New England Patriots (3-0) at Dallas Cowboys (2-2)
How good has the Patriots’ offense been this season? Well, only two teams have more offensive touchdowns than they do (Cincinnati and Atlanta) and that’s despite the fact that the Patriots are coming off of a bye and 30 teams have played more games than them. They’re moving the chains at a ridiculous 86.44% rate. No other team is moving the chains at a rate better than 79.56%. On top of that, the 119 points they’ve scored through 3 games is the most they’ve ever scored in the first 3 games of the season in franchise history, as good as their offense has been for the past decade plus.
Tom Brady has seemingly rolled back the clock once again, in his age 38 season, and having a healthy Rob Gronkowski, something they didn’t have to start last season, has been a huge deal. After struggling in the first 4 games of the season in 2014, Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns, before sitting out a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3). This year, he has 16 catches for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns in 3 games (on pace for 85 catches for 1643 yards and 21 touchdowns) and is Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked tight end by a wide margin even though most of the league has played one more game than him.
He’s caught 310 passes for 4539 yards and 53 touchdowns in his last 60 games and he averages 2.43 yards per route run in his 5 year career. In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.4% of his passes for an average of 7.86 YPA, 123 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant drop off in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. He’s the biggest reason why the Patriots are even better offensively this season than last season, even with Brady aging and guys like wide receiver Brandon LaFell, center Bryan Stork, and left guard Ryan Wendell missing the first 3 games of the season.
LaFell and Stork remain out for this one (and for the foreseeable future), but Wendell will return after missing the start of the season with a mysterious illness. Wendell is versatile enough to play all 3 interior line spots, so it’s unclear where he’ll play, but he should be an upgrade, though they definitely haven’t had bad interior line play this season. The Patriots are coming out of the bye in very good shape and have a very good chance to move the ball with ease and drop a lot of points once again this week. They haven’t had the toughest schedule of defenses to start their season, as Jacksonville and Pittsburgh have among the worst defenses in the league, but they did also play very well offensively on the road against a good Buffalo defense. Besides, the Cowboys don’t have a very good defense either, ranking 28th in rate of moving the chains allowed.
The Cowboys should be better defensively this week because they get both defensive end Greg Hardy and middle linebacker Rolando McClain back from suspension, but they still have a lot of problems defensively and should have a lot of trouble stopping the Patriots’ offense. The Cowboys also have issues offensively, as an offense that was one of the best, but also one of the healthiest, in the league last season, is without quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant with injury, after losing running back DeMarco Murray in free agency. In the past 2 weeks without Romo and Bryant, they’ve moved the chains pretty well, as backup quarterback Brandon Weeden has surprised a lot of people and their offensive line has continued playing well, but they were also facing Atlanta and New Orleans, who have among the worst defenses in the league. The Patriots have problems defensively as well, especially in the secondary, but they are the toughest defense the Cowboys have faced since Weeden became the starter.
On top of that, as I mentioned earlier, the Patriots are coming off of a bye and big road favorites tend to do very well off of a bye, as 3+ point favorites are 40-13 ATS off of a bye since 2002. As you can imagine, the Patriots have been in this spot quite a few times over that time period and are 4-1 ATS. The Patriots are also in another good spot because they’re projected to be big road favorites again next week in Indianapolis. The early line has them favored by 5 points. Teams are 101-74 ATS since 2012 before being 3+ point road favorites, 64-44 ATS before being 4+ point road favorites, and 41-26 ATS before being 6+ point road favorites.
That’s because when you have a game coming up like that it generally means one of two things. One, you’re about to play an easy opponent, so you don’t have any real upcoming distractions. Two, you’re a really good football team. In this scenario, it’s more the latter than the former. The Cowboys don’t have any upcoming distractions either, heading into a bye, but usually not having an upcoming distraction benefits the better team more than the underdog. This line is really high at 9.5, but I have no problem laying the points because I think this is going to be a blowout. The only reason this isn’t my Pick of the Week is because there’s so much public money on New England.
New England Patriots 37 Dallas Cowboys 20
Pick against the spread: New England -9.5