FRISCO, Texas – Let's focus on some of the key players that will be involved in Sunday's game on both sides of the ball.
Since the Super Bowl is always the goal for every team, we decided to rank the Top 10 X-factors for the Cowboys and Patriots, using roman numerals, since 10 = X.
Here we go, these 10 guys will likely be big difference-makers one way or another.
X – Mac Jones – The Patriots are not going to try to put the entire game on Jones' shoulders, but as the quarterback, he's still going to have to make plays. In three games, he has five touchdown passes and two interceptions, but he's been a game-manager for Bill Belichick's offense. If the Cowboys can stop the run and force Jones to throw, especially in third-and-long situations, that would be ideal. The Patriots are just 1-9 in the 10 games Jones has thrown more than 35 passes.
IX – Christian Gonzalez – Another homecoming of sorts will be with the rookie cornerback, who was a standout at The Colony, Texas, which is just a few miles from the team's headquarters in Frisco. Gonzalez played at Oregon, but the first-round pick has already been a difference-maker in three games, recording an interception, a sack and has already faced great receivers in his career against A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Tyreek Hill and Garrett Wilson. Now, he'll get to see plenty of CeeDee Lamb on Sunday.
VIII – Ezekiel Elliott – The return of Zeke is going to be a huge storyline in this game, but it's also a legitimate threat for the Cowboys, considering how Elliott played last week. He led the Patriots with 80 rushing yards and we all know he's going to have some high intensity as he comes back to play at AT&T Stadium.
VII - Matthew Judon – Tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks, Judon has been a pass-rushing demon for the Patriots since joining the team two years ago. Judon has four sacks this year, tied with Micah Parsons, but had 12.5 sacks in 2021 and 15.5 sacks last season.
VI - Brandin Cooks – The world has yet to see what the unbridled speed and talent from Cooks looks like in the Texas Coast offense. He returned to action in Week 3 against the Cardinals, but finished with only two catches for 17 yards on seven targets. It feels like this will be the week in which he'll put on a show, when considering the potential absence of Jonathan Jones in the Patriots secondary and the possibility that rookie first-round pick Christian Gonzalez shadows CeeDee Lamb. Last week, it was Gallup who ate well, but Cooks is primed to feast.
V - Donovan Wilson – I didn't expect Wilson to devour worlds in his first action since suffering a calf strain in the first week of training camp but, knowing his talent level and how he's designed to hunt, there will likely be a marked improvement in how he impacts the game against the Patriots. The plan will likely call for trying to confuse Mac Jones and bullying him into making the wrong decisions, and Wilson is a heat-seeker who can be deployed in blitz packages that often catch quarterbacks and running backs completely off-guard.
IV - Hunter Luepke – Do the Cowboys miss Ezekiel Elliott in short yardage and in the red zone? I believe they miss the comfort level and security of knowing they could just hand the ball off to the Sledgehammer but, as far as ability to be said hammer goes, I feel that also exists in Luepke — if given the chance to prove it. I'd personally challenge the Cowboys to find out what the former North Dakota State 'flexback' can do in the red zone, and I'm willing to bet they'd be pleased with the outcome, more often than not.
III – Micah Parsons – While the Cowboys' best defensive player is usually more than just an X-factor, how he performs this week will be huge to the team's success. Going back to the first meeting Parsons had with the Patriots, he only registered three tackles, no sacks or QB hits. New England head coach Bill Belichick has already compared him to Lawrence Taylor this week, saying that locating him before the snap is a must. The plan will probably be to take him out of the game and so how the Cowboys offset that will be crucial.
II – Tony Pollard – All the talk will be about the Patriots' running game, highlighted by Ezekiel Elliott. But don't think Pollard won't have something to prove as well when he takes the field. He's leading the NFL in carries right now with 62. He's trying to prove that he's strong enough to handle the heavy workload and he'd probably like nothing more than to have a huge game with his former running mate on the other side of the field.
I – Dak Prescott – Who else? After last week's game in which the offense struggled again to score points, going 1-of-5 in the red-zone, Dak Prescott will have the pressure once again to bounce back. How he plays, not just inside the 20, but all over the field, will be vital to the Cowboys' success. Belichick will likely try to take CeeDee Lamb away, but the balance of distributing the ball to other players, coupled with finding ways to get Lamb the football is something that will probably impact the final outcome of this game.