It's often said, "Everything's bigger in Texas."
That adage certainly holds true for both the Dallas Cowboys offensive line and their gigantic stadium.
Though the Cowboys no longer have their workhorse running back, DeMarco Murray (now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles), Dallas' o-line is still the strength of what has become a depleted Cowboys offense. The 'Boys will also be without their starting QB, Tony Romo, and best wide receiver, Dez Bryant, who are both sitting out with injuries.
Patriots defenders, however, insist they aren't taking Dallas lightly.
"Same thing as always... We just got to play hard, play sound technique," defensive end Jabaal Sheard told reporters. "They're obviously a good offensive line, play well together. We just have to do our job, execute, stopping the run first."
"They have a good running game, really good o-line," echoed DE/co-captain Rob Ninkovich. "They're big, physical, run well. They play well together. Good offensive lines play well together, communicate well. I think they do that at a high level."
With Romo out, the Cowboys will rely on veteran backup Brandon Weeden to call signals. While Weeden might be a relative unknown to most Patriots players, Sheard has first-hand knowledge of him from their having been teammates for a time in Cleveland.
"Happy for him, he's got a job somewhere," Sheard continued. "Comes to work every day, practiced hard when he was in Cleveland. He has a good arm, makes smart reads."
If the Patriots are going to be star-struck (pun intended) in Big D, it may very well be with the venue itself. AT&T Stadium is, by all accounts, one of the most awe-inspiring places to play in all of sports, given its sheer size and flashy amenities. New England hasn't visited Dallas since 2007, when the Cowboys were still playing in antiquated Texas Stadium, and of this current group of Patriots, Sheard again has the advantage of having played their before.
"Obviously, it's a dome, so it's a little bit louder," he said of the retractable-roof facility. "You kind of have [fans] people a little bit closer to you, like in the dugouts, but it's a football atmosphere, something you want to play in."
For Patriots QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, getting familiar with the layout of AT&T before kickoff will be an important part of their pre-game preparations.
"It is a little different for me not playing in a place where I've played before," Brady acknowledged. "[In] a lot of environments I kind of know what I'm getting myself into. I know where the clocks are. So this will be, you know, it will take a little time, get out there a little earlier and kind of get a feel for things. But I'm excited. I've heard a lot of great things about this stadium, so it will be fun to play in it."
"From my standpoint," Belichick remarked, "it's just a familiarity of the 40-second clock, the scoreboard, the location of where things are on the field, like the communication system. So, just to kind of remind yourself of those things so when it comes up during a game, you save a few seconds or you're more comfortable looking at the right plays, going to the right plays, doing the right thing."
"This stadium for me is like a bucket list stadium," added Ninkovich. "Haven't played there yet. I hear good things about it. State-of-the-art stadium. Tough environment to play in, new stadium. Definitely a challenge for us. I look forward to playing there."
Gronk a Witten fan
In a conference call with Dallas media, Rob Gronkowski was asked about his counterpart on the Cowboys, Jason Witten, who's widely regarded as one of the NFL's best tight ends not named Gronk.
"Oh yeah, definitely. I've been watching him ever since I've been in high school, college," Gronkowski stated. "Definitely always watched him and always tried to take notes from his game and develop it into my game. He's a great tight end and one of the best to ever play, so the way he plays to see how he gets open in the field and try to take it to my game. I loved watching him growing up."
Despite their shared fame and NFL stardom, the two players have only met once before.
"Just real quick at an NFL event a while back," Gronkowski recalled, "but it was just quick."
Fans will be treated to an extended meeting between two of the game's best tight ends this Sunday afternoon in Dallas, but Gronkowski made it clear he's focusing on the bigger picture.
"All we're concentrated on is the Dallas Cowboys. That's all we're focused on – nothing else at the moment – because Dallas is a great team, going on the road at that stadium with those fans, we've got to be prepared and we've got to be focused."
For the second day this week, the Patriots had all 53 players on the active roster, and all 10 on the practice squad, suited up and practicing to prepare for Dallas.