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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by Carmax: Patriots vs. Cowboys

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After nearly a month away from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium, the Patriots return home on Sunday afternoon to take on the 6-4 Dallas Cowboys. Dallas features one of the best offenses in the NFL, with quarterback Dak Prescott having the best season of his career while surrounded by a group of weapons that can do it all. It will be the Pats last foray into the NFC until a potential Super Bowl matchup and should provide the 9-1 AFC leaders with a sizable challenge.

While the Patriots defense got back on track against the Eagles, the offense continued to sputter. And now, with two of their veteran receivers potentially out, it will only get harder for Tom Brady who could be forced to rely on two rookie receivers to move the ball. The good news is that the offense can expect a boost from left tackle Isaiah Wynn's return and they'll still have Julian Edelman and James White, the two key offensive cogs that have been making most of the critical plays all season.

But locking in on a potential playoff identity could be put on hold this week, though it's a good chance to give the ancillary offensive pieces a chance to carve out a role that could serve the team well down the road.

What else do the Patriots need to do to get a win over one of the best opponents they've faced all season? Here are the Keys to the Starting Lineup!

Bend Don't Break

These words often bring immediate frustration from Patriots fans but this week it should be less about aggression and more about forcing Dallas to consistently execute long touchdown-scoring drives. The things to respect? The Cowboys are the best third-down offense in the league (52.1 percent conversion rate) and third-best in explosive 20-yards-plus plays. Their drive stats are all among the top of the league as well, they're second in both yards-per-drive and points-per-drive. Asking the Patriots defense to force three-and-outs will be a tough request, and sending a bunch of zero-blitzes is a recipe for disaster because the Cowboys have big-play ability across the board.

Instead the key will be preventing explosive plays and putting the Cowboys 17th-ranked red zone offense on the spot. Tighter red zone windows will tip the advantage to the talented and deep Patriots defensive backs, but each will have their hands full. It's a big "Do Your Job" week because Dallas will test each and every area of the Patriots defense.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 12 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, November 24, 2019.

Stop Elliott with the Nickel Front

The Cowboys run 11 personnel 70 percent of the time, meaning the Patriots will likely be matched up with their nickel defense. This is nothing new, the defense has mostly played nickel defense this season, but a big back who can play passing downs is a threat unique to Dallas. The matchups seem clear - Gilmore on Cooper, Jones on Cobb, Jason McCourty on Gallup. Putting J.C. Jackson the tight end Jason Witten would make sense to allow Patrick Chung to stay in the box and help stop Elliott. That is assuming Chung can play after missing the Eagles game. But no matter how you mix and match those it still leaves Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton as the two most critical pieces up front. The Lions had success slowing down the Cowboys running game with similar interior two-gappers, but when Adam Butler or Dietrich Wise sub in, things could start to get interesting.

It all starts with slowing down Elliott. The Cowboys have won easily when breaking 150 yards on the ground, with an average margin of victory of 18.8 points. When held under 130 yards rushing, they're 2-4. If Shelton and Guy do their jobs it frees up the strength of the front seven -- the linebackers -- to do what they do best. That will force Prescott into mistakes.

Find a Way on Offense

With Tom E. Curran reporting Mohamed Sanu will miss a couple weeks with an ankle injury and Phillip Dorsett dealing with a concussion, the Patriots offense will likely be at least one player short at receiver, which would elevate rookies Jakobi Meyers and N'Keal Harry into significant roles. For an offense searching for their "identity" and what they can hang their hats on, this is an unwelcome setback to lose Sanu already but all is not totally lost. Getting Wynn back at left tackle won't solve all their problems, but could open up more options, especially in the screen game where his quick feet will be a huge upgrade over Marshall Newhouse.

The team will be forced to rely heavily on their veteran weapons, with Edelman and White leading the way, but it's dangerous. Losing either one of those two would be devastating. So can the offense get anything out of the rookies or Matt LaCosse? Can Ben Watson continue to make some key catches? Those are the questions that will determine if the Patriots offense is able to construct a game-winning performance that doesn't run White or Edelman into the ground. Dallas' defense is top-10 in yards and points but a closer look at advanced stats like DVOA has them down closer to 20th in the league. Traditionally Tom Brady has torn up Tampa-2 heavy defenses like Rod Marinelli's, but will his inexperienced weapons be able to find the holes in the coverage? Will they be able to adjust if Marinelli throws some twists like he did in 2015 that stalled the Patriots offense?

Nothing has been easy for the offense this year and it won't get any easier against the Cowboys, no matter how favorable the matchups might look on paper or historically.

Good, Clean Football

The Bill Belichick Patriots have traditionally eaten more talented but less disciplined teams for lunch. Dallas certainly has talent and an offense that was constructed for a video game, but they've been incredibly inconsistent this season and have yet to have a signature win over a winning team. Their rankings are among the tops in the league but the overall product doesn't equal the sum of their impressive parts. That is largely due to coaching, a spot where the Patriots have a distinct advantage. No matter how the game unfolds the Patriots should be better prepared to adjust and finish with their best football, but the key is to not have a sloppy game of turnovers and self-inflicted wounds. When facing an explosive offense, mental mistakes can result in immediate points. The defense must be on their game.

What saved the offense against the Eagles was in large part that they didn't turn the ball over. One fumble or interception could've changed the outcome of that game and this week, with less weaponry, the margin for error will be even smaller. The Patriots don't have to suddenly click on all fronts, though the defense and special teams should, but they must continue to play clean football. Weather any early storm, adjust and give the Cowboys the opportunity to beat themselves.

Prediction

Without Sanu and potentially Dorsett it's hard to suddenly predict this is the week the Patriots offense figures it all out. There little reason to believe Isaiah Wynn's return will result in the Patriots ground game getting on track, as much as they would love it to. The Cowboys defense is ranked third on third down, and if the Pats run game struggles on first and second down it will not be a good recipe for consistent offensive success. Still, Brady has enough to get the job done, especially if the defense continues their dominant run and the special teams stays consistent with their field goals and field-position-changing kicks. The Cowboys will provide a good test but playing at home should give the Patriots the boost they need in a close one that comes down to the end, if not the final drive.

Patriots 23 , Cowboys 17

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