FOXBORO -- Sunday represents an opportunity for the Patriots to do something they would absolutely relish, on a variety of fronts. It's a chance for them to change the narrative.
They may tell you they ignore the noise, but that credo is an outright anachronism. First of all, they've long found motivation in public slights. And the criticism -- because of everything coming their way through their phones -- is close to inescapable for players. It impacts them. In fact, the Patriots have already responded to perceived negative storylines surrounding the team this season on multiple occasions.
Matthew Judon went out of his way, during an impassioned opening statement to start his press conference following New England's Week 2 loss to Miami, to tell reporters "this isn't a bad team." Kendrick Bourne pushed back against the "stink, stank, stunk" criticism levied against the team's receiver group in training camp by The Boston Sports Journal's Mike Giardi. DeVante Parker bristled, both online and with media members, at the suggestion that the Patriots could use DeAndre Hopkins.
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But their Week 4 game against the Cowboys is a chance for them to alter the narrative in a meaningful way.
Feel like people are hinting at you being a bad team?
Beating Dallas at Jerry's World would be the first time in a long time the Patriots have beaten a very good team. In 2021 and 2022, they had a combined three wins against playoff teams. If Bill Belichick's club wants to be considered capable of more than just a moral victory against a high-end team, they'll record an actual victory in a winnable game against a team that's expected to win 10 games or more this season.
Feel like people are knocking your passing-game talent?
Beating a team that has the No. 1 pressure rate (51.5 percent, according to Sports Info Solutions) in football this year would go a long way in shifting that discussion. Winning matchups on the outside against a team that plays more man-to-man than any team in football would be a strike against the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad labels applied to the Patriots receiver room back in the summer.
The goal posts shouldn't be moved on this one. A win, no matter how it looks, would be enough to vault the Patriots into the conversation among other good teams -- and possible playoff participants -- in the conference.
If they win by posting an explosive offensive performance for the first time this season, all the better. But they aren't in position to be vying for style points against a good team. They have to beat one first. And this is their chance.
Matchup to win the first half
Patriots running game vs. Cowboys front
The Cowboys may still be licking their wounds after the beating in the run game they took during their visit to the Cardinals. They allowed 180 yards in the first half alone and 222 yards on the ground in total. They're currently last in the NFL in success rate allowed in the run game (50.8 percent). That's a steep decline after they finished third in that same category a year ago.
Are they that bad? Did the Cardinals do something the Patriots can replicate? Is the Patriots running game capable of taking advantage of any potential weak links up front for the Cowboys?
The Cowboys probably aren't that bad. Not last place in the NFL bad. But they were taken advantage of by a Cardinals offense that used next-level speed (receiver Rondale Moore had a 45-yard score when aligned as a running back) and a run game that at times featured a relatively athletic quarterback in Josh Dobbs to deceive the aggressive Dallas defensive front. The Patriots may not have the same types of pieces to try a similar plan of attack.
More Patriots/NFL coverage
What Bill O'Brien and the Patriots can do, however, is use their own version of deceptive runs. Gap-scheme stuff. Power calls with pulling guards. Wham plays with tight ends on the move. Traps. Counters. They're all available on the Patriots menu of runs. Whether or not they'll find them successful will likely hinge on game flow -- is the score such that the running game is still viable? -- and the individual efforts of their backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott.
Getting a strong performance from Elliott in his return to Dallas, getting a motivated and hard-charging Stevenson, could end up giving the Patriots an early lead and force a dink-and-dunk Cowboys passing game to push the ball down to come back.
Matchup that will surprise you
Cowboys passing game vs. Banged-up Patriots secondary
If your last extended exposure to the Cowboys was their win over the Patriots in 2021, you'll remember how they lit up the Patriots pass defense. Dak Prescott's 445 yards through the air -- on 36-of-51 passing -- were the most ever allowed by a Belichick-coached Patriots team. In that game, Prescott's average throw traveled 9.3 yards down the field.
This year's Cowboys offense is not that offense.
After Prescott led the NFL in interceptions last year, and with Mike McCarthy and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer taking over the controls on that side of the ball from Kellen Moore (now coordinating the Chargers offense), the Cowboys have morphed into one of the most conservative passing offenses in football.
Prescott's average throw this year travels only 5.5 yards down the field, per NextGen Stats, which is 33rd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks. His average yards per attempt ranks 24th (6.3) after checking in at 7th (7.3) in that same category a year ago.
The Patriots will be without second-year corners Jack Jones and Marcus Jones, and Jonathan Jones (ankle) is officially questionable. But the Patriots have enough on the back end -- especially with Christian Gonzalez playing at an extremely high level through his first month as a pro -- to handle CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup. Especially with the Cowboys playing as conservatively as they have.
Allow Prescott to throw short, rally to the football, and ask aggressive tacklers across all three levels of the Patriots defense -- as a team they rank first in Pro Football Focus tackling grade -- to make plays. That should help ground the Cowboys passing game and keep this one close.
Matchup that will bring you joy
Patriots pass rush vs. Cowboys offensive line
Keep a close eye on the inactives for the Cowboys on Sunday. They've already ruled out starting left tackle Tyron Smith. Starting center Tyler Biadasz and guard Zack Martin are officially questionable. If they're without either one or both of those interior staples, this becomes a lick-your-chops kind of game for the Patriots up front.
With Smith, Biadasz and Martin all out a week ago, the Cardinals generated pressure on 28 percent of Prescott's dropbacks, and he struggled. When under duress, Prescott completed just 37.5 percent of his passes for 4.9 yards per attempt.
If there are multiple familiar faces missing from the Cowboys line, don't be surprised to see the Patriots try to heat them up -- and hasten their decision-making -- by blitzing. They have the fourth-highest blitz rate in the NFL this year (43.6 percent), per Pro Football Focus.
Prescott has handled the blitz relatively well over the course of his career (7.5 yards per attempt this year when blitzed, per PFF, which ranks 13th). But generating extra pressure and understanding that the ball is going to come out quickly could lead Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick to dial up some exotic looks in pursuit of a game-changing turnover.
Matchup that will take years off your life
Micah Parsons vs. Vederian Lowe
If Bill Belichick mentions you in the same breath as Lawrence Taylor -- which he did with Micah Parsons in his Monday interview with "The Greg Hill Show" on WEEI -- you know you've earned the 71-year-old head coach's respect. Even when Belichick had the opportunity to walk those comments back later in the week, he simply said he wouldn't put anyone "ahead" of Taylor. Which implies they… could… be in a similar category.
Odds are Belichick will show his respect for Parsons on the field Sunday in the form of an abundance of double-teams, chips at the line of scrimmage and schemed-up plays designed to neutralize arguably the game's best defender. The only problem is Belichick and O'Brien won't be the first to try those things. And Parsons has found ways to wreck games regardless.
Parsons is fifth in the NFL in pressures (17) and pass-rush win rate (23.1 percent) this year, according to Pro Football Focus. He aligns all over the field, but the Patriots should prepare to see him across from last week's starter at right tackle Vederian Lowe since about a third of his pass rush reps come off the offensive right. Whereas they may ask Trent Brown to handle Parsons one-on-one on occasion, asking the same of Lowe -- who allowed eight pressures last week, per PFF -- would be asking for trouble.
Matchup that will determine the outcome
Patriots receivers vs. Cowboys secondary
Even though the Patriots should try to run the football, they'll need to throw it. There will be third-downs in which the entire stadium knows Mac Jones is dropping back to pass, and they'll have to connect on those in order to win. Simple as that.
The issue? They haven't been able to win their matchups on the outside often enough for anyone to feel confident that they will win this game.
The Patriots have seen loads of man coverage in key situations this season. In fact, according to SIS, no team has thrown more against Cover 1 on third down than the Patriots. And there are only three quarterbacks in football with more attempts against single-high safety coverages than Jones.
That second nugget is a fascinating one since all three of their early-season opponents are known as primarily two-high safety schemes. The Eagles and Dolphins run Vic Fangio-style defenses (Miami is coordinated by Fangio himself) that feature "shell" coverages with two safeties deep. The Jets have become a team that's fallen in love with Cover 4 (two high safeties) under Robert Saleh.
What's it mean? Teams are daring the Patriots to pick on one-on-one matchups outside that are inevitable when playing single-high safety coverages -- even if it's not in their defensive DNA. Until the Patriots start to win those matchups, they'll continue to see aggressive single-high safety calls that steer quarterbacks to their pass-catching options along the boundary.
Getting man-to-man defense on the outside is an inevitability this week against Dan Quinn's scheme. The Cowboys are playing more man-to-man defense than any team in football through three weeks.
If Patriots receivers want the football-watching world to view them in a different light, this would be the week to start to win their one-on-ones. They're winnable.
Stephon Gilmore is now the de facto No. 1 in Dallas now that Trevon Diggs (torn ACL) is out for the season. The 33-year-old remains highly respected, but he's allowing a quarterback rating of 101.8 when targeted, and he's last in the NFL among 79 qualifying corners in yards allowed per reception (18.6). Opposite Gilmore will likely be DaRon Bland, who was a fifth-round pick out of Fresno State in 2022.
The Cowboys aren't the Eagles with Darius Slay, the Dolphins with Xavien Howard or the Jets with Sauce Gardner. If the Patriots are going to upset the Cowboys, they'll need to beat Cowboys corners outside the numbers and/or down the field in a crucial situation. The problem is they haven't provided much in the way of evidence to suggest that they can.