The New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys are two of the best teams in the NFL at the moment, and on Sunday they will meet in one of the most anticipated games of the 2019 season — one that projects to be a highly contested affair. As such, it could be decided by how a few key matchups unfold. With that being said, let’s take a look at four of them that certainly could have a major impact on the game’s final result.
Stephon Gilmore vs. Amari Cooper
The matchup between the Patriots’ number one cornerback and the Cowboys’ number one receiver will be must-see entertainment on the highest level. While Gilmore is arguably the best player in the NFL at his position, Cooper is in the middle of an outstanding season himself and has established himself as Dallas’ biggest receiving threat and a reliable option for quarterback Dak Prescott to throw to no matter the situation.
When comparing the statistics, it becomes even clearer how big the marquee matchup really is:
Stats: Stephon Gilmore & Amari Cooper
Gilmore has been absolutely magnificent this season, and opposing quarterbacks would field a higher passer rating against him — 39.6 that is — if they would just throw the football incomplete in his direction each time. Cooper, meanwhile, has been no less impressive and Prescott near perfect when targeting him: the former Oakland Raiders first-round draft pick caught 46 of his 56 targets for 516 yards and seven touchdowns.
It remains to be seen how all those numbers will look like after Sunday, but one thing is certain: the matchup between Gilmore and Cooper will be terrific and a deciding factor for the game.
Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady vs. Rod Marinelli
The Patriots’ passing game has had its fair share of ups and downs lately, with the pass protection and the personnel turnover at the receiver positions all taking their toll on the operation. Now, Tom Brady and company will go up against a pass defense that has surrendered a passer rating of 88.4 through 10 games this season: opposing quarterbacks have completed 65.4% of their passes against Dallas for 2,169 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
While the numbers are quite solid from an offensive perspective, coordinator Rod Marinelli’s defense did have some very good stretches of play this season against the pass. The pressure up front plays a big role in this — more in a second — but the coverage has also been stout, with number one cornerbacks Byron Jones (perimeter) and Jourdan Lewis (slot) playing solid seasons alongside starting free safety Xavier Woods.
The other starting members of the secondary, however, have been more inconsistent and this is where Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel and Brady should try their luck when targeting the deeper portions of the field: strong safety Jeff Heath will likely be matched up with a tight end group that has only been a minimal factor in the Patriots’ passing game, but staring outside cornerback Chidobe Awuzie could be a player worth going after.
While Awuzie is coming off arguably his best game of the season, he has struggled to consistently stay with his coverage responsibilities. And considering that Dallas’ cornerbacks essentially never switch sides, the Patriots can pick who to line up on the other side to take advantage of the matchup on the offensive right side. Julian Edelman or even first-round rookie N’Keal Harry could see their fare share of action against Awuzie.
New England’s offensive tackles vs. DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett
“The trio of DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett has been a pass-rushing force,” Blogging The Boys co-managing editor David Halprin told Pats Pulpit earlier this week. The three defenders — including short-time Patriot Bennett — have indeed been terrific for the Cowboys and a big reason why the team’s defense is ranked 13th in scoring while surrendering only an average of 19.7 points per game.
A look at their statistics quickly shows just how disruptive the three can be:
Stats: Cowboys pass rushers
Out of the three players, DeMarcus Lawrence is arguably the most complete: not only is he a strong pass rusher, he also is among the edge defenders in the NFL when it comes to slowing down the run. Playing most of his snaps from the defensive left side — just like Michael Bennett, who turned into a valuable rotational option over his first three games in Dallas — Lawrence will go up against Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon.
Cannon’s left-side counterpart will likely be former first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn, who returned from injured reserve earlier this week and will take over again for Marshall Newhouse. Wynn will have the difficult task of containing the Cowboys’ sack leader, Robert Quinn. Despite missing the first two games of the season due to a suspension, the 29-year-old has been a force in the pass-rushing department.
If the Patriots’ tackles cannot consistently keep the three edge rushers away from Tom Brady, the team’s offense could have another long day at the office.
New England’s defensive edge vs. Ezekiel Elliott
While the aforementioned Dak Prescott has been the Cowboys’ best offensive player over his team’s first 10 games of the season, running back Ezekiel Elliott cannot be forgotten either: the 24-year-old, who led the NFL in rushing in both 2016 and 2018, has already carried the football 194 times this season for 833 yards and an average of 4.3 yards per carry — all while scoring seven touchdowns and also registering 28 receptions for 220 yards and another score.
While Elliott can be seen as a true dual-threat running back, he is most dangerous when carrying the football. And there, he is at his best when getting to the perimeter. While he averages a very good 4.2 yards per carry when running between the tackles, the number jumps to 4.5 when he gets to the outside. This difference may not seem like a lot, but it could become important in case the Patriots fail to properly set the edge.
Just look at the Patriots’ game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9: with the team sacrificing edge contain to stop the inside run, the Ravens were able to run all over the defense by taking advantage of the space on to the perimeter. If New England fails to properly adjust to Elliott’s style and allows him — and Prescott as well — to extend plays by getting outside the pocket, a repeat performance from the game in Baltimore could be on the menu.