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Six reasons to be optimistic about the Patriots’ chances against the Cowboys

Quarterback Josh Dobbs (left) and the Cardinals took advantage of Dallas's run defense.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

If you were going through the Patriots schedule to check off potential wins and losses, the Week 4 game at Dallas probably fell under “loss.”

On paper, Sunday’s game at AT&T Stadium is a mismatch. The 2-1 Cowboys rank fifth in the NFL in scoring (29 points per game), while the 1-2 Patriots rank 26th (17). The Cowboys finished 12-5 each of the last two years and brought back a star-studded roster with eight Pro Bowlers, including pass rusher Micah Parsons, perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL. The Patriots have finished under .500 in two of the last three seasons and had just one Pro Bowler last year, Matthew Judon.

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“They’ve got a lot of firepower,” Bill Belichick said. “A lot of experience on this team. They go out there and they do a lot of things well. You can see why they have the consistency that they’ve had.”

But don’t mark this one in the loss column just yet. The Cowboys may have secured blowout wins over the Giants and Jets to begin the season, but several flaws were exposed in last week’s 28-16 loss at Arizona.

Coach Mike McCarthy identified three of them:

“We’ve got three blinking lights as a football team — team penalties, red zone offense, and run defense. So they’ve been highlighted, they’ve been coached, but we are on to the plan to beat New England.”

Let’s take a further look at those issues, plus three others that McCarthy didn’t mention that could provide the Patriots hope:

1. Injuries. The Patriots are dealing with their own issues, particularly in the secondary, but the Cowboys have been hit hard on their offensive line. Center Tyler Biadasz, guard Zack Martin, and left tackle Tyron Smith all missed Wednesday’s practice, with McCarthy saying they may be game-time decisions.

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The three missed the Cardinals game, and though Dak Prescott was sacked only twice and hit four times, the offensive line was called for three holds and two false starts.

The Cowboys also lost star cornerback Trevon Diggs to a season-ending knee injury suffered in practice last week.

2. Penalties. The Cowboys’ 24 penalties are fifth-most in the NFL and their 180 penalty yards rank 12th. But it was especially bad against the Cardinals, with the Cowboys flagged 13 times for 107 yards.

Notably, the Cowboys jumped offside five times against the Cardinals, and they lead the NFL with six such calls this season (no other team has more than two). Perhaps the Patriots can take advantage of the Cowboys’ aggressiveness on the defensive line with some hard snap counts.

Mike McCarthy hopes the Cowboys can fix their penalty problems, which has included a league-high six offsides penalties called against them.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

3. Red zone struggles. The Cowboys were the NFL’s No. 1 red zone team in 2022, converting touchdowns on 71.4 percent of their opportunities. This year they rank 27th, converting just 40 percent (6 of 15).

They went 2 of 6 against the Jets and then 1 of 5 against the Cardinals, with Prescott throwing a game-sealing interception from the 6-yard line with three minutes remaining.

The Cowboys’ 15 red zone opportunities are the most in the NFL, so they are moving the ball but not converting.

4. Leaky run defense. The run defense wasn’t tested in the first two blowout wins, but the Cardinals ripped the Cowboys for 222 yards on the ground at 7.4 yards per carry.

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The Patriots won’t be able to replicate the 55 rushing yards by Arizona quarterback Josh Dobbs, but the Cardinals gashed the Cowboys with several big cutback runs and hit a 45-yard run out of the backfield from speedster Rondale Moore, which looked like something Demario Douglas could do.

The Cardinals also helped marginalize Parsons by running right at him.

5. One-dimensional offense. The Cowboys have a lot of talent on offense, but they haven’t found their rhythm in the passing game yet with McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer taking over for Kellen Moore, who left for the Chargers.

Running back Tony Pollard has 60 percent of the team’s rushing yards (264 of 441) and receiver CeeDee Lamb has 42 percent of the receiving yards (273 of 647).

Star receiver Ceedee Lamb has 273 receiving yards already this season, but he and the rest of the Cowboys receivers have yet to find the endzone.Christian Petersen/Getty

No wide receiver has caught a touchdown pass, not even Lamb. Michael Gallup (eight catches for 105 yards) hasn’t gotten going, though he had six for 92 against the Cardinals. Brandin Cooks has just four catches for 39 yards in two games.

Pollard and Rico Dowdle are receiving weapons out of the backfield, but the Cowboys haven’t found a reliable replacement for departed tight end Dalton Schultz; Jake Ferguson leads the position with 10 catches for 70 yards.

6. Lack of chunk plays. McCarthy and Schottenheimer have reined in Prescott, who has thrown just one interception in three games after leading the NFL with 15 last year. But the offense hasn’t been dynamic so far. Prescott is averaging a career-low 6.3 yards per attempt, which ranks 24th in the NFL.

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The Cardinals played a zone shell defense for most of the game, blitzing Prescott on just six of 40 attempts and held him to 249 passing yards (6.2 average) and one touchdown on a screen pass.

The Cowboys’ only dynamic pass plays were jump balls down the sideline in one-on-one coverage, with Prescott hitting Lamb for 32 yards and Gallup for 27.

If the Cowboys don’t win a few of those 50-50 balls throughout the game, their passing attack can be a grind.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.