If not for a miscue and a faux penalty in their first game of the season in Tampa Bay, the Dallas Cowboys would show up at Gillette Stadium Sunday with a sparkling 5-0 record to begin the year.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are just lucky enough that the coaching staff of the Texans decided to act just cute enough to prove to everybody how dumb they really are. New England’s two wins this season come against teams that are a combined 2-8 this year, and the Patriots have become uncharacteristically undisciplined under the tutelage of Bill Belichick.
All signs point to a Cowboy rout.
But it’s also a make-or-brake moment for the Patriots. A loss drops the team to 2-4 on the year, and we’re better off talking draft picks instead of New England’s playoff chances.
You have to go back to 1993 to find the last time a Patriots team started 0-4 in Foxborough. Maybe not coincidentally, that team just happened to be finding its way behind rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
It also went 5-11 that season.
Odds are, we could be seeing a similar season playing out here behind Mac Jones. Which is where Sunday comes up so huge for the Patriots. Lose, and 5-11 is likely your destiny. Pull off the upset and, suddenly, the team is 3-3 with the Jets waiting in the wings.
Will the pockets of potential that have emerged here and there open a more consistent window on Sunday? Will the Patriots defense prove its statistical spot in the top-five? Or will we get the performance that made Davis Mills look like Warren Moon? How will they limit Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Cedee Lamb, etc., etc…
How they plan on answering those questions is going to help define the direction of this team for the remainder of the year. Just who are the Patriots?
On Sunday, we get a definitive idea.
This week’s predictions
Dallas Morning News staff: All four pick the Cowboys.
Boston Globe staff: Four out of six pick Dallas (-3.5).
Emmanuel Morgan, New York Times: Cowboys (-4). “Dallas (4-1) is riding a three-game winning streak, Dak Prescott’s 13 touchdown passes are tied for third-best in the league, and the Cowboys’ defense looks legit. The Patriots (2-3) haven’t found such consistency. New England needed a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Texans last week and injuries along the Patriots’ offensive line (tackle Trent Brown went on the injured reserve list this week) mean Mac Jones will have to think fast against pressure — not a good scenario against a team that starts Trevon Diggs in its secondary. Dallas will want to head into its bye week on a high.”
Jim Derry, NOLA.com: Cowboys straight-up, Pats to cover (+4). “This spread was New England -3 as late as Sept. 1. And what has changed in six weeks? Dak Prescott is had and shoulder above what Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman ever were, Ezekiel Elliott is Emmitt Smith, and Cee Dee Lamb is the best thing since Michael Irvin. Gimme a break.
Joe Giglio, NJ.com: Patriots (+4). “Call it a hunch. Call it a coaching play. Call it a feeling that a Bill Belichick team won’t start off 0-4 at home and the Cowboys are due to come back down to earth.”
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: Cowboys 33, Patriots 23. “The Cowboys have won four straight, while the Patriots have not looked good the past two weeks, losing one and winning a close one with the Texans. The Dallas defense has made big strides, but this will be about the offense. Davis Mills picked apart the New England defense last week, and now Dak Prescott will do the same. Dallas is the better team, and it shows.”
Will Brinson, CBS Sports: Patriots 24, Cowboys 21. “Did I mention there might be home dogs on this slate? Dallas looks AWESOME. Dak Prescott is as comfortable as he’s been in his career. He looks like he’s in complete command and on the same page as Kellen Moore. The Patriots aren’t quite as hot, as they just managed to squeak by the Texans for their second win of the year, both of whom came against rookie quarterbacks. But it’s still Bill Belichick, and the Cowboys are going into a spot they haven’t exactly flourished in over the last few years. It’s a gem of a game on CBS, it’s Nantz and Romo without even looking. Dallas’ defense is even top 10 five weeks into the season without DeMarcus Lawrence. Everything here screams Cowboys. Which feels like the time Bill Belichick finds a win. Total gut play.”
Michael Hurley, CBS Boston: Dallas (-3.5). “I guess, technically, the Patriots’ defense is tough to figure out. They did well to limit Tom Brady two weeks ago, and then allowed Davis Mills to throw for a cool 312 yards and three touchdowns. More often than not, the Patriots’ pass defense has been pretty good. But Dak Prescott is a different challenge altogether. Getting borderline shootout vibes, because the Cowboys’ pass defense is terrible. But Dallas is much better equipped to emerge victorious from such a game. Should be an easy day for the punters, though.”
ESPN staff: Nine out of 10 pick the Cowboys.
Jimmy Kempski, Philly Voice: Cowboys (-3.5). “This line feels curiously low, as if it’s only 3.5 points because people are still pretending like the Patri*ts are a good football team. They’re not. The party is over, and it’s worth noting that their home dominance is gone, too. 0-3 at Gillette so far this season, soon to be 0-4.”
Vinnie Iyer, Sporting News: Cowboys 27, Patriots 20. “The Cowboys’ offense seems unstoppable because it’s balanced, explosive, versatile and multiple and can toggle between pass-happy and run-heavy. They also have the added element of a mobile quarterback, Dak Prescott. Bill Belichick will scheme to take away one thing away from Prescott, most likely a top wide receiver, Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb. That still leaves the other one to do damage and Prescott also has been feeling it throwing to his tight ends and backs. The Patriots’ running game has another injury and Mac Jones faces an aggressive defense with Trevon Diggs ready to pounce on any mistakes. Dallas has the perfect blueprint to thwart New England on the road.”
Bill Bender, Sporting News: Cowboys 23, Patriots 20. “The Cowboys are starting to get a little hype with a balanced offense around Dak Prescott. Dallas has rushed for more than 200 yards the last two weeks. The Pats rank fifth in the NFL in scoring defense and will try to slow that momentum down, but New England will fall to 0-4 in home games this season.”
Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk: Cowboys 31, Patriots 23. “America’s Team 1.0 gets the better of America’s Team 2.0, and the Pats fall to a stunning 0-4 at home.”
Michael David Smith, Pro Football Talk: Cowboys 34, Patriots 27. “The Patriots barely escaped with a win over the Texans last week. The other Texas team isn’t going to take it so easy on them.”
FiveThirtyEight: Cowboys, 54 percent (-1).
Gregg Rosenthal, NFL.com: Cowboys 31, Patriots 24. “People keep looking for reasons to believe that the Cowboys aren’t a juggernaut. People also keep looking for reasons to believe the Patriots are anything but a mediocre team with a defensive ranking that is mostly propped up by the lack of quality opponents. I am not one of those people.”
NFL Pickwatch: Ninety-five percent Cowboys.
It says here: Patriots 24, Cowboys 20. An 0-4 start at Gillette just sounds a little more unlikely than the Patriots, somehow, grinding one out.
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