DALLAS COWBOYS (5-3) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (4-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (field reporter).
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series, 14-10. The Falcons have won the past two meetings, 39-28 in Dallas on Sept. 27, 2015, and 19-13 at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 4, 2012.
KEYS TO THE GAME: While neither the Cowboys nor the Falcons are sitting where they had hoped they would be, the Cowboys appear to be heading in the right direction.
But a key to the Cowboys’ ability to win for the fourth straight time arrived Thursday in New York when running back Ezekiel Elliott was rejected in his attempt to get yet another preliminary injunction that would have kept him on the field for the rest of the season. He was denied and so begins his six-week suspension. Probably.
The NFL’s ongoing attempt to impose that suspension was a weekly drama for the Cowboys. Now without Elliiott (probably), the Cowboys still have Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden as excellent stand-ins…
The Cowboys will try to establish the run. That is the foundation of their offense, but it could come in the form of quarterback Dak Prescott against a Falcons defense that gave up 86 yards on nine carries to Cam Newton last week.
Defensively, the Cowboys must stop the run and pressure Matt Ryan and limit big plays to Julio Jones.
While both teams are fighting to stay in postseason contention, the Falcons’ situation is more dire. After a 3-0 start, Atlanta has lost four of five and is averaging less than 20 points a game during that stretch. The team that averaged more than 32 points per game in the first half of 2016 has struggled under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who was hired when Kyle Shanahan left to take the top job in San Francisco.
Now, Atlanta must face a Dallas defense that has held its past three opponents under 20 points in consecutive double-digit wins.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Cowboys WR Cole Beasley vs. Falcons CB Brian Poole. Beasley, who plays in the slot, has been a good red-zone weapon for quarterback Dak Prescott. He has caught 22 passes for 165 yards and four touchdowns. Poole has four pass breakups, a sack and three quarterback hits. Poole prepared for Beasley by working against Taylor Gabriel and Marvin Hall in practice.
–Falcons RT Ryan Schraeder vs. Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence. Lawrence is second in the league with 10.5 sacks, becoming the defensive force the Cowboys were hoping he would. In addition to rushing the passer well, he’s stout against the run. Schraeder has played well in pass protection but has missed some combination blocks with right guard Wes Schweitzer in the running game.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
–Out: K Dan Bailey (right groin) – plus, Elliott (suspension).
–Questionable: CB Chidobe Awuzie (hamstring), WR Dez Bryant (knee, ankle), DT Maliek Collins (foot), T Tyron Smith (back, groin), TE Geoff Swaim (knee)
–Out: LB Duke Riley (knee)
–Questionable: G Andy Levitre (knee)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Falcons QB Matt Ryan. Ryan has thrown 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In his 2016 MVP season, Ryan threw a total of seven interceptions — to go with 38 touchdown passes. This year, he’s on pace for 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Through eight games a year ago, Ryan had 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
FAST FACTS: Cowboys QB Dak Prescott passed for 249 yards and two touchdowns a week ago. He has 10 rushing touchdowns since 2016, the most by an NFL QB. … Now suspended, RB Ezekiel Elliott has 506 rushing yards (126.5 per game) and six TDs (five rushing, one receiving) in the past four games. He is second in the NFL with 783 rushing yards and is tied for the league lead with seven rushing TDs. Since entering the NFL in 2016, he ranks first in rushing yards (2,414), scrimmage yards (2,987) and TDs (25). … WR Dez Bryant has a TD catch in three of his past four road games. Since 2011, he leads the NFL with 65 receiving TDs. … WR Terrance Williams had a career-high nine receptions and 141 yards last week. … TE Jason Witten ranks second among TEs in NFL history in catches (1,124) and receiving yards (12,207). … DE Demarcus Lawrence ranks second in the NFL with 10.5 sacks. He has a sack in seven of eight games. … LB Sean Lee led Dallas with 12 tackles in Week 9. He had 10 tackles and a sack in the teams’ last meeting. … DL David Irving has six sacks and a forced fumble in his past seven games. … Rookie DE Taco Charlton had his first career sack last week. … Falcons QB Matt Ryan is one of four players with 250 TD passes in his first 10 seasons. He has thrown a TD pass in 27 consecutive games, the longest active streak. … RB Devonta Freeman rushed for 141 yards and three TDs the last time he faced the Cowboys. Since 2015, he ranks third in the NFL with 3,824 yards from scrimmage. … WR Julio Jones led the Falcons with six receptions for 118 yards in Week 9. He had 12 catches for 164 yards and two TDs in the last meeting. … LB Vic Beasley has seven sacks and three forced fumbles in his past eight home games. He has 19.5 sacks since 2016, third most in the league. … S Keanu Neal had eight tackles, a fumble recovery and a career-high two forced fumbles last week.
PREDICTION: While the Cowboys have scored at least 28 points in six straight games, and the Falcons are just 1-2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Atlanta offense still has the weapons to make plays.