Welcome to Season 8, Episode 11 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
It felt like something of a long week around here in Patriot Nation — or at least as long as a week can be for a 9-1 team coming off a fairly encouraging road win against a quality team in the Philadelphia Eagles. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective, since virtually every other team in the league would rather have the Patriots’ problems than their own.
Still, there was kind of a glum vibe, the tone set by Tom Brady’s annoyed mood in his short postgame comments after the win. The stories of the week had little to do with the actual team (overdue kudos to punter Jake Bailey, one of the league’s best rookies, for winning AFC special teams player of the week) and more to do with ancillary stuff, such as one more Rob Gronkowski “big announcement” and Patriot-for-11-days Antonio Brown’s social-media apology to “Mr. Kraft” for scummy behavior that cost him a 12th day and beyond.
This was one of those weeks in which some among us probably appreciate — and could use — a reminder of how good we have it around here. In one welcome sense, that reminder is coming Sunday with a compelling matchup against a supremely talented team, a matchup with a cool little piece of history at stake.
Should the Patriots defeat the Dallas Cowboys, it will be their 10th win of the season, setting an NFL record with 17 straight seasons of double-digit victories. That should be unfathomable in a league designed for parity. Yet with the Bill Belichick/Brady Patriots, it’s just one more achievement to briefly acknowledge during the quest for bigger, shinier things. Well, here’s to acknowledging it should it happen this Sunday, because it’s a heck of a feat, one that I can’t fathom being matched again.
Getting that 10th win won’t be easy. Brady and the Patriots take on Dak Prescott and a richly talented Dallas team in a battle of division-leading teams with histories and images that relentlessly annoy pretty much every other fan base. The Cowboys, of course, are America’s Team, the brilliant self-applied marketing label from the ’70s, when it was actually accurate. The Patriots, for nearly two decades now, have been the team America loves to hate, and currently, is one they are wishing falls spectacularly short of a seventh Super Bowl victory. This is where we note that the Patriots have more Super Bowl wins this century than America’s Alleged Team has playoff victories (three). As a great philosopher once said — I think it might have been Deion Sanders — it’s not bragging if it’s true.
This one ought to be a gem. It’s a matchup of the league’s top defense (the Patriots are allowing 10.8 points per game, and that includes points scored on turnovers by the offense) against the No. 1 offense (at least in terms of yardage; the Patriots have actually scored more points than the Cowboys, though that includes contributions by their opportunistic defense).
Prescott, the fourth-year quarterback who somehow went 109 picks after Paxton Lynch in the 2016 draft, has been the driving force for the Cowboys, putting up the kind of statistics that wouldn’t look out of place on Brady’s pro-football-reference page. Prescott leads the NFL with 3,221 passing yards, with 21 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. He’s been especially effective on third down — the Cowboys lead the NFL in third-down conversions at 50.2 percent — and he’s averaging a league-best 8.8 yards per attempt. Lamar Jackson is the most dangerous quarterback the Patriots have faced this year, but Prescott, whose 38 wins since 2016 are second among quarterbacks only to Brady, is the most polished. But he hasn’t seen anything like this Patriots defense, either. Like we said, should be a gem.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Ezekiel Elliott: I suppose the snarky approach — something we struggle to resist in this space — would be to look at the Cowboys running back’s subpar-by-his-own-standards stats recently and suggest that maybe training camp does matter. After all, Elliott did hold out through the summer, and didn’t join the Cowboys until just a couple of days before their opener against the Giants.
But saying missing camp harmed him just wouldn’t be an accurate observation. Elliott ran for more than 100 yards in two of the Cowboys’ first three games despite chilling in Cabo San Lucas while his teammates were toiling under the training camp sun — and in the end, he got a $50 million guarantee out of the holdout. I’d say that’s a fine way to pass the end of summer and a fairly significant win in a staredown with Jerry Jones.
Yes, Elliott’s numbers are down. Last year, he had a league-high 381 touches (304 carries, 77 receptions) for a total of 2,001 yards from scrimmage. He led the NFL in rushing yards (1,434), and led the league in rushing yards per game (95.6) for the third time in his three-year career. This year, he’s still been effective (833 yards, seven rushing touchdowns, or one more on the ground than he had last season), but he hasn’t been at his most productive lately. Over the last two games, he has just 92 yards on 36 attempts, for 2.6 yards per carry. It’s going to be fascinating to see what Bill Belichick emphasizes taking away from the Cowboys in this game. Prescott and the Cowboys are the top passing offense in the league (312.7 yards per game) and seventh when it comes to the run (131.9), but if the Patriots have shown any hints of weakness on defense, it’s in stopping the run. I’m going against conventional wisdom that Belichick will focus on stopping Prescott first. The hunch here is that Belichick trusts his elite pass defense to do its job against Prescott and the emphasis will be put on making sure Elliott and speedy change-of-pace back Tony Pollard are marginalized in the running game.
N’Keal Harry: Want a positive spin on the Patriots’ relative offensive woes lately and how the passing game may progress from here? Here’s one: The Patriots have added a pair of recent first-round picks to their offensive huddle over the last two weeks, first with Harry (picked 32d in 2019) making his professional debut against the Eagles last Sunday, and now with Isaiah Wynn (23d pick, 2018) returning from injured reserve this past week. Hey, it’s at least some kind of a talent infusion, even if it’s raw talent, particularly in Harry’s case.
He did offer promise in his debut against the Eagles, making three catches on four targets for 18 yards while playing 32 snaps. No, he’s not the second coming of Stanley Morgan, but he’s a huge target (6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds) who could be part of the solution to the Patriots’ uncommon struggles in the red zone. He also showed that he is willing to mix it up as a blocker, though there were a couple of occasions when it was uncertain whether he was taking on the right assignment.
Harry should get an even bigger opportunity against the Cowboys’ seventh-ranked pass defense, a group that is capable but lacks big-play ability (the Cowboys have just four interceptions, one fewer than Devin McCourty). Mohamed Sanu, the Patriots’ de facto No. 2 receiver since coming over from the Falcons, reportedly could miss a couple of weeks with a high ankle sprain, while Phillip Dorsett was knocked out of the Eagles game with a concussion. This would be a fine week for Harry to take another long stride or two toward entering Brady’s circle of trust.
Jason Witten: The future Hall of Fame tight end is back for his 16th season with the Cowboys after an ill-fated (to be kind) one-year hiatus in the “Monday Night Football” booth. While he isn’t exactly a big-play threat at age 37, he remains a dependable secondary option for Prescott if (or perhaps when) Stephon Gilmore and the Patriots’ deep and diversely talented defensive backfield neutralizes his preferred options such as receiver Amari Cooper (56 catches, 866 yards, 7 touchdowns).
Witten doesn’t have a touchdown since Week 2, a stretch of eight games, but he has had his moments, including an eight-catch (on nine targets) performance in a Week 9 rout of the Giants. He is seven catches shy of joining Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, and fellow tight end Tony Gonzalez as the only players in NFL history with 1,200 receptions. And just to reiterate: It’s a small blessing to Cowboys fans that he’s returned to the field this season. It’s a big blessing to NFL fans that watch “Monday Night Football” that . . . well, that he returned to the field this season.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
This is not a grievance of the week. It is a longstanding grievance, one that I’ve held since the Cowboys were last winning Super Bowls, and I’ll keep it simple here since I’ve been haranguing the same point for years. Emmitt Smith is not one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. He was excellent, and there were few tougher (Google his performance against the Giants with a separated shoulder in the 1993 regular-season finale; I still don’t know how he played through that), but the NFL’s all-time leading rusher isn’t one of the half-dozen best backs, maybe not even in the top 10. He ran behind a line that blew up so many big holes that Marion Butts could have averaged 4 yards per carry for those Dallas teams. His contemporary and superior, Barry Sanders, ran behind a line in Detroit that was basically Kevin Glover and four guys who might as well have been Marshall Newhouse’s uncles. Smith was great. But there were few as fortunate, and several who were better. You want a list, I’ll give you a list. The top-five running backs in NFL history, in order:
1. Walter Payton; 2. Jim Brown; 3. Barry Sanders; 4. Earl Campbell; 5. O.J. Simpson.
I’ll hear you on Smith versus Curtis Martin. I’ll take Martin.
Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn vs. Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn
It’s not a matter of whether Wynn, who returns from IR after missing eight weeks with a toe injury, is an upgrade. He could have had the toe amputated and he’d still be an improvement on overmatched stand-in Newhouse, who struggled so much Sunday against the Eagles that the Patriots felt it necessary to roll out their 42-year-old quarterback to the right upon taking the snap on several occasions. It’s a matter of whether Wynn, who has played 82 snaps in two NFL seasons, can stay on the field. By all accounts, he can play, but his first test upon returning is a tough one. Quinn, the speed-rushing former first-round pick who came over from the Rams in the offseason, leads the Cowboys and is tied for seventh in the NFL with 8.5 sacks despite missing the first two games because of a violation of the performance-enhancing substances policy. Behind him on the depth chart, and occasionally alongside him on the field is former Patriot Michael Bennett, who has three sacks in three games since joining the Cowboys. The Patriots are going to require Wynn to be at his best right away.
PREDICTION, OR HE PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE JUST STUCK WITH JIMMY JOHNSON
The most entertaining story line of the week came out of Dallas, where Jones regaled listeners of a sports radio program with the tale of how he bumped into Belichick while skiing in 1996 and Belichick told him, “Don’t forget about me.” Belichick, of course, had recently been fired as the Browns’ coach after five seasons as they packed up and fled to Baltimore. He would soon join Bill Parcells’s staff in New England and would get to the Super Bowl that year, his third visit as an assistant coach. (He’s been a few more times as a head coach, from what I understand.) Jones, who is basically a clean-shaven Yosemite Sam in a blue suit, doesn’t seem the type to harbor many regrets, but NFL what-ifs don’t get much bigger than having a chance to hire Belichick and instead sticking with Barry Switzer. Jones has hired seven coaches since he bought the Cowboys and fired Tom Landry: Jimmy Johnson, Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Parcells, Wade Phillips, and current coach Jason Garrett, who has had the gig since 2010.
I bring this up for two reasons: 1. Imagine how NFL history would be different had Jones hired Belichick before the ’90s dynasty Cowboys began bleeding talent and lost their discipline under Switzer. 2. The Patriots’ biggest advantage over Dallas Sunday is Belichick vs. Garrett, and it’s easy to trust that Belichick will solve the Dallas offense long before Garrett (and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore) solve the Patriots’ defense. Patriots 27, Cowboys 23