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NFL Week 12 Preview: Can Dak Prescott Take on the Pats Defense?

The Cowboys-Patriots matchup headlines an exciting Sunday. Plus, all the story lines, odds, and injuries you need to know ahead of every game.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sunday is a glorious day of football. Nine games are scheduled for 1 p.m. ET. That chaos will lead to the calmness in the late afternoon slate when the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots face each other in Foxborough at 4:25 p.m. ET. While the two most valuable franchises with perhaps the two largest fan bases in America play on every Fox station in America, CBS will air the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Tennessee Titans, which is only a couple steps removed from ESPN airing professional bowling on Sunday afternoons. Considering Packers-49ers comes on after Cowboys-Patriots, we essentially get two versions of Sunday Night Football back-to-back.


Sunday Night Football Part I

Dallas Cowboys (6-4) @ New England Patriots (9-1)

Kickoff time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New England -7
Over/under: 47
Key Cowboys injuries and absences: Right tackle La’el Collins (knee/back)
Key Patriots injuries and absences: Receiver Phillip Dorsett (concussion), receiver Mohamed Sanu (ankle)
What to watch: The Dak Prescott stress test

Dak Prescott has gone from a game manager to a game CEO. After years of the Cowboys focusing on rushing, Prescott leads the league in passing yards, yards per game, and yards per attempt. He’s second in ESPN’s total QBR and tied for second in passing touchdowns.

Dallas does not lead the league in points per game, but they are first in just about every other passing category. Here is a list of where the Cowboys offense and Patriots defense rank in key statistics (1 represents the best rank and 32 is the worst).

Cowboys Offense vs. Patriots Defense Rank

Stat Cowboys Offense Patriots Defense
Stat Cowboys Offense Patriots Defense
Points/Game 4 1
Yards 1 1
Yards/Play 1 1
First Downs 1 2
Passing Yards 2 2
20+ Yard Pass Plays 2 2
Sacks 1 3
Third Down Conv. % 1 1
Efficiency (DVOA) 1 1
Passing DVOA 3 1
Rushing DVOA 3 13

Rushing looks like the lone blemish for the Patriots defense, but while the Patriots have allowed five rushing touchdowns this year, only one has been to a running back. New England’s run defense is solid. Dallas’s run offense is also solid, but unlike years past, it is not special. Ezekiel Elliott has not been making players miss (22nd of 30 players with 100 carries in PFF’s elusive rating) or breaking off big chunks of yardage (one run of 20-plus yards).

If the Cowboys are going to win this game, they’ll likely have to do it with Prescott through the air. That usually means deep passes. Prescott leads the league in pass yards before the catch and pass plays of 20-plus yards, and is tied for first in pass plays of 40-plus yards. Those deep shots will be harder with Stephon Gilmore, the league’s best cornerback, likely shadowing receiver Amari Cooper, who has been struggling with injuries.

It might be hard for the Cowboys to reach their 28.6 points per game average, but they also may not need that many to win. The Patriots beat the Eagles 17-10 last week, but Tom Brady was quick to point out that New England’s offense needs to score more points. New England may not have new trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu or old trade acquisition Phillip Dorsett in this game. That would leave the bulk of New England’s receiving after Julian Edelman to rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, whose combined age is barely older than Brady’s.

”The strength of our team is our defense and our special teams,” Brady said on the Greg Hill Show on WEEI Sports Radio Network on Monday. “On offense we just have to take advantage when we get opportunities and understand where our strengths lie and try and play to them. Not giving any short fields, not turning the ball over, and try and take advantage when we get into the red area to score touchdowns. That is kind of where our offense is. That is kind of where our team is.”

Erased From History

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6) @ Tennessee Titans (5-5)

Kickoff time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Tennessee -2.5
Over/under: 41
Key Jaguars injuries and absences: Receiver DJ Chark (hamstring), receiver Chris Conley (hamstring), offensive lineman Brandon Linder (shoulder), defensive end Calais Campbell (back), cornerback D.J. Hayden (hip/wrist), safety Ronnie Harrison (eye)
Key Titans injuries and absences: Tight end Delanie Walker (ankle), cornerback Chris Milton (ankle), cornerback Malcolm Butler (broken wrist)
What to watch: [Redacted]

If a game falls in the same time slot as Cowboys-Patriots and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound programming strategy?

Sunday Night Football Part 2

Green Bay Packers (8-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (9-1)

Kickoff time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (sideline reporter)
Opening line: San Francisco -3.5
Over/under: 44
Key Packers injuries and absences: N/A
Key 49ers injuries and absences: Running back Matt Breida (ankle), receiver Emmanuel Sanders (ribs), receiver Deebo Samuel (shoulder), tight end George Kittle (knee/ankle), left tackle Joe Staley (finger), linebacker Kwon Alexander (torn pectoral), defensive lineman Ronald Blair (torn ACL), defensive lineman Dee Ford (quadricep/hamstring)
What to watch: Aaron Rodgers hunting for big plays (and avoiding sacks)

Before Packers head coach Matt LaFleur got the Green Bay gig, he was an NFL assistant for 10 years. He spent the first eight of those working for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan across three stops in Houston, Washington, and Atlanta.

”A lot of my football philosophy has been shaped by him,” LaFleur told reporters on Wednesday.

Sunday, they will meet as head coaches for the first time, and the game could have a massive impact on playoff seeding. Whichever team wins will be in excellent position for a first-round bye, while a loss could put their divisional lead at risk. Expect the broadcast to highlight their strong relationship, as well as LaFleur’s brother, Mike, who works on the 49ers staff as a passing game coordinator.

Also expect the broadcast to mention the relationship that almost happened between Aaron Rodgers and the 49ers, who passed on him to take Alex Smith no. 1 in 2005. Apparently, Rodgers is not over it. Sunday won’t help him move on. San Francisco has the only defense that pressures quarterbacks on a third of their dropbacks, and is also the only team to allow fewer than two 20-plus-yard completions per game. Quarterbacks who hold the ball looking to make big throws downfield against the 49ers often wind up on their butt. Aaron Rodgers is not that type of quarterback; he has more career pass attempts (5,839) than all the quarterbacks the 49ers have faced in their past seven wins combined (5,430). He is a different type of challenge. Rodgers isn’t afraid to throw the ball away (he has the second most this season, per PFF) but he also loves to hunt for deep shots (his 52 passes of 20-plus yards downfield are tied for the fourth most of any QB). Rodgers is also the best quarterback this season throwing passes 10-plus yards downfield.

”They’re really sound,” LaFleur told reporters this week. “You’ve got to be patient and can’t force a big play against those guys.”

The Packers’ greatest advantage may be health. Green Bay was on bye in Week 11, and not one Packer missed practice on Wednesday due to injury.

Appetizers

Seattle Seahawks (8-2) @ Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Philadelphia -3
Over/under: 49
Key Seahawks injuries and absences: Receiver Tyler Lockett (leg), tight end Luke Willson (hamstring), tight end Ed Dickson (knee), tackle Duane Brown (hamstring), guard Mike Iupati (foot), defensive tackle Jarran Reed (ankle), linebacker K.J. Wright (shoulder)
Key Eagles injuries and absences: Running back Jordan Howard (shoulder), receiver Alshon Jeffery (knee), receiver Nelson Agholor (knee), right tackle Lane Johnson (concussion), left tackle Jason Peters (knee)
What to watch: How both offenses adjust to key injuries

Seven of Seattle’s eight wins have been by seven points or less. The fact that the Eagles are favored by three points despite their worse record implies that oddsmakers think the Seahawks have been getting lucky, and we know what oddsmakers think about lucky streaks.

If Seattle does have a lucky charm, it’s receiver Tyler Lockett, but Lockett injured his leg against the 49ers two weeks ago and spent two days in the hospital. Seattle’s bye week gave him an extra week to recover and the Seahawks are hoping he will play against Philadelphia. Lockett has the second-most receiving yards and the most touchdowns from the slot of any receiver. If Lockett can’t go or is not 100 percent, his impact will not be easily replaced. The Seahawks added Josh Gordon earlier this month, but Lockett and Wilson’s connection is based off of chemistry more than speed or size.

“You could tell not having [Lockett] out there, we looked different,” head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this month, according to Pro Football Talk. “We need him back.”

The Eagles also need someone back. Right tackle Lane Johnson is in concussion protocol, and Philly’s offense did not score a point after Johnson left the last week’s game against the Patriots in the first half. Jadeveon Clowney had one of the best games of his career two weeks ago against the 49ers, and Eagles fans don’t want to see Clowney matched up against backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

Carolina Panthers (5-5) @ New Orleans Saints (8-2)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New Orleans -7
Over/under: 48
Key Panthers injuries and absences: Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (knee), cornerback Ross Cockrell (quad)
Key Saints injuries and absences: Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (hamstring), offensive lineman Andrus Peat (forearm), fullback Zach Line (knee)
What to watch: Whether the Saints can handle business

If the Saints win, they’ll wrap up the NFC South for the third year in a row and stay on the inside track to host playoff games in the Superdome. If they lose, they leave the possibility open that their Week 17 rematch against Carolina could be for the division title.

Denver Broncos (3-7) @ Buffalo Bills (7-3)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Jay Feely (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Buffalo -5.5
Over/under: 35
Key Broncos injuries and absences: Offensive lineman Dalton Risner (ankle), guard Ron Leary (shoulder/neck), guard Connor McGovern (back), inside linebacker Joe Jones (foot)
Key Bills injuries and absences: Tackle Ty Nsekhe (ankle), defensive end Jerry Hughes (groin), defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (toe), safety Siran Neal (concussion)
What to watch: Two Allens look for their favorite receiver to escape shadow coverage

Lamar Jackson is the most improved quarterback from the 2018 draft class, but he has overshadowed the growth of Bills quarterback Josh Allen. The reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week was a turnover machine in 2018, but a new attitude has bolstered his play in 2019. Allen’s interception rate was the second highest in the NFL last year, but he has not thrown a pick in his last five games.

“Last year, every time I dropped back it was, ‘I can make this throw,’” Allen told The Ringer’s Robert Mays for a piece that ran this week. “‘I can throw it 50 yards downfield and try to put it on [the receiver]. I think I can squeeze it in there.’ But in reality, you don’t have to do that. … My mind-set has changed from ‘How can I throw a touchdown?’ to ‘How can I get a first down?’”

That attitude change is reflected in Buffalo’s offense. In 2018, the Bills ranked 30th in drives that gained a first down or touchdown. This year they are 17th. On Sunday, Allen will face a big test in a Denver Broncos defense ranked as the ninth-most-efficient per Football Outsiders. Allen’s favorite receiver, John Brown, is one of just two players—along with New Orleans’s Michael Thomas—to have 50 receiving yards in every game this season. The only other player to have more than eight such games is Denver receiver Courtland Sutton. But Brown and Sutton will likely be shadowed on Sunday by Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and Buffalo cornerback TreDavious White, respectively. Who wins those matchups, and how much help they get from their supporting casts, will be crucial in deciding who wins the Battle of the Allens: Josh vs. Broncos QB Brandon Allen.

Oakland Raiders (6-4) @ New York Jets (3-7)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Melanie Collins (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Oakland -3
Over/under: 47
Key Raiders injuries and absences: Tackle Trent Brown (knee), center Rodney Hudson (ankle), safety Lamarcus Joyner (hamstring)
Key Jets injuries and absences: Left tackle Kelvin Beachum (ankle), right tackle Chuma Edoga (ankle), linebacker C.J. Mosley (groin), linebacker Paul Worrilow (quad), cornerback Darryl Roberts (calf)
What to watch: New York’s edge blocking

Maxx Crosby and Benson Mayowa have breathed life into the Raiders’ anemic pass rush. They’ll get some more wind in their sails against the Jets offensive tackles, both of whom have ankle injuries. Beachum and Edoga are two of the shortest and lightest starting offensive tackles in the NFL, so losing any mobility is impactful.

A Game That Matters Only in Fantasy Football

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7) @ Atlanta Falcons (3-7)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, Jennifer Hale (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Atlanta -3
Over/under: 54.5
Key Buccaneers injuries and absences: Pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (knee), pass rusher Carl Nassib (groin), defensive lineman William Gholston (ankle), outside linebacker Anthony Nelson (hamstring), defensive back M.J. Stewart (knee)
Key Falcons injuries and absences: Quarterback Matt Ryan (ankle), receiver Julio Jones (foot), running back Devonta Freeman (foot), tight end Austin Hooper (knee), defensive end Takkarist McKinley (shoulder), defensive end Adrian Clayborn (groin)
What to watch: Fantasy updates

This game is basically meaningless to the NFL playoffs but essential to many fantasy football playoff races. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are two of the top three receivers in fantasy while Julio Jones joins them in the top 10. The Buccaneers pass defense is among the worst in football, giving Jones a tremendous chance for his first touchdown since Week 3. Godwin and Evans have a similarly excellent matchup against Atlanta on paper, though the Falcons defense has been rejuvenated since their Week 9 bye. After every opponent scored 20 or more points on Atlanta in the first eight weeks of the season, they held the Saints and Panthers to 12 points combined in the last two weeks. The Bucs are the third of five consecutive divisional games for the Falcons.

Playing for (Some Much Needed) Pride

Miami Dolphins (2-8) @ Cleveland Browns (4-6)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Cleveland -9
Over/under: 45
Key Dolphins injuries and absences: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (shoulder), tackle Julie’n Davenport (knee), cornerback Xavien Howard (knee), safety Reshad Jones (chest/ankle/shoulder), safety Bobby McCain (shoulder), defensive end Taco Charlton (elbow), cornerback Ken Webster (ankle), linebacker Raekwon McMillan (knee)
Key Browns injuries and absences: Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (groin), receiver Jarvis Landry (hip), guard Joel Bitonio (groin), defensive end Olivier Vernon (knee), safety Eric Murray (knee), Myles Garrett (suspension)
What to watch: Baker and Odell’s big day

This could be the game Cleveland’s offense wakes up. Six of the Browns’ last eight games have come against top 10 defenses in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. This week, the Browns get the Dolphins, who rank as the least efficient pass defense. That number doesn’t reflect the fact that Miami put both of their starting safeties on injured reserve this week. The Dolphins have just one defensive back on the roster who played a defensive snap for the team in the 2018 season, and he plays special teams. Odell going to Miami didn’t work out so well, but Miami coming to Cleveland will be better.

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) @ Cincinnati Bengals (0-10)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, James Lofton, John Schriffen (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Pittsburgh -7
Over/under: 40
Key Steelers injuries and absences: Running back James Conner (shoulder), receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion/knee), center Maurkice Pouncey (suspended), cornerback Artie Burns (knee), linebacker Bud Dupree (tricep)
Key Bengals injuries and absences: Receiver A.J. Green (ankle), receiver Auden Tate (concussion), receiver Stanley Morgan (illness), tight end Drew Sample (ankle), guard Billy Price (back)
What to watch: The Steelers’ playoff push?

Pittsburgh’s win over the Rams two weeks ago put them back on the playoff radar with a 50-50 shot at the postseason. After losing to the Browns last week on Thursday Night Football, it’s once again an uphill climb at roughly 1-in-4, according to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff projections. On paper, Pittsburgh shouldn’t have any trouble dispatching the Cincinnati Bengals this week. The following week, the Steelers will play … the Browns. Yes, just two weeks after the Myles Garrett helmet swing, these teams will play again. If the Steelers win that game too, they’ll be back to a 50-50 shot at the playoffs—exactly where they were before the Garrett incident happened.

New York Giants (2-8) @ Chicago Bears (4-6)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman, Shannon Spake (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Chicago -7
Over/under: 41
Key Giants injuries and absences: Tight end Evan Engram (foot), tight end Rhett Ellison (concussion)
Key Bears injuries and absences: Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (hip), tight end Adam Shaheen (foot), defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (elbow), linebacker Danny Trevathan (elbow)
What to watch: Daniel Jones and Mitchell Trubisky trying to justify their draft slots

Mitchell Trubisky left Sunday Night Football last week with a hip injury, but he is expected to start against the Giants this Sunday. He might have a better day than those who watched him against the Rams would expect. The Giants pass defense is abysmal. Bears top receiver Allen Robinson is likely to get roughly a third of his routes against Giants rookie cornerback Deandre Baker, who is the lowest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus among 113 qualifiers. Trubisky doesn’t have a better opportunity for a bounce-back game left on the Bears schedule than this Sunday.

The same cannot be said for Giants rookie Daniel Jones, who has fumbled an astounding 10 times in his last four games. The Giants had their bye week to prepare for the Bears, and Chicago’s defense is not as fearsome without defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, but the Bears could still swallow Jones whole in this matchup. Expect Jones to add to his league-leading 13 fumbles with a little help from Khalil Mack.

Just Playing, Pride TBD

Detroit Lions (3-6-1) @ Washington (1-9)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, Lindsay Czarniak (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Detroit -1.5
Over/under: 41
Key Lions injuries and absences: Quarterback Matt Stafford (back/hip), fullback Nick Bawden (knee), center Frank Ragnow (concussion), pass rusher Trey Flowers (concussion), defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand (ankle), safety Tracy Walker (knee)
Key Washington injuries and absences: Running back Adrian Peterson (toe), tight end Vernon Davis (concussion), defensive lineman Daron Payne (ankle), defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (ankle/knee)
What to watch: Dwayne Haskins vs. Jeff Driskel

Jeff Driskel or Matt Stafford, the Lions have to win this game. Washington’s only victory this year came when the Dolphins screwed up a two-point conversion. Washington’s best receiver, rookie Terry McLaurin, will likely be blanketed by Lions cornerback Darius Slay. Matt Patricia’s defense needs to be looked at through a different lens if it can’t stifle rookie Dwayne Haskins.

Monday Night Football

Baltimore Ravens (8-2) @ Los Angeles Rams (6-4)

Kickoff time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN
Announcers: Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Pick ’em
Over/under: 49
Key Ravens injuries and absences: Left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle), defensive tackle Michael Pierce (ankle), pass rusher Pernell McPhee (triceps), safety Tony Jefferson (torn ACL)
Key Rams injuries and absences: Receiver Brandin Cooks (concussion), receiver Josh Reynolds (illness), right tackle Rob Havenstein (knee), punter Johnny Hekker (illness), defensive back Darious Williams (ankle)
What to watch: Wade Phillips vs. Lamar Jackson

On the surface, this is a revenge game for defensive backs on both teams. The Rams traded cornerback Marcus Peters to Baltimore last month, and Rams safety Eric Weddle spent the previous three seasons with Baltimore before the Ravens cut him this offseason. But neither player is leaning into that. Weddle is refusing to share what he knows about Baltimore’s defense with the Rams offense. Peters told ESPN’s Jamison Hensley he did not have a chip on his shoulder for this game.

Instead, we can focus on the Xs and Os. In a passing-dominant era of football, Baltimore’s rushing offense has yet to be solved. Lamar Jackson leads all rushers in yards per carry. As a team, the Ravens lead the league in yards before contact and yards after contact. They have run an average of almost 16 run-pass options per game for roughly 7 yards per play. As an offense, they lead the league in yards per drive, points per drive, plays per drive, and time of possession per drive. This offense is a force, but the Rams defense under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been fantastic. They allow the third-fewest yards per play, generate the third-highest pressure rate, and rank third in run defense efficiency per Football Outsiders. Phillips, not Sean McVay, is the coach that has kept the Rams’ season alive, and the plan he comes up with to stop the Ravens on Sunday could be copied for the rest of the year if any part of it is successful.

Byes: Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Joe Jones’s name.