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What to know for Falcons - Cowboys in Week 10

The 6-2 Cowboys are a formidable challenge. Are the 4-4 Falcons ready for them?

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Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Apologies, everyone, there should have been an introduction to this article. Here goes: The Falcons are playing the Cowboys on Sunday, and we’d like to talk about it.

2021 comparison

Falcons - Cowboys

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 4-4 21 20 12 29 28 17 13 24 27 16
Cowboys 6-2 3 1 4 3 18 21 25 10 5 20

Behold, a depressing table.

The Cowboys have one of the best offenses in the NFL, full stop. This is true despite Dak Prescott missing a game because Dallas has one of the better collections of weapons in the NFL, an efficient and potent running back tandem, and a very good offensive line when everyone’s healthy. They’re truly great because Prescott is one of the best quarterbacks in football right now, and adding his elite play to the strength of his supporting cast makes the Cowboys preposterously difficult to stop most weeks.

The Dallas defense was getting rave reviews in the early going—upgrading from Mike Nolan to Dan Quinn will do that—but it’s much closer to being a good Dan Quinn defense in Atlanta than it is a top-tier unit. Trevon Diggs has gone absolutely nuts and has seven interceptions in eight games, which drives Dallas up to near the top of the league’s rankings for turnovers created, and Micah Parsons and Randy Gregory have keyed a quality pass rush. They’re good enough to cause problems for most teams, but obviously somewhat dependent on turnovers and what had been a very good run defense until the Broncos took a buzzsaw to it last week.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The Cowboys are a better team than the Falcons, and one of the NFC’s best. Their performance against Denver last week was concerning because they looked so flat on both sides of the ball—concerning for Dallas fans, obviously, not us—but I’m not expecting them to be that flat two weeks in a row.

The Falcons, meanwhile, got the job done against New Orleans the same way they’ve won against basically everyone this year: With a pretty lethal passing attack, very little in the way of a ground game, and a defense that makes just enough plays to keep things close. If they catch Dallas a little out of sorts and play a great game they can absolutely win this, but I don’t have to tell you that it doesn’t look very likely on paper.

How the Cowboys have changed in 2021

First of all, they dumped Mike Nolan for Dan Quinn. The DQ era ended painfully in Atlanta last year after Arthur Blank’s one last ride with his longtime general manager and head coach bombed, but Mike McCarthy was only too glad to see Nolan gone after a disastrous 2020 and welcome Quinn. Predictably, the defense is better under Quinn and his players seem to love him, and it’s fair to expect the head coaching rumor mill kick up for Quinn if the Cowboys remain good this year.

Quinn brought Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee with him. Kazee was arrested for a DWI but the NFL hasn’t handed down any punishment as of yet, and he’s been an every-game starter for Dallas who is third on the team in interceptions and pas deflections. A healthy Kazee is an aggressive, sometimes impactful defender, and that’s what Dallas has gotten so far. Neal, who Quinn shifted to linebacker in 2021 when he signed with Dallas, is still a big hitter but has become more of a part-time player and has managed around 40% of the defensive snaps the past two weeks. The Falcons will see both of these guys, but more of Kazee than Neal.

The Cowboys also added free agent pass rusher Tarrell Basham, who has one sack, to go with starting safety Jayron Kearse, as well as reserve tackle Ty Nsekhe, punter Bryan Anger and defensive linemen Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban. That re-tooled defense obviously is helping this team play better on that side of the ball in addition to whatever magic Quinn might be working.

The biggest addition of all, though, was rookie Micah Parsons. Part of a large draft class, Parsons has been the kind of immediately impactful defender several of us here at The Falcoholic thought he’d be when we stumped for him to be a top ten pick for Atlanta, with five sacks and all the athleticism and ability we thought he had. The heavily defensive draft class has also yielded contributors like Osa Odighizuwa and Nashon Wright, and if the Cowboys are lucky this will turn out to be the kind of class that enables a true long-term turnaround on that side of the ball.

Dallas lost relatively few contributors, all told, so it’s not a surprise that they’re trending up after last year in general.

What to know for Sunday

This is one of two games I had circled as near-certain losses at the bye, the other being Buffalo in January. The last two weeks haven’t exactly convinced me the Falcons are going to win this one, but the loss to Denver showed the Cowboys are hardly invincible.

Unfortunately, some of the ways the Broncos took advantage of Dallas don’t seem easily repeatable by Atlanta. Denver killed fill-in left tackle Terrence Steele, and while he may be back out there for Tyron Smith again on Sunday, the Falcons have struggled to generate a real pass rush all year and would need James Vaughters to stay on fire and Ade Ogundeji to deliver in order to take advantage of any shakiness at tackle. Denver also absolutely steamrolled Dallas on the ground, rushing 41 times for 190 yards and two touchdowns, and the Falcons have one of the weakest run games in the entire NFL. It’d take a huge step forward from this offensive line, Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson to replicate the Broncos’ success on the ground.

If the Falcons can take advantage of Steele, force a timely turnover or two, and not embarrass themselves against Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, they can likely keep this close given that the Dallas defense is not a world-beating bunch just yet. They really can’t afford to slip up and dither like they have in so many weeks against inferior teams of late, and even though they got away with it against a good New Orleans team just a week ago, this bunch in Dallas is not going to be inclined to play with their food after a rough loss and with Dan Quinn having something to prove.

Of course, you should also know there’s the intrigue of the Falcons new offensive-minded head coach and roster trying to beat their former defensive-minded head coach on what is likely to be a short pit stop as the Dallas defensive coordinator before he hops back into a head coaching job. Let’s hope the Falcons can stun everyone and come out of Dallas with a very sweet win that gets them up over .500 for the first time in a long, long while.