The last time the Patriots played the Dallas Cowboys Week 12 in 2019, things were different in Foxborough.
Tom Brady and Stephon Gilmore were still with New England, which was coming off its sixth Super Bowl win. The Patriots had a top-10 scoring offense, and their defense was the best in the league. And New England had won a few home games.
None of that is true today. But New England is hoping for the same result: A win.
A victory over the 4-1 Cowboys would bring New Englandto .500, and keep its playoff aspirations alive.
The Cowboys have talent on both sides of the ball, and proving they can keep these players in check will show the Patriots are capable of hanging with anybody.
QB Dak Prescott
Prescott is a top-five quarterback, a marvel considering the horrific leg injury he suffered in Week 5 last season.
The Cowboys signal caller has the second-best passer rating in the league (116.9, behind only Russell Wilson) and is third among qualified passers in completion percentage (73.9), three spots ahead of Mac Jones (71.1).
Though he hasn’t been as prolific since his 403 passing yards against the Buccaneers in Week 1, Prescott’s efficiency and point production have been no less impressive.
Aside from his Week 2 effort against the Chargers, Prescott has thrown at least three touchdowns in every game and has 13 touchdown passes against three interceptions.
Not only does he take care of the football, he trusts his arm, throwing into tight windows at a top-10 rate (according to NextGen Stats) but with only five turnover-worthy throws thus far, per Pro Football Focus.
“We’ve got to keep ‘em off the board, try to get stops, try to make Dak (Prescott) read some defenses and hold the ball a little bit longer so we can get to him,” Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon said Wednesday. “All 11 guys got to be on point this week.”
New England had some success in forcing Tom Brady to hold the football by disguising coverages and kept the explosive Buccaneers passing game largely in check by keeping the quarterback guessing.
Look for the Patriots to do something similar with Prescott.
CB Trevon Diggs
For a quarterback often praised for quick decision-making and accuracy, Jones has put the ball in harm’s way more often than you’d like.
Jones is tied with Sam Darnold and Jared Goff for sixth in the NFL with eight turnover-worthy throws according to PFF. Five of those have ended up in opponents’ hands.
He’ll need to be wary of former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs or that number could grow.
The explosive second-year cornerback is having a breakout season, with a league-leading six interceptions to go with four pass breakups.
He also has allowed a completion percentage of just 48.7 and a passer rating of 38.9 when targeted and hasn’t given up a receiving touchdown despite sbeing targeted more times (39) than all but one corner, teammate Anthony Brown (44).
Though Jones has said he “can’t be afraid of” Diggs, he knows he can’t afford to be careless.
“You just have to know where he’s at because you have to respect him,” Jones said. “Respect his game, respect his knowledge, and respect everybody on their defense and their coaching staff because they do a good job in preparation; it’s showing up on the tape.”
The Cowboys will play Diggs and Brown in single coverage a lot — both are top-five among cornerbacks in man coverage snaps.
LB Micah Parsons
Parsons is one of the league’s most exiting defensive rookies.
The linebacker’s 4.3 speed at the combine wasn’t a fluke. It shows on the field with sideline-to-sideline range and terrifying closing speed as a pass rusher.
Parsons, an inside linebacker, leads the Cowboys in pressures with 14 and is tied for the team lead in sacks with 2.5.
Cowboys Micah Parsons (16 pressures) and Osa Odighizuwa (13) rank 2nd & 4th in QB pressures among rookies through Week 5.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 12, 2021
📸: Top 5 Rookie Pressure Leaders@MicahhParsons11 leads all rookies in pressure rate (17.4%) among 35 players with at least 10 pass rushes.#DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/X7tHBLpvj6
Parsons has some work to do in coverage — he’s allowing a 92.1 passer rating when targeted. But there’s no denying he’s a weapon whether blitzing or pursuing quarterbacks outside the pocket.
The Cowboys don’t blitz a lot and struggle at times to produce pressure with defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence injured. So Parsons likely will be a big part of the pass rush.
Parsons has lined up all over the front-seven, including several games where he has played outside more than inside.
Given the Patriots’ issues on the offensive line, it wouldn’t be surprising if Dallas tries to set up mismatches with Parsons on a backup tackle.
RB Ezekiel Elliott
The Pro Bowl running back didn’t do much the first two weeks of the season, leading to speculation he might be starting to decline at just 26 years old.
So much for that.
Elliott’s last three games: 95 yards and two rushing touchdowns against the Eagles; 143 yards and one TD against the Panthers; and 110 yards and a TD against the Giants.
He ranks behind only Derrick Henry in runs of 10 or more yards, is tied for second with Kareem Hunt and James Conner (behind Henry again) with five rushing touchdowns, and is third behind Henry and Nick Chubb in rushing yards (452).
Give the Patriots credit for bottling up the Texans’ anemic rushing attack. But this will be a tougher challenge with Dallas having both a superior offensive line and running back.
Elliott had at least 20 carries in each of the last two weeks. So New England will need to strap up and stop the former All-Pro from eating up chunks of yardage and helping set up the play-action.
However, the defense can’t forget about wideouts Amari Cooper (318 yards receiving and four TDs) and CeeDee Lamb (348 yards, two TDs), who have accounted for almost half of Prescott’s 1,368 passing yards and are dangerous down the field.