

Brady is "a rare player, one of the all-time greatest players" in NFL history, Garrett said. "He has been to the mountaintop, with three championship rings."

Linebacker Victor Butler took it one step further.

"He (Brady) is a machine — he's awesome," Butler said. "I play with him on ‘Madden' (video game).

"(Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan) used to coach up there (Ryan was an assistant coach in New England from 2000-03) and he has told us about how nobody studies more than Tom Brady to prepare. He's probably up there watching film right now while we're talking."

Of course, calling Brady a great quarterback or announcing that the Patriots have a great offense is a little like saying Usain Bolt is fast; some things are so obvious they almost sound silly when said allowed.

Consider: at 33 points per game, the Patriots' offense is second in the NFL in scoring, but New England leads the entire league in total yards per game, average yards per play, net passing yards per game, net passing yards per play and first downs per game. That means that of the 17 offensive (including kicking) statistics that the NFL keeps and distributes, New England leads the entire league in five categories. Of the league's other 31 teams, only the Philadelphia Eagles lead the league in as many as two categories (rushing yards per game and rushing yards per play).

Veteran Dallas linebacker Bradie James had one idea that is a staple of defensive philosophy throughout the league, but the logic seems shaky. James suggested the Cowboys need to "make them one-dimensional" by containing the New England rushing attack, thereby forcing Brady to find his stable of targets and beat the Cowboys through the air.

New England is not without talented rushers: BenJarvus Green-Ellis leads the Patriots with 77 carries and 333 rushing yards. Rookie Stevan Ridley has 25 carries for 161 yards, while Danny Woodhead has 115 yards on 26 carries. As a team, the Patriots are averaging 128.6 yards per game — not bad, but hardly the kind of numbers that makes opposing defensive coordinators stay up at night figuring out how to stop the run. But forcing the Patriots to be one-dimensional by forcing them to pass the football?

Talk about pouring gas on a fire. The Patriots are averaging a sizzling 366.6 yards per game through the air so far. Only the New Orleans Saints also average above 300 passing yards per game (336.6).

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