(CBS DFW) -- The Dallas Cowboys have left little doubt that they're the class of the NFC East. With Sunday's thrashing of the New York Giants, the Cowboys have won four straight and extended their division lead. Now 4-1, they will travel to Foxborough this weekend to face the struggling New England Patriots. The Patriots also improved their record to 2-3, though in decidedly less impressive fashion. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones' late touchdown pass to Hunter Henry tied things up with the Houston Texans. He followed that up with an 85-yard drive that ended in a last-minute Nick Folk field goal for the win.
The Patriots' win helps them keep pace with the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills. And Jones's growth and leadership has Patriots and their faithful singing his praises. His bloody jersey toward the end of the game was tough to miss. That the Patriots didn't show up in the first half and needed to come from behind on the hapless Texans is concerning though. The win felt almost like a loss. It's pretty far from almost beating Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the week prior.
Jones came out of Sunday's win with decent enough stats. He went 22-30 for 231 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The interception was bad. But those stats would of improved some had Jakobi Meyers not dropped an easy 35-yard pass just before halftime. Henry was his top receiver, hauling in six passes for 75 yards. The running game chipped in 126 yards among the many who registered at least one carry, though Damien Harris did fumble away the ball at the goal line. Overall, this might be considered even more of a success, given their patchwork offensive line, which featured four backups in the starting lineup.
"I would say that if I look at Mac Jones, or any of the rookie quarterbacks, it hasn't been a strong season," said NFL On CBS analyst Adam Archuleta. "It's not quite the Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert show that we saw last year. And I think that it shows that rookies have a really hard time adjusting to the NFL. But I think it also shows is that you can't judge them on just a few games. You really can't even judge them in their first year."
While the offense showed some bright spots, the defense allowed Texans backup Davis Mills to look like a legitimate starter. The unit had most of its key personnel, except cornerback Jalen Mills. Yet the Texans did as they wished for the first half of the game. The Patriots allowed scores on the Texans' first three drives. Mills ended the day 21-29 for a career-high 312 yards, three TDs, and no interceptions. His passer rating was 141.7. Chris Moore, fresh from the practice squad, caught all five of his targets for a career-high 109 yards. But linebacker Matthew Judon did sack Mills twice to stall one first-half drive. And the Patriots defense did shut down the Texans offense for most of the second half, allowing Jones to execute a comeback.
The Cowboys offense presents a much stiffer challenge for the Patriots' defense than the Texans'. "It will be interesting with no Stephon Gilmore," said Archuleta. (The Pats recently traded cornerback and 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.) "That kind of changes the dynamic a little bit in the secondary. But it comes down to we've got to knock out the run and can we hold up? Who is going to win at the catch point in one-on-one matchup against the receivers? And I think it's really that simple.
The Dallas offense is averaging 34 points per games, second only to the Buffalo Bills. Dak Prescott, who missed much of last season and was limited in preseason, is playing at the top of his game. His 1,368 yards and 13 touchdowns to date put him among the NFL's top-10 QBs. CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper remain dangerous and productive wideouts. And running back Ezekiel Elliot, who started off the season a little slow, is coming off his second consecutive 100-yard game. He already has 452 yards and five TDs on the ground this season. Backup Tony Pollard is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
The Cowboys defense, considered a weakness coming into the season, is doing enough to keep opposing offenses off the scoreboard. They give up plenty of yards, especially in the passing game. Their 311 passing yards allowed is second worst in the league. But they also find a way to force turnovers.
According to Archuleta, "Takeaways do so much for you, not only gives your offense extra possessions, but also just takes the numbers off of your top-line total yards and everything because you essentially end to drive. The season that Trevon Diggs is having, to be able to take the football away, that is huge. So many defenses who cannot take the ball away, they let the drive extend, and they can't get off the field. Then the offense gets more chances and then they wear down. You have an offense right now -- the way Dak's playing, and the way the running game is playing, and they're operating -- that to me is really where it all starts."
The Cowboys offense will look to put up a lot of points. And their defense will look to force Jones and the Patriots offense into mistakes and turnovers. Can New England keep up?
"On paper, the way the Cowboys are playing, you would say not," said Archuleta. "But I think anything can happen. It just seems that just as teams start to get hot and it seems like they can't be stopped, somebody comes in and plays a really good game against them. We're approaching that midpoint of the year. So I still think anything can happen. But certainly the Cowboys right now are playing at a level that, offensively, they seem to be very, very difficult to stop. But I wouldn't put it past the Patriots. I still think that they have a chance to put together a pretty good game plan, keep it close and figure out a way to come out on top. It's not gonna be easy, but I do think it's possible."
The Cowboys play the Patriots Sunday, October 17 @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.
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