This week Tom Brady and the Patriots have their work cut out for them in a home game against the Tony Romo-led Dallas Cowboys. The Patriots are 4-1 as they head into week six of the 2011 season, and the Cowboys are 2-2, coming off extra rest from their bye in week five.
Despite the fact that it's been nearly two decades since the Dallas Cowboys have been a relevant threat in the NFL, it still always seems sort of big-time when the blue star comes to town. They are hyped and controversial, and perhaps the most unpredictable team in the league right now.
This matchup has given New England fans a certain uneasiness; and rightfully so. It seems that there is always a 50% chance that Tony Romo could have the game of his life with his top two receivers in the game against the worst pass defense in the league. He certainly has the arm and firepower to throw down some major offense on the Patriots, who have the worst overall defense in the league.
But then again, the meager New England defense is among the NFL's best at forcing and capitalizing on turnovers, most especially against mistake-prone quarterbacks with shaky decision making skills in the red zone.
Going through the process of trying to predict this game is a rollercoaster of what-ifs. After a lot of thought, it can be narrowed down most simply into the following possible game trajectories:
Possible game trajectory number one: Tony Romo and his receivers have a disaster of a game trying to get back on track after the bye week and numerous injury issues, Kyle Arrington and Pat Chung each have a pick and Andre Carter forces another turnover on a strip sack. This leads to a touchdown and two field goals on the recovered possessions, and the Patriots beat the Cowboys handily 35-21.
Possible game trajectory number two: The Cowboys' excellent rushing defense combined with Romo-Jason Witten-Miles Austin-Dez Bryant effectiveness on their offense gives the Patriots a difficult time. The game turns into a Romo vs. Brady shootout, and since Brady is the better and more effective quarterback with the best receiver in the league and more dependable second through fifth options, he survives the ineptness of his secondary and the Patriots win 35-31.
It seems absurd to try to pinpoint the way that this game could play out, with so many variables. So let's take a look at the top five factors in this game, and why the Patriots will win:
1. DeMarcus Ware and pressure on Tom Brady
As one of the NFL's elite pass rushers, Ware has five sacks on the season so far (averaging 1.25 a game) and definitely puts fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. The biggest thing here as that the Patriots offensive line has to protect Brady from injury, so can they protect him from the sack? Yes, they can. Can they prevent him from being rushed, hurried and under pressure in the pocket for most of the game? Maybe.
But maybe not. This pass rush will look similar to the one that stifled Tom Brady in Oakland with Richard Seymour. Seymour would have had the Patriots offensive line's number had he not gone around roughing the passer and grabbing facemasks like it was the last game he'd ever play in. Additionally, linebacker Sean Lee has had a solid year for the Cowboys as well. But if the offensive line can hold him off long enough for Brady to develop an early rhythm, they do have a chance to win this battle.
2. The Cowboys' rushing defense
The Cowboys currently have the best defense against the rush in the league, having allowed just 247 totally yards on the ground. But they have also only played four games. This might explain why their two wins came against teams with shaky passing games: the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers. But with the Patriots, they have bigger fish to fry.
Even if they do manage to stifle the rush, they are up against the best passing offense in the league. But the Pats have also snuck up the rankings with the 6th best rushing offense in the league as well. Their one-two punch of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and solid rookie Stevan Ridley, along with help in the shotgun from Danny Woodhead (who is questionable for Sunday's game) has proven to be extremely effective over the past three games. Last week against the Jets the Patriots rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns in their most balanced offensive attack of the season. Dallas has also not faced the most formidable of running games to begin with, with their toughest challenge coming in week two against Frank Gore and the 10th ranked San Francisco rush. They've also played the Redskins (18th), the Lions (23rd) and the Jets (28th).
3. Turnover ratio
You always have a better chance to win when your team wins the turnover battle. Currently the Patriots are at a +3, which is deceivingly low due to Tom Brady's abomination in Buffalo in which he threw four interceptions. The Cowboys are unsurprisingly at -4, having given up 10 balls to their 6 takeaways. Last year the Patriots young defense survived on capitalizing on turnover opportunities and protecting the ball on offense. Although the secondary doesn't currently feature a playmaker that can really pressure the receivers, they are still smart players that can take advantage of missed routes and quarterback mistakes. And Tony Romo is guaranteed to make a mistake, it's just a matter of the Patriots exploiting it. With both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant (both probable for the game) coming back rusty from injury and a week off, the secondary might have a better chance to hinder them than they would if both of the star Dallas receivers were 100%.
4. Wes Welker
This one pretty much speaks for itself. Double cover him and you've left Rob Gronkowski and/or Aaron Hernandez and/or Deion Branch open somewhere. Cover him man to man and you'll lose that battle all game. And play him in a zone and he could take it to the house with one little juke move. Good luck with that one, Dallas.
5. Home field advantage
Patriots still don't lose at home in the regular season. Dallas has not played in New England since November 2003, in a weird 12-0 game that the Patriots won. The lingering mystique of hosting the Cowboys at Gillette will likely have the crowd roaring and ready to go, especially considering it should be perfect football weather tomorrow; sunny and 60 degrees. Yeah, the weather. I went there. But come on, indulge me a little...Tom Brady in Foxboro in perfect cool fall sunshine? Just saying.
My prediction: The Patriots defense struggles early but eventually comes up with the big plays, and Brady throws for three touchdowns. Patriots - 35 Cowboys - 21