IRVING, Texas -The Atlanta Falcons are the only undefeated team left in the NFL. But don't think that makes them unbeatable. In fact, of their seven wins, only one has come against a team (Broncos 4-3) that currently has a winning record.
There was also a three-week stretch in which the Falcons narrowly won games against less than stellar teams.
In week four, the Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers 30-28 on a last second field goal.
In week five, the Falcons beat the Washington Redskins (who played the end of the game without Robert Griffin III) 24-17.
In week six, the Falcons beat the Oakland Raiders 23-20 at home.
A win is a win in the National Football League, so the point is not to fault the Falcons, but to look to these three games for a formula to beat Atlanta. And after taking a second look at all three games the verdict might not bode well for the Cowboys.
These three teams had success against the Falcons by effectively running the ball.
The Cowboys' offense looked great against the Giants in the second half as they all but abandoned the run game. Don't expect that to be the most effective strategy against the Atlanta Flacons.
It's no secret that the Falcons are a big-play, quick-strike offense. With Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, and Julio Jones, they have three players that average over 10 yards per carry and they have 13 touchdowns between them. Not to mention that Matt Ryan is playing at an elite level.
Teams' only sustained success this year against the Falcons has been by running the ball and keeping Ryan and the offense off of the field. The Falcons have the 26th ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
In their loss to the Falcons, the Panthers rushed for 199 yards. Perhaps more importantly, they ran the ball 35 times versus just 25 passing plays. Ryan still played quite efficiently, but Carolina controlled the tempo for most of the game meaning the Falcons' offense had more pressure to rely on the big plays of their offense (which they happened to get just enough of to win).
Ironically, it was a Panthers fumble in the last moments of the game that forced them to punt it to the Falcons who drove from their own 1-yard line to hit a game-winning field goal.
The Redskins managed to hang with the Falcons despite losing Robert Griffin III in the third quarter to a concussion.
They did so with a game plan that relied heavily on running back Alfred Morris who got 115 yards off of 18 carries. The predictability of Atlanta's offense was apparent as Matt Ryan threw the ball 52 times in order for the Falcons to reach 24 points. Perhaps with Griffin playing the fourth quarter the Redskins could have continued the success of their ground attack and limited the opportunities for Ryan's passing plays.
The next week the Oakland Raiders nearly beat the Falcons by dominating the time of possession. The Raiders ran for 149 yards compared to just 45 from the Falcons. The Falcons once again relied on big plays from their wide receivers, but this time it cost them as Ryan threw three interceptions almost costing the Falcons a win.
Like the Panthers and Redskins before them the Raiders played kept a very balanced blend of running and passing the ball. They threw the ball 33 times to go along with 32 running plays. Atlanta made just enough big plays to sneak out a 3-point victory.
What we can take from all of this is relatively obvious; the Falcons rely heavily on the expectation that their receiving threats (mainly Gonzalez, Jones and White) will make enough game-changing plays for them to win. Those players are talented enough for that to be a logical strategy. But no matter how talented your players are, such plays are rarely a given. You can't just expect to convert every time you throw it deep to your Pro-Bowl receiver. But the Falcons take so many shots that they typically convert enough to win games.
These three teams had success against the Falcons by limiting the amount of shots they could take at big plays. In a sense they gambled that when it came down to crunch time they would be able to prevent the big passing plays. Even though they were wrong, they kept themselves in the game until the final moments.
I think that the Falcons have a clear weakness at running back and it has yet to be fully exposed. The Cowboys' reluctance to run the ball has been well documented as they have only rushed the ball 24.1 times per game. But the Falcons are actually right behind them at 25.1 times per game.
The Cowboys and Falcons have shared many of the same weaknesses and their strengths lie in some of the same places. But considering how effective the Falcons have been this season compared to the Cowboys it might not be wise to go head to head with them on their strengths.
In other words, the Cowboys don't want to try to get into a shoot out with the Falcons. Both teams have great weapons on offense, but the Falcons have been much more successful taking advantage of their weapons and winning games off of passing situations.
Compared to their 26th ranked rush defense, the Falcons have the 10th ranked passing defense. Their secondary is a big step up from the Giants' secondary that the Cowboys passed all over in the second half of last Sunday.
There may be little reason to have faith in the performance of Felix Jones (who is not 100 percent), or Phillip Tanner or Lance Dunbar for that matter. But beating the Falcons will likely require a commitment to the running game.
Both teams will likely make big plays in the passing game. But Sunday's game might come down to who can control the game in between those big plays. If the Cowboys fall behind by a touchdown early in the game, handing the ball off to Felix Jones and controlling the clock might not be the most popular decision, but that type of discipline and faith in the running game could be what it takes to take down a team like Atlanta.