If there's a team that plays to the level of its competition in the NFL, it's the Dallas Cowboys. America's Team has to play on that this weekend, as Dallas takes on the league's only unbeaten team, the Atlanta Falcons.
This Sunday Night Football matchup will feature two teams that are trending in opposite directions. Atlanta has found a way to win close games down the stretch, while Dallas has largely faded when the game is on the line.
A perfect example of that is Dallas' 29-24 loss to the New York Giants in Week 8. After surging back from a 23-0 deficit to take a 24-23 lead, the Cowboys couldn't hold off Eli Manning from leading drives that resulted in field goals, or score a touchdown of their own when it counted.
The Falcons have a legitimate MVP candidate in QB Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan, while the Cowboys are struggling to find legitimate reasons to keep QB Tony Romo in the fold.
All that being said, this should be a close one, as Dallas has some of the best talent in the league and Atlanta has largely skated by in games it should have lost earlier in the season. Keep reading for a complete preview of the betting line, who to look out for on the fantasy field and who will win this matchup of two NFC teams with playoff aspirations.
When: Sunday, November 4 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
Watch: NBC (Check Local Listings)
Live Stream: SNF All Access
Spread: Falcons -4.5 (via Bovada)
The Cowboys have kept games close all season, with the exception of big losses against Chicago and Seattle. The Falcons have been winners in close games, but haven't done a great job of covering the spread so far this season (see games against Oakland and Carolina).
At home in the Georgia Dome, they'll be facing a Dallas team without DeMarco Murray and coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Giants in which WR Dez Bryant missed a game-winning touchdown by the length of his pinky finger.
Atlanta has looked great through the air, but Dallas has the third-ranked pass defense. In a game that could go either way very quickly, it should be hard to take either team. If I had to say, I would take the points with Dallas, given they need a win far more than the 7-0 Falcons.
Dallas has beaten three undefeated teams since 1991, and all three have gone on to win the Super Bowl. Could this be a fourth?
Over/Under: 47.5 (via Bovada)
Atlanta has yet to be held under 20 points on the season, but that could change against a very stingy Dallas defense. After the loss of safety Barry Church, the Cowboys revamped their secondary to include Mike Jenkins and Brandon Carr playing safety at times, and it's led to a third-ranked pass defense.
All trends have to end, and I think this is a game where that happens for the Falcons. The Cowboys turned the ball over six times last Sunday, yet only gave up 29 points to the Giants. Seven of those points were a pick-six by Jason Pierre-Paul. Despite the loss of two starting-caliber linebackers in Sean Lee and Dan Connor, this defense is still churning out results.
I like the under in this game, due to Atlanta's need for a successful running game and the way the Cowboys defense has been playing. A grind-it-out game certainly favors the Cowboys, but I think this one stays under the 48 point plateau on Sunday night.
Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
|WR||Dez Bryant||HIP||QUESTIONABLE||Questionable for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|LB||Dan Connor||NECK||OUT||Out for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|WR||Dwayne Harris||NECK||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|DT||Jason Hatcher||SHIN||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|S||Matt Johnson||HAMSTRING||OUT||Out for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|RB||Felix Jones||KNEE||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|DE||Sean Lissemore||ANKLE||OUT||Out for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||FOOT||OUT||Out for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|WR||Kevin Ogletree||HAMSTRING||QUESTIONABLE||Questionable for Week 9 at Atlanta|
|DT||Jonathan Babineaux||KNEE||QUESTIONABLE||Questionable for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|K||Matt Bryant||BACK||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|WR||Kevin Cone||GROIN||OUT||Out for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|WR||Drew Davis||HAMSTRING||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|WR||Harry Douglas||ANKLE, KNEE||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|DT||Vance Walker||ILLNESS||QUESTIONABLE||Questionable for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|LB||Sean Weatherspoon||ANKLE||OUT||Out for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
|WR||Roddy White||BACK||PROBABLE||Probable for Week 9 vs. Dallas|
Fantasy Big Plays
Dallas: TE Jason Witten
Witten was an absolute monster against the Giants, catching 18 balls for 167 yards, setting a franchise record in the process. He's close to breaking the franchise record for receptions, a mark Michael Irvin has held for quite some time.
He torched the middle of the New York defense, as it refused to cover him over the middle and allowed linebackers to run with him for most of the game. Romo noticed, and continued to exploit that matchup all game long.
With Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon out with an ankle injury, Witten should have a fun time against a depleted position. He's been phenomenal since finding his stride after a spleen injury, and has quickly returned to his role as Tony Romo's security blanket.
Atlanta: WR Roddy White
White is the possession receiver for the Falcons, which means he'll likely get both Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick at different points in the game.
He's a bona fide star, and the Cowboys haven't been shy about giving up fantasy points to receivers this season. Julio Jones could also be a factor, as he'll likely be matched up with rookie CB Morris Claiborne, but I think the Falcons will go to White when they need a big play in the game.
You have to wonder how long the Cowboys' secondary can hold up with the patch job they've assembled at safety, but it's worked so far in limiting big days. If you had to pick one receiver that's primed for a big day, it would have to be White.
Key to Dallas Win: Avoid Stupid Turnovers
Dallas lost by five to the defending champions and turned the ball over six times. Turnovers and poor situational football have been the hallmarks of this team's season, and they can't continue personify that if they want to get back to .500.
Tony Romo must find a way to get the running game involved while also making sure he and the rest of the receivers are on the same page.
If the Cowboys continue to turn the ball over, the defense will eventually have a letdown, and questions of replacements at QB and head coach will continue to rage in the Dallas media scene.
Key to Atlanta Win: Attack a Depleted Dallas Linebacker Corp
Sean Lee is out for the season, and Dan Connor is questionable after a shoulder injury knocked him out of the second half against the Giants.
Running back Michael Turner should be a focal point of the game plan, even though Dallas has only allowed 103 yards per game to running backs, good for 13th in the league.
TE Tony Gonzalez should also see some increased action in the middle of the field, as Atlanta will test Ernie Sims, Bruce Carter and Orie Lemon early and often. If they can exploit those matchups, this might be a game that is over by the middle of the third quarter.
With so many injuries, it's hard to project Dallas as winners on the road in this one. Despite all the talent, they're trending in the wrong direction, and Atlanta seems to be on a mission to prove all the doubters wrong.
The Cowboys will miss their defensive leader more than the Falcons miss theirs, but Tony Romo will single-handedly keep this one close. Despite the lack of a running game and some demoralizing losses, Dallas will not go away.
It won't be enough, though, as the Falcons are starting to catch that "battle-tested" label that comes with close wins. Make it 8-0 for Ryan and the Falcons.
Atlanta 20, Dallas 17
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for the Dallas Mavericks and a member of Bleacher Report's Breaking News Team.