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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Patriots will see how good they really are against Dak Prescott and the Cowboys

Dak Prescott leads the NFL in passing yards per game at 322.1.
Dak Prescott leads the NFL in passing yards per game at 322.1.Michael Ainsworth/FR171389 AP via AP

Around here we enjoy a luxury that is foreign to NFL outposts outside of Foxborough. We grade and parse wins. Assessing the lack of offense in the Patriots’ victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday or the general lack of competent competition in the AFC is really a first-world football problem we’re fortunate to have.

You can get spoiled when winning becomes more expected than exciting, but every game the Patriots play is used as a Super Bowl barometer. That’s why this current stretch of the schedule is so interesting because these games aren’t football fait accomplis.

The 9-1 Patriots are in the midst of a five-game, six-week stretch that sees them face legitimate competition, actual pushback, and, hallelujah, upper-echelon quarterbacks, all rarities. They’re 1-1 thus far. They got smoked by Baltimore and won a 17-10 tractor pull with the Eagles.

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Over the next three weeks, we get to discover just how good the Patriots and their vaunted defense really are as they face three playoff-caliber clubs and three MVP-caliber QBs in succession. It starts on Sunday at Gillette Stadium with Dak Prescott, the NFL’s leader in passing yards, and the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys. It’s “America’s Team” against “America’s Most Hated Team” in a potential Super Bowl preview. Then it’s Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans deep in the heart of Texas. Finally, reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs venture to Foxborough for one of the most-anticipated matchups of the season on Dec. 8.

Win any of those games and it automatically qualifies as the Patriots’ best win of the season by far. Win them all, and it’s time to start prepping the Duck Boats and clearing space for another Super Bowl title banner.

Film study: Cowboys’ Dak Prescott is all about poise and production

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What would qualify as the Patriots’ best win of the season thus far? Unlike the Democratic presidential hopeful field, there’s a dearth of candidates. It’s one of two games, both of which are more memorable for quarterback Tom Brady’s downbeat post-game press conferences than the actual outcomes. The candidates are the 16-10 road win over the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 29 or last Sunday’s victory over an Eagles team missing its leading rusher and best wide receiver. Philly throttled said Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., 31-13, with those players healthy.

Let’s be honest, the Patriots schedule is littered with lambs brought to the Belichick slaughter. Teams that were hapless and hopeless in the face of Bill Belichick and his dominant defense, which has allowed just nine offensive touchdowns in 10 games. But the Patriots are in the midst of the portion of the schedule with real competition and real feedback about how they measure up, both contemporarily and historically.

Unconventional Preview: It’s America’s team vs. the team America loves to hate: Bill Belichick gives Patriots edge over Cowboys

The next three weeks should tell us everything we need to know about the 2019 New England Patriots. Then it’s back to the regularly-scheduled foils to finish the regular season.

Is Tom Brady right to be upset?
Nora Princiotti and Ben Volin discuss the Patriots offense and Tom Brady's sour mood. (Produced by Lucie McCormick for the Boston Globe)

Can the Patriots’ defense really drag this enervated offense and a burdened Brady to a seventh Super Bowl title, no matter the competition? Perhaps, it’s Brady who should have a lone star logo on his helmet on Sunday, given his public displeasure with the offense’s output. Shootouts don’t seem winnable for these Patriots. They don’t want to get into one with any of their next three opponents.

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Dallas’s Prescott presides over the most potent passing attack in the NFL. What the Patriots have done to opposing passers this season is almost incomprehensible. The penurious Patriots pass defense has surrendered just four touchdown passes while picking off 19 passes. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 53.6 percent of their passes and have posted a passer rating of 49.2. The league average rating is 91.5.

It’s easier to get Billie Eilish tickets at the last minute than it is to pass on the Patriots. The caveat is that they haven’t faced many premium passers this year.

Prescott has been the most prolific passer in the NFL this season, and, like Watson and Mahomes, he can beat you with his legs as well. The Cowboys boast the No. 1 offense in the NFL (444.6 yards per game). Prescott leads the NFL in passing yards per game at 322.1. In his first 10 games, Prescott has four games with at least 375 yards passing and two or more touchdown passes, tying Joe Montana’s mark for the most such games in the first 10 games of a season. He is seeking his fourth straight game with at least three TD passes on Sunday.

“This guy can throw the ball,” said Belichick. “He’s very accurate. He’s got great poise in the pocket, stands in there. He can extend plays, and run if he has to, but he doesn’t do much of that unless he really needs to. He has great patience and poise, discipline in the pocket, gets his eyes downfield. He’s a very good intermediate-to-deep ball thrower. He’s got good weapons, but he has been super impressive. Just great, great quarterback.”

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Containing the Cowboys, a certain someone’s preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the same way they have other teams would be “super impressive,” to borrow Belichick’s words. Prescott has a supporting cast that Brady can only drool over in his far infrared pajama-fueled dreams at this point.

That Patriots streak of at least one sack in every game this season will be tested. Dallas has one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, ranking first in the league in fewest sacks per pass attempt with 12 sacks in 378 dropbacks. Ezekiel Elliott is a beastly back who can break tackles, wills, and big plays as a runner or as a receiver. Dallas receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb generate big plays. Prescott has 47 completions of 20 yards or more, the most in the league.

For good measure, the Dallas defense also ranked seventh in both scoring defense (seventh, 19.7 points per game) and total defense (322.1). If you gave Belichick the Cowboys they might go 16-0.

Beating the ’Boys would be the best win of the season for the Patriots. It’s also a preview of the type of talent they’re going to face if they reach Super Bowl LIV. The NFC is clearly the deeper conference. Philly is a borderline playoff team in the NFC. Teams such as Dallas, the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints, the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks, and, yes, Jimmy Garoppolo’s San Francisco 49ers could all be waiting for the Patriots with their weapons.

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Facing Prescott, Watson, and Mahomes in consecutive weeks is good preparation for the Patriots to fine-tune for the postseason and find out where they really stand.

It’s fun to kick around the flotsam and jetsam of Darnolds, Joneses, and Mayfields that have washed up on the Patriots schedule. It suits their stats but not their ultimate purpose. They got served humble pie by Lamar Jackson and bounced back, suffocating Carson Wentz.

But the QB competition moves up in class the next three weeks. We’ll learn a lot about the Patriots’ defense-first Super Bowl blueprint and just how structurally sound it is.


Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.