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Patriots vs Cowboys preview: 4 matchups that could decide Sunday’s game

Related: How the Patriots and Cowboys have changed since their last meeting

New Orleans Saints v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s almost as if the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys have swapped places in recent seasons.

For over 20 years the Patriots served as a measuring stick for the rest of the NFL, bringing out the best in their opponent each week. Now, they’re in a sort of middle ground, not sure whether they can contend or not. The Cowboys are in the opposite position, once a team that flip-flopped between winning and losing records, they seem to have found their stride behind quarterback Dak Prescott, his all-star cast of receivers, and a fiery Dan Quinn defense.

So, despite losing each of the last six matchups by a combined 72 points, it will be the Cowboys entering this matchup as favorites, and the Patriots looking to put forth their best effort in order to pull out a win. In order to pull out that win, New England will have to take care of the 1-on-1 matchups they have with Dallas, who by all intents and purposes, has a much more talented roster. What exactly are those matchups you ask?

Jonathan Jones vs. CeeDee Lamb

Though he certainly hasn’t been perfect, Jonathan Jones has made a living off of drawing the toughest assignments in New England’s secondary. His status as nickel corner lines him up across the opposing teams slot receivers. From Antonio Brown to Cole Beasley to Tyreek Hill, Jones has been tasked with covering some of the best route runners in the game. On Sunday, he’ll face off with the next man in that line.

When CeeDee Lamb walked into the NFL, he was already one of the best route runners it had to offer. It only took him seven weeks to crack the top 10 list of best separators in the NFL, a place that he has resided ever since. He also has an insane catch radius for a slot receiver that gives him a distinct advantage over the smaller corners that he tends to face, like Jones.

Obviously we could have pointed to the J.C. Jackson/Amari Cooper matchup that will take place on Sunday as the most important for New England’s secondary, but having Jones limit Lamb would allow the Patriots to play with an extra defensive back or two, which would allow them to help Jackson in his coverage of Cooper on the outside. There isn’t much help you can give to a nickel corner in the middle of the field.

Patriots’ TEs vs. Cowboys’ LBs

The best version of the Patriots passing offense is when both tight ends are involved. The Cowboys linebacking corps is incredibly thin. Can you see why New England may want to get their tight ends involved on Sunday?

Hunter Henry and Mac Jones — Foxborough’s favorite neighbors — have quickly gotten on the same page, building chemistry and increasing their productivity each and every week. Jonnu Smith has been on the opposite end of that spectrum, as he is still looking to find a full time role within the Patriots offense. Perhaps that is starting to change, as we saw Smith receive more opportunities from the backfield on Sunday when New England was looking to make their comeback against Houston.

Having both an in-line player like Henry and an H-back like Smith should force the Cowboys into covering one, if not both, with a linebacker. Matching up a dynamic athlete like Jonnu Smith with Leighton Vander Esch will be more than enough to get Smith out of his slump, and into a good position to get the ball in his hands.

Patriots LBs vs. Cowboys’ RBs

There isn’t a better running back duo in the NFL than Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Elliott, a former All-Pro, is seeming to have a career renaissance in 2021. His 5.3 yards per attempt are a career high, and he’s already hit the five touchdown mark for the sixth time in his six year career. Pollard, a third year player out of Memphis, is averaging 6.4 yards per carry and four first downs per game. There are no breaks when you face this team.

The Patriots haven’t been able to consistently stop the run for two seasons now, but they’re working towards finding that consistency as they find the right rotations along their front seven. With the addition of Jamie Collins, they’re now able to matchup teams like Dallas that feature multiple backs and personnel groupings.

On Sunday, New England will be able to match personnel with Dallas by deploying their top four interior linebackers to defend the duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. They can mix and match their early down “trash-man” Dont’a Hightower, their resident thumper Ja’Whaun Bentley, super utility linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and ultra-athlete Jamie Collins to fit whatever they may need. The first step in a hopeful turnaround of the run defense.

Mac Jones vs. Trevon Diggs

24 months ago, Mac Jones was throwing Trevon Diggs interceptions as Alabama’s scout team quarterback. On Sunday, he’ll be looking to defeat his former teammate, likely by attacking him head on.

Diggs has exploded onto the scene in his second season, intercepting six passes in his first five games and allowing zero touchdowns on just 18 receptions. Jones has been effective in his first five starts, leading New England to a pair of wins while being relatively safe with the football. One of these trends will stop on Sunday, if not just for the fact that they cannot both continue, but because the familiarity between these two players will force one to come to an end.

If Mac Jones wants things to continue to roll in his favor, he cannot be afraid of attacking Diggs, which we know that he won’t be.