FRISCO, Texas –These are the two main factors that I think will dictate the outcome of this matchup between the Cowboys and Falcons on Sunday in Atlanta.
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
For the Cowboys it is all about balance. When the offense is running the ball, converting third downs, chewing up clock and finishing drives, the defense benefits.
The offense has done an outstanding job during this three-game winning streak of protecting the defense. As a unit, they're fifth-best in the league when it comes to combined rushes and completions per game, at 51. When the running game is really clicking and Prescott's completions are right around 19, this team is winning.
Where the Falcons have had their issues is with opponents that are able to play with balance. They only get opponents off the field on third down 22 percent of the time and in large part that's due to their inability to play run defense on first and second downs. But the Falcons now catch a huge break and will not have to face Ezekiel Elliott, who will begin serving his six-game suspension. Losing Elliott accounts for 33 percent of this offense, but I believe Scott Linehan will stick to what he knows is true and that's his offense's ability to still run the ball -- regardless who is carrying it.
For the Cowboys to win this game, they're going to need to go to Atlanta with that mindset which has carried them since Prescott and Elliott arrived, which is to run the ball -- and Linehan's play calling will reflect that. The balance of rushing attempts along with pass completions is the ticket for a Cowboys victory.
Atlanta Falcons Win If:
The Falcons have the reigning NFL MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan. The numbers might not be similar to what he was able to do in 2016 but the ability is still there. The Falcons haven't been scoring but they still do a great job of generating offense.
They're one of the best units in the league when it comes to winning on first down, averaging nearly seven yards (6.83) a play. The Cowboys are right there when it comes defending first down, only allowing opponents 4.58 yards per play -- which is seventh-best.
Where the Falcons have a decided advantage is their ability to throw the ball down the field. Ryan does an outstanding job of attacking the middle of the field with his skill players. In studying their games getting ready for this matchup, the majority of his passes were either between the safeties or over the top of them. Like Alex Smith last week, Ryan is not afraid to take that deep shot for a quick score. This is where the Cowboys have had their issues. Opponents have a quarterback rating of 114.6 when passing attempts 21 or more yards are in the air. That is only good enough for 29th in the league.
I could see the Falcons coming out and working to establish the run with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, but the way they win this game is with their passing game. Their offensive line has done a good job of protecting their quarterback by only allowing 14 sacks for the season. The Cowboys are third-best in the league when it comes to putting opposing quarterbacks on the ground, so something has to give here.
If the Falcons give Matt Ryan time to throw the ball they will win this game because the Cowboys secondary will have difficulty matching up with their receivers down the field.