The Dallas Cowboys are expected to face their most challenging test to date when they travel to the Deep South to face Atlanta. The Falcons are the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL and there is a reason why their record is unblemished. They avoid mistakes. Atlanta is the least-penalized team in the league and has a plus-10 turnover differential. The Cowboys, meanwhile have been their own worst enemy. They have been flagged 54 times and committed 19 turnovers — the second-highest total in the NFL. For the Cowboys to march into the Georgia Dome and defeat Atlanta, they first have to make sure they don’t beat themselves. Here’s a look at how both teams match up:
When the Cowboys run
There are three teams in the NFL that are allowing more than five yards per carry. Atlanta is one of them. The Falcons’ defense has shown vulnerability when teams have elected to keep the ball on the ground. But whether the Cowboys have the ability to take advantage of their weakness is uncertain. Starting tailback DeMarco Murray won’t play as he continues to recover from a sprained left foot. And backups Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner gained only 19 rushing yards on 15 carries in the Cowboys’ 29-24 loss to the Giants.
When the Cowboys pass
Tony Romo’s never attempted more passes or thrown for more yards than he did last Sunday against the Giants. But Romo also tossed four costly interceptions. His performance encapsulated the inconsistency of the Cowboys’ air attack, which has been reliably unreliable this season. Now Romo and Co. face the Falcons, the tenth-stingiest pass defense in the NFL. Atlanta is allowing an average of 216.9 yards through the air per game and has made 10 interceptions. Safety Thomas DeCoud has four of those picks.
When the Falcons run
Neither Michael Turner nor Jacquizz Rodgers stands taller than 5 feet, 10 inches. Just as small as their stature have been their gains on the ground. The two Atlanta tailbacks are averaging 3.76 yards per carry this season for a team ranked 24th in rushing that has accumulated more than four yards on only 36.9 percent of its attempts. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have been solid against the run – holding teams to 104.7 yards per game on the ground. Without inside linebacker Sean Lee for the first time, the Cowboys fared well against the Giants, never allowing a carry longer than 14 yards.
When the Falcons pass
Spearheaded by quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons’ air attack is potent. Ryan has completed more than 68 percent of his throws, accumulating 17 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Ryan’s success, in part, can be attributed to the weapons at his disposal. Receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, two players who can stretch the field, are each made averaging more than 14 yards per reception. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, meanwhile, leads the team with 46 catches. The Falcons will test the Cowboys, who have surrendered fewer passing yards per game than all but two teams.
After Sunday, the Cowboys can add another special teams mistake to their ledger. After Dez Bryant fumbled against the New York Giants, the Cowboys’ return units have turned the ball over twice this season. Dallas has also allowed a blocked punt and surrendered a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Atlanta’s special teams aren’t much better. The Falcons have also conceded a blocked punt. But Atlanta’s mistakes haven’t been as frequent and their kicker Matt Bryant has performed just as well as the Cowboys’ Dan Bailey. Bryant is making 94.1 percent of his field-goal attempts. Bailey is converting 92.9 percent.
Since head coach Mike Smith was hired before the 2008 season, the Falcons have made the Georgia Dome a house of horrors for opponents. Atlanta has had a 29-6 regular-season record there during Smith’s tenure, posting a home winning percentage so high that it has only been eclipsed by the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens the last five seasons. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have fared terribly in Sunday night games, losing the last seven they’ve played since September 2010.
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