FRISCO, Texas – Here’s a look at the two biggest keys I’m keeping an eye on for Sunday’s road trip to Atlanta.
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
The worry for the Cowboys in this matchup is not the Falcons’ defense but their offense. Their weapons on offense are some of the best in the league. Having to deal with Matt Ryan and their skill players will present a huge challenge.
In studying the Falcons, it’s as if they have a tight end or wide receiver uncovered on every play. I had similar thoughts about the Detroit Lions’ skill guys earlier this season, but the Falcons are on a different level.
Where the Falcons tend to hurt you is on third downs with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley on the field. Just to give you an idea of how good the Falcons are at converting third downs, they’re right at 51 percent for the year and an astonishing 29 percent when opponents get them in those situations when needing 10-plus yards.
The Cowboys, defensively, for the most part have done a nice job of playing third down defense. Where things got away from them was that game against Tennessee where they struggled badly getting the Titans off the field, especially in third and long. As a unit they did a much better job the following the week against the Eagles by playing with more of an aggressive nature.
I don’t see the Cowboys winning every third down situation, but if they can get them off the field two extra times per half, that would pay huge dividends. The Falcons defensively have had their own struggles and those stops could lead to points.
When opponents have forced the Falcons to play from behind, they’ve come out ahead in the final score.
Atlanta Falcons Win If
No sugar coating it here: the Atlanta Falcons have been a mess on defense. For the majority of the season they’ve missed Deion Jones and Keanu Neal with injuries, taking two of their playmakers off the field.
As they prepare for this game against the Cowboys, there is a chance that Jones will return to the lineup, so that should help their situation. But even with Jones back in the lineup, the Falcons’ biggest concern has to be the Cowboys’ ability to just load up and run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott.
Through nine games, opponents have had their way with the Falcons defense, especially on second down -- where opponents have rushed for an average of six yards per carry. As a unit, they’ve have only had 10 snaps all season where they’ve created a negative play for the offense when they’ve rushed the ball. It’s a good bet that the Falcons will be hoping to have their offense just outscore the Cowboys in hope that they can force them to abandon the run.
The problem for the Falcons is that if that happens, then they have also struggled with their pass defense. As a unit they’ve only sacked their opponent 17 times all season and that has put a tremendous strain on their secondary. If the Falcons are going to win this game, they will need to limit the Cowboys’ running game and prepare to take a chance that their passing game won’t be consistent enough to make a difference.