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Cowboys, Patriots to lock horns in marquee matchup

Winning at home and scoring bundles of points have been profile showdown with the Dallas Cowboys from Gillette Stadium.

Although the Patriots have been bounced early in the playoffs on their home turf in each of the past two seasons, they've prevailed in 19 consecutive regular season games held in Foxborough. New England hasn't tasted defeat at Gillette Stadium in a non-postseason setting since Week 13 of the 2008 campaign, when the two-time defending AFC East champions were handed a 33-10 loss by Pittsburgh.

The run has been even longer when Tom Brady's been under center, as the superstar quarterback and reigning league MVP has guided the Pats to victory in an NFL-record 30 straight contests during the regular season in which he's started.

New England last lost in Foxborough with Brady at the controls on Nov. 12, 2006, a 17-14 setback to the rival New York Jets. The three-time Super Bowl winner missed all but one game of 2008 with a torn ACL suffered in that season's opener.

The potent Patriots will have their sights set on obtaining another historic achievement when they take the field Sunday in search of a third straight triumph. New England has scored 30 points or more in each of its last 13 regular season tilts, one shy of the league standard set by the 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams.

New England kept both streaks ongoing with last Sunday's 30-21 ousting of the slumping Jets, avenging a 28-21 loss to their AFC East cohort in this past January's AFC Divisional Playoffs.

Other than that playoff disappointment, the Patriots haven't been held under that number since a 34-14 besting by Cleveland back in November, when a game plan devised by then-Browns defensive coordinator and onetime New England assistant Rob Ryan kept Brady and his mates firmly in check.

Ryan has since moved on to the Cowboys' staff, joining Jason Garrett's cabinet as defensive architect in January. And the flamboyant and well-regarded coach has wasted little time making an impact on his new team, as Dallas enters this Week 6 clash yielding a league-low 61.8 rushing yards per game and fourth in total defense while compiling 13 sacks over its first four outings of 2011.

Ryan may have his work cut out for him this time around, however. The Patriots are averaging an astounding 495.2 total yards during their 4-1 start, while Brady has already racked up 1,874 passing yards and thrown for 14 scores.

"However they perceived us in Cleveland, I don't know, but we've just got to realize that we're going to get their "A" effort this year," said Cowboys defensive end Kenyon Coleman, a member of last year's Browns squad that upset New England. "If we go in there and we just think that we've got the blueprint just because it worked in Cleveland, that's not how this thing rolls."

The erratic Cowboys, fresh off a Week 5 bye, could have made this matchup a colossal one had they been able to hold onto a pair of second-half leads earlier in the season. Dallas squandered a 14-point advantage with under 12 minutes remaining in a 27-24 last-second loss to the Jets in the opener, and wasted a seemingly-comfortable 24-point cushion in a stunning 34-30 defeat to still-unbeaten Detroit just prior to its break.

In between those games, the Cowboys rallied for a thrilling 27-24 overtime win at San Francisco in Week 2 and edged current NFC East leader Washington by an 18-16 score in their subsequent test.

Tony Romo's play has been instrumental to the outcome of every one of those results. The polarizing quarterback engineered late comebacks in the two victories and committed a number of very costly turnovers in both losses, including three interceptions in the Detroit game that were converted into 21 points.

Romo is still dealing with the effects of a fractured rib he sustained against the 49ers back in mid-September, but has practiced without restrictions during the week and will play wearing a protective vest. He'll also have Miles Austin to throw to once again, with the standout receiver set to return from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the team's last two games.

SERIES HISTORY

The Cowboys had won each of their first seven meetings with New England, but the Patriots have come out on top in each of the last three encounters between the clubs. The last one took place in Dallas in 2007, with the Patriots rolling to a 48-27 victory en route to a 16-0 regular season and Super Bowl appearance. Brady threw for 388 yards and five touchdowns in that game. New England also posted a 12-0 win over the Cowboys at Gillette Stadium in 2003 as well as a 13-6 home verdict in 1999. Dallas last bested the Patriots in 1996, a 12-6 decision in Texas.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 3-1 all-time against Dallas, including a win at Texas Stadium for his Cleveland Browns team in 1994. Garrett will be taking on both Belichick and New England for the first time as a head man.

WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL

While turnovers have been a problem early on, the Cowboys haven't had much difficulty moving the football, especially through the air. Dallas has averaged 331 passing yards (3rd overall) over its initial four games and ranks sixth in total offense (417.8 ypg), and that's with the dangerous Austin (14 receptions, 233 yards, 4 TD) sidelined for two weeks and gifted young counterpart Dez Bryant (10 receptions, 3 TD) hobbled by a deep thigh bruise for much of the year. Both benefited from the bye week and are ready to rejoin All-Pro tight end Jason Witten (27 receptions, 366 yards, 1 TD) and productive in-season pickup Laurent Robinson (10 receptions, 165 yards) in one of the deepest collection of pass-catchers in the league. Romo's (1273 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) late-game hiccups have overshadowed an otherwise strong start and put him under the media microscope, but the three-time Pro Bowl participant is still a proven performer and one of the game's more accurate passers in spite of his well-documented miscues. Dallas clearly needs to cut down on the mistakes, having given the ball away 10 times so far this year, and a ground game that stands just 26th in the NFL (86.8 ypg) could use a boost as well. Top rusher Felix Jones (241 rushing yards, 1 TD, 12 receptions) is a talented back with game-breaking ability, but he's been held under 60 yards in three of the first four weeks.

There should be plenty of opportunities for the Dallas receivers to make plays against a New England defense that's surrendered league worsts of 326.6 passing yards and 433 total yards per game and has had trouble mounting steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The unit is coming off by far its best showing of the season, however, holding the Jets to a non-threatening 258 total yards and a modest 158 through the air. The secondary still remains a work in progress, though cornerback Kyle Arrington (23 tackles, 5 PD) is tied for the league lead with three interceptions and has supplanted 2010 rookie sensation Devin McCourty (34 tackles, 3 PD) as the group's most consistent member, and situational rusher Mark Anderson (8 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is the only player on the team with more than 1 1/2 sacks. The Patriots have been somewhat susceptible to the run as well, having allowed an average of 4.6 yards per carry, and a knee injury that difference-making linebacker Jerod Mayo incurred in the team's Week 4 win at Oakland compounds matters. Replacement Gary Guyton (19 tackles) does have substantial starting experience, though, and was in on nine tackles against the Jets last week.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

Discussion of the powerful Patriots' offense always begins with Brady (1874 passing yards, 14 TD, 6 INT), who's been just about flawless save for a four- interception stumble in the club's late-September loss at Buffalo. The veteran triggerman is hitting on a career-best 67.9 percent of his attempts thus far and has a wealth of excellent options to choose from in running the league's most prolific passing attack. The main target is undoubtedly slot specialist Wes Welker (45 receptions, 5 TD), the NFL's receptions leader whose 740 receiving yards over the first five games are the most of any player in pro football history, with the reliable Deion Branch (23 receptions, 2 TD) serving as the team's primary outside threat. The two are supported by the terrific tight end tandem of Aaron Hernandez (19 tackles, 221 yards, 2 TD), who came back from a two-week absence caused by a knee sprain to contribute five catches for 56 yards in last Sunday's win, and red-zone force Rob Gronkowski (22 receptions, 327 yards), whose five touchdown grabs are tops among those at the position. New England showed over its last two games that it's capable of beating its opponents in varied ways, however. After rolling up a season-high 183 rushing yards on the Raiders in Week 4, the Pats allowed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (333 rushing yards, 5 TD) to be the catalyst against the Jets, and the physical fourth-year man responded with career bests of 136 yards and 27 carries. He's been bothered by a toe injury in practice this week, and with change-of-pace alternative Danny Woodhead (115 rushing yards, 6 receptions) coming off an ankle sprain, promising rookie Stevan Ridley (161 rushing yards, 1 TD) may be called upon for an increased role come Sunday.

Ryan is well aware that the only way to slow down New England's aerial assault is to bring the heat upon Brady. Fortunately, he'll have one of the game's premier pass rushers at his disposal in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (12 tackles, 5 sacks), whose 77 sacks since 2006 are the most of any player over that stretch, and opposite-side starter Anthony Spencer (13 tackles, 3 sacks) is plenty capable of doing damage as well. The duo works in tandem with an experienced secondary that's finally at full strength now that cornerbacks Mike Jenkins (10 tackles, 4 PD), Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick are over early-season injuries. Dallas' best asset on defense, however, has been its ability to stifle opposing running games, as the Cowboys have permitted a minuscule 61.8 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry through the first four weeks. Second-year inside linebacker Sean Lee (35 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) has keyed the charge while also leading the team in interceptions, while active nose tackle Jay Ratliff (9 tackles, 1 sack) has made the Pro Bowl three years running and excels at disrupting the interior.

KEYS TO THE GAME

The Ryan factor. Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been one of Brady's biggest nemeses over the years, but twin brother Rob frustrated the New England quarterback by using multiple looks and disguising coverages in Cleveland's unexpected win over the Pats last season, and he's got an extra week to implement some new wrinkles for this game. Dallas won't be able to take away all of the Patriots' weapons, so it'll be up to Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to quickly discover and exploit whatever mismatches will be available.

Which Romo will show up? The Dallas field general was both gritty and effective in orchestrating rallies in the team's two 2011 wins while playing through his ailing ribs, but five of his six turnovers have transpired in the Cowboys' pair of losses. Dallas does have the offensive talent to match the Patriots score-for-score, but not if it's careless with the football.

Can the Cowboys finish? Of the 101 points Dallas has allowed this season, 37 have come in the fourth quarter and nearly all of that total was accumulated in the games against the Jets and Lions. New England can never be counted out of any contest, so it's imperative that the visitors play a strong 60 minutes of football to have a chance of breaking the Patriots' remarkable home streak.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

While Dallas has displayed glimpses of being on the cusp of what constitutes an elite team, the Patriots are already there, and that will likely show up on Sunday. Ryan's defense may give Brady fits at times, and New England won't be able to count on its running game churning out big yardage totals like it has the past two weeks in this matchup, but the Patriots' immense firepower on offense and Belichick's resourcefulness win out in the long run. Look for the Cowboys to hang tough for the majority of the afternoon, and for New England to capitalize on one or two critical errors to pull away late and keep its two streaks intact.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Cowboys 17

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