By Matthew Postins
You may have heard this statistic leading up to Sunday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons. The Dallas Cowboys are 3-0 against teams that were undefeated when they played the Cowboys and had played at least seven games.
Of course, that statistic is over the span of 21 years and encompasses just three games – Cowboys victories over the undefeated Washington Redskins in 1991, the undefeated Indianapolis Colts in 2006 and the undefeated New Orleans Saints in 2009. Here’s a tip of the hat to Dallascowboys.com’s Nick Eatman for that statistic. We always believe in giving credit where credit is due.
Now let’s talk about why that streak will end for Dallas on Sunday night, as from here it’s hard to see the Cowboys going into one of the noisiest venues in the NFL and ending the Falcons’ march to an undefeated half-season.
The Cowboys running game: The Cowboys have gained 100 or more yards rushing as a team just twice in seven games. In both of those games, running back DeMarco Murray played. Murray rushed for 131 yards against the New York Giants in the season opener. Murray rushed for 93 yards against Baltimore before an injury ended his day at halftime.
In the Baltimore game the Cowboys continued to run the ball well with Felix Jones, who rushed for 92 yards. In that game Phil Costa was the center. It’s the only game this year in which Costa has played the whole game. The Cowboys gained 227 rushing yards, their best total of the season.
In the following game Costa started, but didn’t finish. The Cowboys rushed for 85 yards as a team. After Costa left the contest late in the second quarter with an injury the Cowboys rushed for 50 yards. Against the Giants last week the Cowboys rushed for just 19 yards.
Now the Cowboys have had poor rushing games this season with Murray in the lineup. They’ve had good rushing games without Costa in the lineup. But based on the first seven games they’re more likely to have success on the ground with Murray or Costa, or both, on the field. Here’s how it breaks down statistically:
With Murray and Costa: Cowboys average 7.1 yards per carry.
With Costa and no Murray: Cowboys average 3.9 yards per carry.
With Murray and no Costa: Cowboys average 3.8 yards per carry.
Without Murray and Costa: Cowboys average 1.75 yards per carry.
Neither will play on Sunday, and that’s a shame from the standpoint of the Falcons’ run defense, which is No. 26 in the NFL and will be without its leading tackler, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. The middle of the Falcons’ defense – tackle Peria Jerry, tackle Jonathan Babineaux and middle linebacker Akeem Dent – is vulnerable. But recent history suggests that without Murray and Costa the Cowboys won’t be able to take advantage of it. Without a sustained running game, the contest falls into the hands of Tony Romo.
That is a mixed bag unto itself.
Here are two other reasons why RattleandHumsports.com is picking the Falcons to win Sunday night.
The Georgia Dome: Home field advantage does exist in some places in the NFL, and the Georgia Dome is one of them. It’s one of the loudest stadiums in pro football, and the Falcons have taken full advantage of that fact since they drafted quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008. The Falcons’ home record since Ryan took over is 29-6. The Georgia Dome is a noisy place. That will be a factor. Or did you miss how poorly the Cowboys handled the noise in Seattle in Week 2?
Cowboys pass defense: Normally we’re bullish on the Cowboys’ defense, which has made great strides under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan this season. But this could be a week where the unit takes a step back. Atlanta’s Ryan is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He does throw interceptions, but he doesn’t throw them in bushels like Romo. He has a corps of large targets to throw to in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzales. In terms of sheer size, the Falcons are the largest receiving corps the Cowboys have faced this season. Dallas’ corners have proven they can play physical, but they’ve not faced a group of large receivers like Atlanta’s for 60 minutes. Paired with Michael Turner and the physical run game, the Cowboys could have some defensive breakdowns downfield late in the contest.
Three other things to consider:
Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez: Witten needs four catches to pass Michael Irvin for first place on the Cowboys’ all-time receptions list. Gonzalez is the only tight end in NFL history with more than 1,000 receptions. Witten’s production level may allow him to join Gonzalez in just a couple of years. Savor an evening with two of the NFL’s best tight ends on the same field. Sunday will be just the third time they’ve played in the same regular-season game.
Passing on third down: This statistic is courtesy of ESPN. Ryan has four touchdowns and two interceptions on third down this season. Romo has no touchdowns and four interceptions on third down this season. Sunday’s game might come down to how well these two quarterbacks extend drives on third-and-long.
Punt returns: This will be the first game this season Dez Bryant won’t be returning punts. Will the Cowboys stick with Dwayne Harris or will they try and mix in Cole Beasley? Harris has the pedigree, as he was a first-team Conference USA punt returner at East Carolina. But there’s something about Beasley this organization really likes. Harris is banged up, but if he’s able to go, he’ll get first crack at making punt returns his full-time job.