The Dallas Cowboys were my first. Before I hated any other sports team, I hated the Dallas Cowboys. My father used to regale me with a colorful recounting of the Falcons infamous 1980 NFC Playoff Collapse at the hands of the team from Big D, and that made the Cowboys game (which seemed to happen almost annually during the Henning era) the #1 game on my schedule.
After two young years of being a Falcons fan (roughly a decade for a 5 year old), they finally beat The Cowboys in 1986 thanks to a long completion from David Archer to Floyd Dixon, and a chip shot by every Falcons Fan's favorite Brit, Mick Luckhurst.
I thought it would be all sunshine after that.
Fast forward 23 years, and the Falcons fall meekly to Dallas in Jerry World, with former Falcon Keith Brooking flapping his arms like a jackass and doing more in the pass coverage game than he ever did in Atlanta. Pretty amazing that he went from fan favorite to persona non grata in one day, but he did.
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That game was what opened my eyes to how far the Falcons had to go to compete with the NFC's elite. Much like now, The Cowboys were a team full of talented players. Some, like Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jay Ratliff, they seemed to stumble into - others, like Demarcus Ware, they had the vision to draft early. I lamented that we were still paying the price for a decade of poor drafts prior to 2007, while the Cowboys had pretty consistently made solid draft picks. I wondered how long it would take us to get caught up.
Three years later - I'm still not sure if we're there. For every Corey Peters, there's been a Peria Jerry...for every Tony Gonzalez, a Ray Edwards. That said - the overall level of talent is better now than it was three years ago, and the Birds absolutely have a coaching edge. Hard to believe that many, myself included, wanted Jason Garrett to be the guy here in Atlanta. Thankfully for us, he didn't deem it worth his time.
Regardless - the Cowboys are still exactly the kind of team Atlanta needs to overcome if they want to be a Super Bowl contender. Like the 9-7 '08 Cards, 10-6 '10 Packers, and 9-7 '11 Giants, this Dallas team is exactly the kind that could back into the playoffs and outmuscle teams with sheer talent. The Eagles of last week were the same type of team, so nothing less than another complete performance will leave questions in Falcon fans' heads.
Thankfully - the Cowboys continue to be a circus, and even have to deal with players being harassed for money by their own families! Add that to Dez Bryant's pending mother pummeling charges, and the general sideshow that is always Tony Romo.
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That said - this game will still be a challenge, and Vegas probably has it right with a Falcons -4 line. It's likely going to be close, and one of these teams will have to hold on late to win.
Where can the Falcons achieve victory, and what might hold them back?
1) Turnovers - While the Cowboys have one of the top defenses in the NFL, as well as one of the best passing offenses, it won't surprise many to know that they haven't done the best job taking care of the football. They also haven't done the best of forcing the other team into offensive mistakes. In fact, the Cowboys have the fewest takeaways in the NFC, and the most giveaways. Conversely, the Falcons are 3rd in the NFC in turnover margin. Continuing this trend will help the Falcons mitigate the absence of Sean Weatherspoon, and the continued lack of productivity of Ray Edwards. Finding a way to pressure Romo, and attack what could be a fairly inexperienced Cowboys backfield, will be essential to this objective.
2) Establishing the Short Game - The Cowboys have 2 solid CBs, and one of the best Pass Rushers in Football in Demarcus Ware. This means trying to get vertical early is going to be difficult. Thankfully, the Koetter era has helped Atlanta become much better at screens, draws, and general disruptive play calls on offense. This type of short, quick, play can work around the Cowboys strengths, and take advantage of a fairly average Cowboys spine. Their run defense is middle of the pack in the NFL, and should be more vulnerable without defensive quarterback, Sean Lee.
1) No Spoon - If you have Jason Witten on your fantasy team, I'd start him. He's already Tony Romo's safety blanket - and will now be covered by either Akeem Dent or Mike Peterson in most cases. His presence will help the 'Boys talented, but underachieving receiving core, and keep the pass rush in check. While sitting Weatherspoon is the right move for the long term success of the Falcons, it's not going to make this game easy.
2) Slow starts - unlike the first 4 years of Mike Smith's tenure, the Falcons seem to be better on the road than they are at home. Of their 3 home games, only the Broncos on Monday night started off in a favorable fashion for Atlanta - and that was mostly thanks to the defense. There really hasn't been a home game this year where Matt Ryan and the offense have led the charge in the early stages. If that trend continues, it could open the door for Dallas to work on their early game woes.
I'm dreading this game. The Falcons flew out of the bye week with a convincing road win. The Cowboys are desperately in need of a season defining win, and a ray of hope on the road to the playoffs. This team is too talented to be 3-4, even if their coaching might hold them back. I think we're all realistic that the Falcons aren't going to go 16-0, so I'll call the shot there.
Final: Cowboys - 31 Falcons -21. The quest continues. Hope I'm wrong.
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