The Dallas Cowboys (4-5) travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons (4-5) Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. (ET) and the game will be broadcast on FOX.
Dallas and Atlanta have struggled this year, and if the NFL season ended today, neither team would make the playoffs. After beginning the season 1-4, the Falcons won three straight games to put themselves back into playoff contention. Their winning streak came crashing down last week when the Falcons were upset 28-16 by the Cleveland Browns. Dallas, on the other hand, is coming off one of their best performances this year against the Eagles which saw their offense come alive and save their season.
At this time in the 2017 season, the Falcons routed the Cowboys in a game with the same stakes. Dallas allowed eight sacks in this game, six to Adrian Clayborn alone, and the Cowboys offense was rendered ineffective all game. Although this does not look promising for Dallas, they are poised for a better outing this year. Unlike last year, the Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott, who was suspended for last year’s game, a healthy Tyron Smith (his backup Chaz Green allowed the majority of Atlanta’s sacks last year), and an almost entirely different wide receiving corp.
Conversely, Atlanta’s defense is in worse shape than it was last year. Their Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal tore his ACL in the first game of the season, and their Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones is coming back from an injury as well. Jones has been limited in practice this week, but has been ruled inactive for the game Sunday. With their injuries, Atlanta’s feeble defense has allowed the third most yards per game this season (414) and fourth most points per game (28). Despite their depleted and crippled defense, the Falcons win games because they are an offensive juggernaut. Quarterback Matt Ryan has been one of the best in the NFL this season and he has immensely talented wide receivers at his disposal: Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu.
To win this game the Cowboys will have to give the Atlanta defense a steady dose of Ezekiel Elliott. As last week against the Eagles proved, good things happen for the Cowboys offense when Elliott gets rolling. The Cowboys desire to get the ball in Elliott’s hands is evident, but cannot be predictable with the play calling as they have been in the past. For example, instead of the Cowboys traditional run up the gut on first down, they could look to use play action passes in these situations to throw the Atlanta defense off and keep them from creeping into the box, which would give Elliott more running space.
Secondly, the Cowboys secondary will need to find a way to limit the Falcons receivers. Julio Jones is a elite wide receiver in the NFL who is a freak of nature. So how do you stop him? By assigning another freak to cover him. Since moving Byron Jones from safety to cornerback in the beginning of the season, he has been lights out for the Cowboys, being so good this season that Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked him the number one cornerback in the NFL through the first eight weeks. What sets Byron Jones apart and makes him a “freak” in his own right are his physical skills; he made headlines at the NFL combine by setting a world record in the broad-jump and also being the best combine participant in the vertical jump. These skills are heavily necessary to cover Julio Jones, a big receiver with 4.4 speed, and this Jones on Jones matchup could easily dictate the outcome of the game.
Prediction: At full strength, the Falcons are a better team than the Cowboys. However, due to the Falcons injuries and the momentum in the Cowboys favor after a huge win at Philadelphia, the Dallas Cowboys will find a way to win this close game to stay in the playoff race.
Final score: Cowboys 27 Falcons 24