WHAT: Dallas Cowboys (2-2) at New England Patriots (4-1)
WHEN: Sunday, 3:15 p.m. (CT)
WHERE: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
TELEVISION: Fox Sports (Tom Brennaman, Troy Aikman and Pam Oliver)
Josh: Anytime you're facing a great offense, you'd like to be able to run the ball to keep it away from them. But that could be tough this week, especially with the matchups against New England's stiff defensive interior. Kyle Kosier will have his hands full with Albert Haynesworth, but Bill Nagy and the immovable Vince Wilfork could be even tougher.
Nick: Ok, I'll take the obvious. Yeah, Wes Welker against Orlando Scandrick is the one to watch. Welker is playing better than anyone in the league right now and Scandrick is returning from injury and will get quite a challenge. I don't think anyone in the slot will win most of the time. You have to win some of the time and remember that it's still the slot – the middle of the field – where you should have some help to limit big plays. As long as they keep Welker from getting vertical, then to me, that's keeping him in check. He's going to get his seven to eight catches a game. You just want to keep it around 50-60 yards if at all possible.
Rob: Wes Welker is obviously a tough cover, but I'm interested to see how the Cowboys defend tight end Aaron Hernandez. In his first game back from a sprained knee last week, Hernandez had five catches for 56 yards and quarterback Tom Brady targeted him a team-high nine times. Hernandez is not your average tight end; he's 6-1, 245 pounds and runs routes like a receiver. The Cowboys might have to use a combination of linebacker Sean Lee, safeties and even corners against him.
- Don't Forget...
Rob: Although numbers can be deceiving, this is in fact a young Patriots defense that has leaked more yards than anyone in the NFL so far. Some of that is due to playing with leads, sure, but the Cowboys moved the ball almost at will against a pretty good Lions unit two weeks ago before turnovers stalled everything. Tony Romo and Co. should be able to score some points, too, especially if Miles Austin's return at receiver helps open up the run game a little bit.
Josh: Wes Welker and those tight ends get all the attention, but the Pats' other receivers are capable as well. Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco have 32 catches for 436 yards and two touchdowns between them.
Nick: While so much has been made about Rob Ryan leading the Browns to a win over the Patriots last year, let's not forget the Patriots are pretty good at overcoming adversity, too. Yeah, the Cowboys are watching that tape again. I bet the Patriots did as well. So obviously it's a good sign that Rob Ryan came up with a game plan to beat them last time, but if he is to do it again, it'll have to be something completely different. Fooling Belichick and Brady again just seems to be a tough thing to duplicate.
- Cowboys Win If:
Nick: It's going to take a near-perfect game. So far, the Cowboys haven't done that at all this year. But to beat great teams, and to do it on the road, you have to play great as well. That's pretty simple. So how does it happen? Obviously taking care of the ball is a must, but I'm curious how this team runs the ball on the Patriots. It might be hard inside, but they're going to have to be creative on the perimeter. They will move the ball. The key is how many times they have to settle for field goals.
Rob: Well, it's certainly not just one thing. They've got to continue to stop the run. Tom Brady's pretty good even when the Patriots are one-dimensional, but their success on the ground against the Jets last week made his job so much easier. Wes Welker can't operate in space at will, and on offense, three turnovers in this game probably eliminates any chance of winning. Tony Romo's got to do what he did for three quarters against the Jets: manage the noise and the pressure, don't force anything but look for the big plays when they're there.
Josh: I think their best hope is to get a repeat performance of the Browns' whipping of New England last year. It wasn't about flying around and creating a bunch of turnovers so much as it was eliminating big plays. That's what the Cowboys have done in every game this year. You've got to make Brady work for it.
- Patriots Win If:
Josh: The Cowboys' margin for error on offense is so thin this week. I think even one turnover will be too much to overcome. The Pats don't have to force a Tony Romo implosion to beat the Cowboys. All they've got to do is get a fingertip on a ball, intercept it, and let Brady drive down and score. That one added possession will probably be enough to put them over the top.
Nick: If the Cowboys don't do anything extraordinaire, then the better team will win at home. That's usually the case, especially for a club like New England. If Tom Brady is allowed to just make plays as usual and the Patriots aren't forced into turnovers, then it should be another good day for the home side. Also, let's see how "bad" this Patriots defense really is. I know they rank last in yards allowed, but something tells me they're not going to just roll over for the Cowboys.
Rob: If we assume Brady's going to find the end zone at least a couple of times, the Patriots have a great chance to win if the Cowboys' offense isn't better in the red zone. So far they've only scored touchdowns at a 33-percent clip (five TDs out of 15 trips). New England's defense also has done a better job of getting off the field, limiting the Jets to only 3 of 11 third-down conversions last week.
- Gut Feeling
Rob: Could be absolutely dead wrong about the final score and the amount of points between these two teams, but I don't really see a shootout. Both defenses will play better than expected, and this game will be decided in the low-to-mid 20s. To me, that favors the Cowboys because Rob Ryan's defense has been the better overall unit. Two Patriots streaks (30-point scoring and home wins) end, and the Cowboys surprise a lot of people Sunday.
Josh: I know how the NFL goes. Just when you think you know what to expect, you're thrown for a loop. These Cowboys are totally healthy. They're a gritty bunch. They won't come in and bow down to the Pats. But let's be realistic here. New England is better. I've flirted with the idea of picking the Cowboys, but I just can't bring myself to do it.
Nick: I've been toying with this one for about 10 days. At first I thought the Cowboys might bounce back and shock the world once again. Then I thought, well, it's the Patriots. Then I looked at New England's defensive stats and the Cowboys getting healthy and flipped again. But again, it's the Patriots. So where do I stand now? Pretty tough call, to say the least. So I'm going out on a limb here. I'm going to say this game comes down to the fourth quarter. What a concept, huh? And there will be ONE play that either goes one way or the other. My gut tells me the home team will get it, but I'm not sure. I really think it's that close.