Previewing the Cowboys - Patriots Game

If statistics mean anything, Sunday's game between Dallas and New England should be a low-scoring defensive-minded affair. In New England, league rankings tend to get minimized because Bill Belichick is known as a bend-but-don't-break coach who is concerned about points, not yards.

If statistics mean anything, Sunday's game between Dallas and New England should be a low-scoring defensive-minded affair. In New England, league rankings tend to get minimized because Bill Belichick is known as a bend-but-don't-break coach who is concerned about points, not yards. Heck, his Super Bowl winning defense two years ago ranked 24th, but was sixth in points allowed. This year's Patriots defense is ranked 11th, but fifth in points allowed (155) through nine games, which is four spots behind the Dallas Cowboys, who have allowed a league-low 136.

But that's not the only area the Cowboys defense leads the league. They are No. 1 overall on defense, No. 1 against the pass and No. 3 against the run. They have allowed the fewest first downs in the NFL (126) and lead the league in yards allowed on first down (3.89). They also are eighth in red zone defense and are holding opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 49 percent completion percentage.

The Patriots are ranked seventh in the league against the run, but 23rd against the pass and sixth in red zone defense. They have allowed a league-low four touchdown passes and have held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 59.5-passer rating. They lag behind Dallas in the other categories.

"This could easily be the best defense we've faced and we've faced some good ones," Belichick said. "They are very fast. They blitz a lot. They are good in the secondary. They have big hitting safeties. The corners cover well.

"They don't beat themselves," Belichick continued. "They force you to make plays to beat them and they pounce on opportunities that you give them. That's why they're 7-2."

Both New England and Dallas are among the league-leaders in third down defense. The Patriots have allowed just 38 conversions in 124 opportunities for a 30.6 percent mark, which is good for third in the NFL. Dallas, meanwhile, has allowed 39 conversions in 125 chances for 31.2 percent, the fifth best mark in the league. Those stats would indicate that punters Ken Walter and Toby Gowin will be busy, which favors Dallas in a field position fight.

Walter is averaging just 38.8 gross yards per punt and 34 yards net. He has struggled kicking the ball consistently all year, although he does have 13 punts downed inside the 20 against just three touchbacks. Gowin is averaging just more than a yard better in both categories, which may not seem much but can take its toll. Walter had his best game of the season in his team's Week 8 win over Cleveland, downing four punts deep inside the Browns 15 against only one fluke touchback, but struggled in Denver when he had a short, low punt returned for a 57-yard touchdown.

Dallas also has the statistical edge returning those punts although Troy Brown can do that as well as anybody, and is a threat to score on any return. But Dallas' Joey Galloway is averaging 12.3 yards per return to Brown's 10.2.

Quarterback Quincy Carter is facing judgment day over the next few weeks. He is 13-11 in his career as a starter and 7-2 this season. But Bill Parcells said the key is having staying power. "I think Quincy is just getting started," Parcells said. "Actually I was just talking to Quincy this morning about hey this is about staying power. This is the furthest you have ever gone. You got to be able to hang."

--TE Dan Campbell, supposedly the team's blocking tight end, caught a season-high three passes against the Bills for 15 yards, including his first touchdown as a Cowboys. It was the first touchdown by a Cowboys tight end since Tony McGee caught a 17-yard touchdown against Tennessee September 15.

--WR Joey Galloway leads the NFL with an 18.9 yards per catch average with 24 receptions for 454 yards. However, Galloway has been fazed out of the offense of late because teams have used the cover two defense to take away the Cowboys deep passing attack.

Sunday's Game Plan
It will be fun to watch the game plans unfold in this game between Dallas and New England or, more accurately, between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Offensively, New England will try to do two things to neutralize Dallas' speed. First, they will try to use their size advantage offensively to get physical and power the ball at the middle of the Cowboys defense while trying to put big bodies on linebackers Dat Nguyen, Dexter Coakley and Al Singleton.

Also, look for the Patriots to use their spread formations with regularity. Generally when the Patriots face a blitzing team, they go to the spread look to move defenders out of the box, which allows quarterback Tom Brady to better identify possible blitzers and make his reads with less congestion. Since he is a pocket passer with limited mobility, expect Dallas to come after him hard much the way they did Patrick Ramsey and Drew Bledsoe the last two weeks.

The Patriots will have to pick up the blitz and hit a couple of big plays to force the Cowboys to call off the dogs. They also could use some screens to beat Dallas' upfield aggressiveness, but since they are a big screen team and since Parcells know offensive coordinator Charlie Weis so well, expect Dallas to be ready for those calls.

Defensively, the Patriots will try to confuse Quincy Carter with some disguises at the safety position, but the goal will be to prevent the big plays and make Carter peck his way down the field, converting multiple third downs along the way. This could be a blitz-heavy game plan designed to stress the pocket and get Carter moving and throwing on the run to affect his accuracy. New England will be very physical with the Cowboys receivers. The challenge will be stopping the run with seven defenders so that the safeties can stay deep to help stop a talented receiving corps capable of making big plays.

The Cowboys and Patriots come into the game with identical 7-2 records, with Dallas hanging onto a one-game lead in the NFC East and the Patriots holding a two-game lead in the AFC East. The Patriots' high-powered offense has shown an ability to be successful against solid defenses, but Dallas' No. 1-ranked defensive unit should present problems for Tom Brady & Company.

The Cowboys defense has held its opponent to under 10 points four times this season. The Cowboys are giving up just 149.4 passing yards per game and are third best against the run, giving up a mere 85.1 yards. The Cowboys will blitz Brady and challenge their corners to prevent the big play. It's a feast or famine thing that has worked well for the Cowboys of late.

Offensively, the Cowboys new running back tandem of Troy Hambrick and Adrian Murrell must move the ball effectively against the Patriots defense and open things up downfield for quarterback Quincy Carter. Teams have played the Cowboys run with just seven men in the box, allowing them to use cover two in the secondary to prevent the big play.

Important Match Ups
Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter vs. the Patriots defense
Carter and the Cowboys have slumped of late. He has gone five games without topping 200 yards passing and the downfield throws have been non-existent in each of the past three. Parcells acknowledges that teams have caught up with the Cowboys offense, but blames poor execution for much of the Cowboys woes. Bill Belichick is the wrong person to have offensive woes against. This is the guy who shut down the St. Louis Rams with his inventive schemes in the Super Bowl. He will certainly have a few tricks ready to try to befuddle the still inexperienced Carter.

Patriots DBs Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson vs. Cowboys WRs Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant
The Cowboys receivers are all big-play threats who can not only stretch a defense, but also turn short throws into long gains. Galloway is averaging nearly 19 yards per catch and Bryant is averaging 16.4 while Glenn checks in at 13.7. The Patriots secondary has been the strength of the defense and the four starters have combined for nine interceptions with nickel back Asante Samuel also checking in with a pair.

Patriots RB Kevin Faulk vs. Cowboys LBs Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley
Faulk is a major receiving threat out of the backfield for the Patriots and may not have his normal coverage mismatch against the linebackers. That's because those two linebackers can cover, are as fast, if not faster than Faulk and will be able to get physical with him. Faulk is second on the Patriots with 28 receptions and he will see plenty of Dallas' speedy linebackers in his face when he roams into his pass routes. New England may try to get him downfield against the linebackers where they aren't used to playing the ball with their back to the quarterback.

Patriots WR Deion Branch vs. Cowboys CB Terrence Newman
Branch leads the Patriots in catches (29) and receiving yards (427), but his size could be a problem against the fast and physical Newman who presents the whole package at corner. Dallas will leave Newman on an island to blitz Brady with the safeties, and Branch will have to beat the coverage to allow Brady to exploit one-on-one s. The communication will be important because Branch will need to know the protection to adjust his route accordingly. Execution on these types of plays could be the difference in what is expected to be a tight game.

Injury Impact
RT Ryan Young missed the last two games with knee swelling but is expected to be ready for the Patriots game. Young is not on the team's injury report and practiced without incident on Wednesday.

LB Markus Steele is questionable with a sprained ankle. He practiced Wednesday and should play against the Patriots.

Series History
This is the 9th overall meeting between these two clubs. Cowboys lead series 8-1, but Patriots won the last meeting, 13-6, also on a Sunday night, in 1999. The teams first met in 1971 with Dallas scoring its biggest margin of victory in a 44-21 trouncing, it's first of seven straight wins to open the series. Six of the last seven games between the clubs have been decided by a touchdown or less.

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