Cowboys prone to crunch-time collapse

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's home contest against the Dallas Cowboys:

Mike: Let's lead off this week with a few stats that nicely summarize this matchup. The Cowboys are just 5-of-15 scoring touchdowns in the red zone and have a minus-4 turnover differential. To me, those stats reflect a team that isn't coming through in the critical situations. On the flip side, coming through in those moments is part of the still-forming Patriots identity. If the Cowboys play clean, I think they have a real chance to win. They just have to prove they can do it.

Tedy: One of the big things from a Patriots perspective is that Dallas is a team they don't know very well. So the process of getting to know the players is important this week, and they can expect to be quizzed by Bill Belichick. One of the biggest things I take away from last week is the defense playing well on third down (3-of-11 success rate for the Jets). That's almost like a turnover, helping give Tom Brady and the offense extra possessions. The one thing I'd say is that this week is a different test. I think it will be a great measuring stick for the defense against an attack that can throw the ball well.

Mike: The Patriots have won 17 straight home games against NFC opponents. Their only Gillette Stadium loss to an NFC team came in 2002 against the Packers, which was the first year Gillette opened. For perspective, that was Chad Ochocinco's second season in the NFL. And speaking of Ochocinco, how do you see his status right now?

Tedy: The way I look at it, one more throw to Ochocinco is one fewer throw to Wes Welker. And right now, you want one more throw to Welker because he is the Patriots' most dangerous weapon. Even the untrained eye can see that Ochocinco is having trouble grasping the offense and getting lined up correctly. You saw the slant route early in the Jets game, when Antonio Cromartie was on him, and it looked like missed timing. It's just not there yet. I want to hold off making conclusions about Ochocinco until the bye week. You have this game against the Cowboys and then the bye. If it doesn't happen soon after that, and he's still struggling, something has to be done.

Patriots defense vs. Cowboys offense

Mike: Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is 99-of-152 for 1,273 yards on the season, with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. A few of those interceptions have come in crunch time.

Tedy: Which Tony Romo are you going to get? I think that's the big question. If you look at all the quarterbacks in the NFL, he's outside the top 10. He's just too inconsistent. I respect what he did the past two games with the punctured lung and the bruised rib from San Francisco, but he's just too up and down. Are you going to get the guy who throws the two pick-sixes in the second half of the Detroit Lions game and who throws a ball straight to Darrelle Revis when he's sitting underneath a receiver with a safety over the top? Or are you going to get the guy in San Francisco who comes back and leads his team to victory? It's too helter-skelter to me. It could look good through the first three quarters, but then it turns, so you just don't know until the fourth quarter which Romo will show up.

Mike: That is how I view this Cowboys team at this point -- flashes of brilliance, but a team that falls short in crunch time. One of the defining characteristics of the Patriots, and something Belichick has stressed since becoming coach in 2000, is situational football. Who rises up in the critical situation? The Patriots have been acing many of those situations this season; the Cowboys have not. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett touched on that topic this week. So with this in mind, do you think Romo is a quarterback who can lead a team to a Super Bowl?

Tedy: Up to this point in his career, I'd have to say no. You watch him and wait for him to make that mistake, because you've seen it happen before in the key moments. So until he proves consistently that he can avoid that, it's hard to say he's the right quarterback to take that team to the championship level.

Mike: In terms of weapons Romo looks to, tight end Jason Witten (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) tops the list. He leads the Cowboys with 27 receptions.

Tedy: He's a stud, that all-around tight end. He's a tough tackle when he has the ball. While you can talk about Dez Bryant and Miles Austin at receiver, this guy is the money-maker for Romo, and all of that money is made between the numbers, in the center of the field, in the red area. Don't get me wrong, Witten can catch it in any area of the field, and Romo can deliver it there, but Witten owns that middle area of the field. That's what the Patriots will have to protect against.

Mike: How do you envision the Patriots doing that?

Tedy: When there is an athletic tight end such as Witten, that's often where a Belichick defense will start its plan, because those are the easier throws, over the middle of the field, where a tight end can hook up or run a little option route. The more difficult throws are outside, so you go with the percentages and force him to make those tough throws to the receivers outside the numbers. This could be similar to how the Patriots approached Antonio Gates in the win over the Chargers the second week of the season. They will jam him at the line of scrimmage. The difference is that I don't think they will be able to shut him down like they did Gates, who was a little hobbled that day. Also, Romo is going to stay with Witten and keep looking to him. He's that much of an outlet for him.

Mike: So the plan figures to start with Witten, but then you also have to account for Bryant and Austin at receiver. Austin has missed the past two games, but he's expected back this week.

Tedy: Those are two huge threats. Austin had the hamstring injury but he's had plenty of time to rest, coming off the bye. He's so explosive with that jumping ability and run-after-the-catch, very strong. He's similar to Santonio Holmes, taking a slant and turning it into six points, and I think Austin has similar ability. As for Bryant, he's a freak out there. He has great hands, explosive ability. He's a little volatile, a little too intense at times, so emotional. But the talent oozes out of him.

Mike: When you sum up this offense, it starts with the quarterback/tight end/receiver group, then you go to the backs, who can also make some plays. The offensive line doesn't really stand out like it did in the early- to mid-1990s.

Tedy: You almost assume the Cowboys should have a physical offensive line, a running offense that will jam it down your throat. But that's not who they are. They're the third-ranked pass offense in the NFL. That's their biggest threat, and that's the biggest thing the Patriots will have to contend with. It's a big contrast from what we saw last Sunday with the Jets.

Patriots offense vs. Cowboys defense

Mike: This marks the second straight week the Patriots will go up against a Ryan-coached defense, as Rob Ryan is the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. Rob Ryan was the Browns' defensive coordinator last season, and he hatched the plan that contributed to the Browns whacking the Patriots 34-14. Belichick made the point this week that the Cowboys' defense is a bit different, as it looks like a pure Ryan defense. I took that to mean the Browns' defense had a mix of Ryan and Eric Mangini, and I think the Patriots can expect a lot of pressure this week.

Tedy: Belichick is going for the Ryan family sweep here, and there will be similar concepts to what we saw in the Jets game. You expect the Cowboys to try to take Welker out of the game, but they don't have a Darrelle Revis-caliber player. So you have to tap your other weapons to implement the same type of philosophy, and that philosophy is rerouting Welker and disrupting that timing at the line of scrimmage. One of the best examples of this philosophy came on the deep ball to Aaron Hernandez that was incomplete against the Jets. You saw Welker get jammed at the line of scrimmage, and Tom Brady took a quick look in his direction as Revis got his hands on Welker. That disrupted the timing and forced Brady to look elsewhere. That is what the Cowboys are hoping to accomplish, getting Brady off his first read. I think they have the linebackers to implement that type of plan. If you're rushing and you're DeMarcus Ware or Anthony Spencer, you have them hit any close receivers on their way to the quarterback.

Mike: Let's talk about those linebackers. Belichick mentioned Ware in the same sentence as Lawrence Taylor this week. We might be looking at the NFL's best defensive player this week. In the first four games the Cowboys have played, he already has five sacks, which ties him for fourth most in the NFL. He had 15.5 last season and 20 in 2008.

Tedy: He is the best in the league at the outside linebacker position in terms of getting after the quarterback. You talk about specimens in the NFL -- it's Julius Peppers, Mario Williams and Ware. You can go beyond just the outside-linebacker position. Bottom line, this is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. You have Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis, and Ware is right there. These are guys who are so good that offenses have to account for them at all times and plan for them. For the Patriots' offensive tackles, this is a major challenge.

Mike: I know Ware isn't the only Cowboys linebacker you are high on from this 3-4 defense.

Tedy: Sean Lee, a second-year inside linebacker out of Penn State, has great instincts. He had a knee injury going into the draft, and some teams didn't know how quick he was going to be and how he'd recover. He has great ball skills, leading the team in interceptions (two). He roams across the middle of the field and makes big plays.

Mike: Then you add outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, the 2007 first-round pick, and put Bradie James and Keith Brooking in the mix on the inside, and it rounds out nicely.

Tedy: I'd put them right up there with the best in the NFL. They're in the conversation with those Steelers linebackers. They are legit.

Mike: Elsewhere, you look at the defensive line and secondary, and there are some players who stand out. Jay Ratliff is a strong nose tackle, then you have a secondary that is returning to full health with cornerbacks Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick and safeties Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh.

Tedy: Ratliff knows the tricks of the trade. He's very stout. To run the 3-4 defense the way the Cowboys do, you have to have a guy like that in the middle. It's similar to the Patriots with Vince Wilfork in some ways. Ratliff is a disruptor; he doesn't just take on blocks but he makes plays. In the secondary, the bye week looks like it's really helped them. Unlike the Patriots, I don't view the Cowboys as a team that believes in the "next man up" philosophy. They really need their top guys healthy to be successful.

Mike: The Patriots have struck a nice balance offensively the past two weeks. Do you see that continuing this week?

Tedy: I don't know how much success the Patriots can have running the ball. The Cowboys enter the game No. 1 against the run (61.8 average). In the end, it will depend on what looks they give the Patriots. If they put six in the box, I expect the Patriots to test them with the run, but overall I'd expect this to be more of a passing game.

Mike: Let's move on to our predictions. If you believe in tough spots, I think this is one of them for the Patriots. You're coming off a win over the rival Jets and now face a team that is returning to full health after not playing last weekend. If this game was on the road, I'd pick the Cowboys. But since it's at home, that leads me closer to the other direction. While I believe the Cowboys present some matchup problems that could exploit some of the Patriots' weaknesses -- such as their passing game against the Patriots' nickel defense -- it's hard for me to invest in the Cowboys based on some of the shaky play I've seen from them in critical situations. Until they prove they are tougher in those situations, I lean toward the team that has already proved it. Patriots 34, Cowboys 28.

Tedy: You hit it on the head, Reiss. Critical situations. I don't see Tony Romo coming into Foxborough and winning in the fourth quarter. He might look good to start the game but I see him making another mistake in the end to ensure a Patriots victory. This defense is tough but the Patriots' offense does too good a job at ball security. Pats win at home, and the 30-point scoring streak ends. Patriots 27, Cowboys 20.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.