Cowboys vs. Falcons: Keys to the game

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Dallas travels to Atlanta to play the NFL's sole remaining undefeated team. If they're going to have a chance, they'll need to avoid the silly mistakes that have plagued them this season.

The season looks to get easier for the Cowboys in the second half. Unfortunately, the last game of the first half of the 2012 campaign is at the Atlanta Falcons, the last undefeated team in the NFL.

Dallas is staggering in with a 3-4 record that they cannot blame on anyone but themselves. Had they managed to pull out wins they were on the very edge of accomplishing against either the Ravens or the Giants, this would not be as crucial a contest, but if they get their fifth loss of the season, the margin for error in the last eight games becomes too small, and the playoffs may well elude them again.

Although frequent references are made to Dallas ending the unbeaten seasons of the Saints and the Colts in recent years, history in the NFL has little bearing on the outcome of games. The problem is that they are having a horrible time with turnovers and penalties. This does not bode well against the Falcons, who are one of the best teams in the league this year in both categories. The Cowboys simply have to get both those issues under control to have a chance this week, and it is certainly a major question whether that will happen.

The Dallas defense has been playing very well, particularly in the way it shut down Eli Manning's passing game, even in the loss last Sunday. But they face another very good and also very different quarterback in Matt Ryan. He is much more mobile, and has a similar capability to Tony Romo in being able to move around and extend plays. He also has a very scary trio of receivers. Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzales are all big plays waiting to happen, and the Dallas defensive backs have their hands full. Ryan is very good at reading a defense, and Atlanta does not have much problem with bad routes.

Gonzalez is a bit unique, in that this is probably the only time that Dallas will face a tight end who is as big a weapon as Jason Witten, if not bigger. He is used more as a pure receiver than Witten, but he is very, very good at what he does, and provides Ryan his own safety blanket.

The Falcons also have a solid offensive line that has been providing some solid protection for Ryan. The increased pressure up the middle that the Cowboys were showing last week with Jay Ratliff rounding back into form needs to continue, and they will have their work cut out for them.

The running game for Atlanta has not been as successful, but it has been no worse than Dallas'. The Cowboys do have to take care of business here, but they should be able to, especially with Anthony Spencer back.

Defensively, the Falcons have a good, aggressive pass rush, with Ray Edwards and John Abraham being the main concerns. They also bring in Kroy Biermann as a nickel rusher. He is aggressive, but other teams have used it to their advantage to rush on him.

The main vulnerability of the defense would appear to be the secondary. Cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson have been playing soft so far this season, and the biggest concern is if Samuel returns to his old habits of trying to bait the quarterback into ill advised throws.

The Cowboys are likely going to be without DeMarco Murray again, and Felix Jones is also banged up. This may be the week that the rushing load is going to fall on Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar, but given the sketchy performance by Jones in most of the games this season, it may not be as bad a situation as it would first seem. The front seven for the Falcons is pretty good against the run, but if you can get into the secondary, the defensive backs, particularly the corners, are not really eager to hit. But the main hope for success is going to be getting the ball to the receivers deep enough to do damage - and the receivers being where Romo expects them to be.

Of course, Dallas has to avoid digging itself a big hole this week. The comeback from 23 points down to take the lead was impressive, but hardly something to count on. If the Cowboys can start the game playing with some of the efficiency they had about 20 minutes into the Giants game, they could have a real chance. But by that time, they were going strictly with the pass, which is not the normal MO for a Jason Garrett offense.

The real keys are going to be eliminating those turnovers and penalties. Dallas will need a better effort than they have had for most of the season to get a win.

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