Welcome to Season 10, Episode 6 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The Patriots against the Cowboys might have made a compelling Super Bowl matchup at some point over the last, oh, 25 years — “America’s Team” versus “We Are All Patriots” — but circumstances never aligned (mostly because of Dallas’s perennial underachievement), so the franchises don’t have much shared history of note.
They’ve played just 13 times, with the Patriots winning the last six. The Cowboys’ last victory came in December 1996, when they prevailed, 12-6, but all anyone remembers is Patriots rookie kicker Adam Vinatieri running down Herschel Walker on a kickoff return. Who would have thought then that the future Hall of Famer involved in that play was the tackler and not the tackled?
The current editions of the Patriots and Cowboys do have a couple of details in common.
Both have lost to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers by 2 points this year, the Cowboys in the Thursday night season opener (31-29) and the Patriots two weeks ago (19-17).
They’re also both coming off flawed but victorious performances against bottom-rung teams. The Patriots escaped last Sunday with a 25-22 win over the one-win Texans, while the Cowboys ultimately throttled the one-win Giants, 44-20, after leading just 17-10 at halftime.
But that’s about it for commonalities. We’ll find out whether this equates to a mismatch on the field, but the teams are a mismatch when it comes to production so far. The Cowboys, led by Comeback Player of the Year favorite Dak Prescott, are second in the NFL in points per game (34.0) and total offense (439.6 yards per game). Such numbers confirm that they have as much depth of talent as any offense in the league.
Prescott, returning from a grotesque compound ankle fracture suffered in Week 5 last season, has been superb, completing a career-best 73.9 percent of his passes for 1,368 yards and 13 touchdowns, with just three interceptions. He is surrounded by weapons, including rejuvenated running back Ezekiel Elliott (third in the NFL with 452 rushing yards) and dynamic receiving duo Amari Cooper (25 catches, 318 yards, 4 touchdowns) and CeeDee Lamb (24-348-2).
How loaded are the Cowboys on offense? Backup Tony Pollard leads all NFL running backs with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average. His total of 325 rushing yards is 95 more than the Patriots’ leader, Damien Harris, which probably says as much about the Patriots as the Cowboys.
The Patriots rank 26th in total offense (319.8 yards per game), and they’ve struggled in particular in running the ball (80 yards per game, 27th). The Cowboys allow just 79.4 rushing yards per game (fifth), though those numbers are skewed because opponents are usually trying to play catch-up and have to throw the ball.
The major concern for New England heading into the Texans game was the mass attrition on the offensive line, with four of five starters either injured or in COVID-19 protocol. It turned out to be pretty close to the least of their worries — Mac Jones was sacked just once — and at least guard Michael Onwenu should return Sunday. The Patriots are going to need all the reinforcements they can muster against this deep Cowboys roster.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started . . . …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
Devin McCourty: Bill Belichick’s decision to trade Stephon Gilmore jostled memories of other decorated Patriots who were sent on their way without much ceremony.
The first in the Belichick era was Lawyer Milloy, who was cut shortly before the 2003 season, mostly because of a salary dispute, but also because (and this gets forgotten in the retelling) he had stopped making big plays. Milloy did not have an interception, sack, fumble recovery, or forced fumble during the disappointing 2002 season, but made the Pro Bowl on reputation anyway.
This is not a suggestion that McCourty is in any danger of being the next great Patriot to go. But he is 34 and by his own acknowledgment played “terrible” against the Texans, making critical mistakes on Chris Moore’s 67-yard touchdown and Chris Conley’s 40-yard catch on fourth and 2. His lone interception this season came on an alley-oop from Jets rookie Zach Wilson in Week 2.
It would be reassuring and a whole lot of help to the cause if he could bounce back with a big play or two and show that old familiar steadiness against Prescott and his assorted weapons.
Micah Parsons: Here’s a what-if that probably will forever go unanswered, at least by Belichick. Had Parsons, taken at No. 12 by the Cowboys out of Penn State in the most recent draft, been available at No. 15, would the Patriots still have chosen Jones? The hunch here is that there would have at least been a serious debate within the Patriots’ draft room.
Many mock drafts had Parsons, a versatile 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound linebacker, ticketed for New England, and the fit was obvious. He can play inside or on the weak side with equal skill, he’s a high-motor pass rusher, and he can even drop into coverage.
He has done nothing but make the Cowboys look wise for picking him, tallying 2½ sacks and a team-high 10 QB hits.
Parsons accumulated some baggage in high school and college (he was among a group of Penn State players accused of hazing a teammate), but he graduated in three years and reportedly has matured significantly.
No one should gripe about the Patriots ending up with a promising quarterback in Jones, but there’s no denying that Parsons would have made a superb sidekick and eventual successor to Dont’a Hightower. With that skill set, you know Belichick loved him.
Dalton Schultz: Given all of the dynamic players on the Dallas offense, it might take a few guesses to name their leader in receptions. It’s not Cooper or Lamb or one of the running backs, but Schultz, the fourth-year tight end.
Working primarily in the middle of the field, Schultz has 26 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns, which is only slightly less production than the combined totals of well-compensated Patriots tight ends Hunter Henry (20-216-2) and Jonnu Smith (15-115-1).
Grievance of the week
Jerry Jones, age 79: 33 seasons as Cowboys owner, 15 playoff appearances, four conference finals, three Super Bowls, three Super Bowl victories, Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Robert Kraft, age 80: 28 seasons as Patriots owner, 21 playoff appearances, 14 conference finals, 10 Super Bowls, six Super Bowl victories, not a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Say, who does an owner have to know around here to get a call from Canton?
Matchup to watch
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones vs. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs
Maybe it’s a silly attempt at gamesmanship — insecure coaches like to fall back on those sorts of tactics against Belichick — or maybe there’s nothing for the Cowboys to be fretting about at all.
But it did get the antennae up Thursday when, after ball-hawking cornerback Trevon Diggs missed practice with an ankle injury, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy insinuated it was “not of high concern.” It seems here that it is almost always of high concern when a cornerstone player misses practice late in the week, even if the worst to ultimately come from it is that he is slightly compromised in the game.
Make no mistake, Diggs is essential to the Cowboys. Their pass defense ranks last in the NFL, allowing 311 yards per game. That is no fault of Diggs’s. He’s on the path to a historic season with six interceptions, including at least one in each of the Cowboys’ five games. The NFL record for interceptions is 14, set by Dick “Night Train” Lane with the 1952 Los Angeles Rams. The Cowboys’ franchise record for picks in a season is 11, set by rookie Everson Walls in 1981.
(Walls, as some may recall, is a player Belichick knows well. He played for the Giants’ Super Bowl XXV-winning team when Belichick was the defensive coordinator. Two years later, as head coach of the Browns, Belichick brought Walls to Cleveland.)
For all the yardage they have allowed, the Dallas defensive backs do have a knack for coming up with interceptions, with 10 total.
Mac Jones has to be more selective with where he throws the football than he was against Houston. He threw one interception, his fifth in three games, and could have had three more had the Texans been able to hold onto the ball.
Prediction, or it turns out that Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones wasn’t too tall at all . . .
Based on the pure talent they’re putting on the field, the Cowboys should win this, and without a whole lot of suspense. Arguably, they are better than the Patriots at every single offensive and defensive position group. Their offense is balanced and unpredictable. Their defense is fast and aggressive. It could be a long day for the Patriots.
But it might not be. We thought the Bucs would wallop the Patriots. It came down to a last-minute missed field goal. We thought the Patriots would wallop the Texans, but they had to score the final 16 points to salvage the win. This season has not been predictable. And there are a couple of factors that point their way.
The first is that this game means more to the Patriots, who can get back to .500 with a win. That matters.
The second is that Belichick vs. McCarthy is a mismatch akin to 1987 Mike Tyson against this cinder-headed Logan Paul character. McCarthy won a Super Bowl with the Packers, but one should be the minimum with peak Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who watched this season’s “Hard Knocks” featuring the Cowboys came away impressed with McCarthy, who has all the mannerisms of Kevin James playing a football coach in a movie you’d never want to see.
The Patriots need to stop fumbling. They need to stop making defensive mistakes that come from a lack of discipline. And everyone needs to do their best to play with the energy of Matt Judon.
Maybe it’s a lot to ask against a team as talented as the Cowboys. At the least, it’s probably a little too much. It won’t be a surprise if the Patriots win. But they’ve given us no reason yet to expect them to. Cowboys 27, Patriots 19.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.