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New England Patriots Vs. Houston Texans at NRG Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots still have one more rough game in the early schedule, as they take on the resurgent Dallas Cowboys. After struggling to compete in 2020, better health and talent on both sides of the ball put Dallas near the top of the NFC hierarchy when it comes to contenders. The Patriots will have a big test against Dallas, with their ability to win in the passing game on both sides of the ball.

1. Running backs must be able to dominate in the ground game

For the Patriots, their best chance of winning is to limit the number of possessions that the Cowboys can have. That will also mean the offense has to sustain drives and convert 3rd downs when those opportunities arise. Dallas has some holes in the Front 7 with Demarcus Lawrence on Injured Reserve, so there may be opportunities for the team to pick up some chunk plays on the ground if the offensive line can do its job.

With Damien Harris dinged up and probably a game-time decision, I expect 4th round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson to have a significant role for the second straight week.

2. Stop Micah Parsons from taking over the game

After five weeks, Parsons seems to be the runaway favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. A supremely athletic and talented linebacker, Parsons can impact every play in every way. The team will need to take advantage of his inexperience, isolating him in the open field and using misdirection to get him moving the wrong way, and make him think instead of react and attack. If Parsons has a strong game against the Patriots, forget the team even being competitive let alone win.

3. Eliminate explosive plays from the Dallas passing game

This may be a game where the Patriots give a bit in the run game in order to keep Dallas from putting up some quick touchdowns. With Amari Cooper and Ceedee Lamb threats to beat the defense over the top, the Patriots will need to contain Dallas’ intermediate and deep passing attack in order to stay in this game. That will mean forcing Dak Prescott to make 11+ play drives of mistake-free football in order to beat them. Dak has been pretty solid at doing that all season, with Dallas putting up points in a hurry the past few weeks.

By making them have to grind long drives, that gives the defense more chances to get a needed turnover. At the same, that can be double-edged as the longer the defense is on the field the more exhausted they’ll be come the end of the game. Expect a lot of 2-deep safety looks from the Patriots defense with a lot of players dropping as opposed to using blitz looks to confuse the Dallas offensive line and protection schemes.

Dallas player to takeaway: WR Ceedee Lamb

Lamb is the biggest threat to the team as both a runner and deep threat, so the team will need to double him most of the game with Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty. That likely means J.C. Jackson will get the assignment to cover Cooper on an island and hope it works out. At the same time the team will also have to contend with TE Dalton Schultz, who has developed into a reliable target as a move tight end for Dallas the past two seasons, and their two-headed monster at RB with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Dallas has a lot of weapons they can beat teams with, so any mistake on New England’s defense is going to be exploited without pass rush.

Offense X-Factor: RB Rhamondre Stevenson

With Harris dinged up, Stevenson will see a bigger role for the second week in a row. The 4th round rookie was benched essentially the first month of the season after a fumble and a pair of mental errors on the next drive. Stevenson just got out of the doghouse against Houston, so he’ll need to take this opportunity and hit the ground running. Having Stevenson on the field gives the Patriots a bit more of a dynamic back compared to Harris, Brandon Bolden, and J.J. Taylor as a big back who can be a threat in the receiving game. If Stevenson surpasses 100 yards, the Patriots have a chance.

Defense X-Factor: LB Jamie Collins

With Jamie Collins returning to New England, he provides a bit more pass rush on both the edge and interior should they need someone to force the issue. He played sparingly, but had an impact against Houston, so I expect him to get more opportunities in this game as the team will be looking to get pressure on Dak. Prescott is a tough customer and the Patriots will need to get as much help from their top pass rushers as they can in order to keep the 6th year QB from taking over the game.

Final Score: Patriots 23, Dallas 34

Ultimately I just don’t see how the Patriots can slow down the Dallas offense, which has been humming the past few weeks and the Patriots sputtering offense most of the year save for a 16-point 4th quarter comeback against Houston in Week 5. The Cowboys match up well against the Patriots weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Patriots will have to hit Dallas hard early in the game or risk getting boatraced by halftime. Mac Jones will be in for a challenge trying to keep pace with the Dallas offense against a defense that seems to be improving each week. I think it’s a competitive game for 3 quarters with Dallas sealing the game early in the 4th quarter.