I'm expecting the "Game of the Year" to live up to every inch of its hype.
I'm expecting a close, competitive, down-to-the-wire battle between the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. I'm expecting impressive displays of offense (where the Cowboys and Patriots rank first and second in the NFL, respectively) and defense (where the Patriots and Cowboys rank second and eighth in the league, respectively).
I'm expecting the Patriots to play every bit as well as they have in dominating all of their first five opponents.
Here are four reasons why:
> The Patriots will stop the run: They have the league's third-best run defense, allowing only 74.2 yards per game and only one rushing touchdown. The Cowboys' offensive success depends upon Julius Jones and Marion Barber III maintaining their 100-plus yards per game average. Tony Romo is a more efficient and effective quarterback with a strong ground threat. When Jones and Barber are held in check, as they were against the Bills, Romo will become the turnover machine he was on Monday night. The Patriots will crowd the line of scrimmage and make the Cowboys' offense one-dimensional.
> The Patriots will shut down Terrell Owens: The Bills were able to minimize Owens' impact with a banged-up secondary relying heavily on backups. Patriots cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs are going to follow the Buffalo blueprint of getting in Owens' facemask from the very start and staying there play after play. Safety Eugene Wilson also will provide help in covering Owens, and that should cause great frustration for Romo, who will get in trouble trying to force passes to his favorite receiver.
> The Patriots will have success converting third downs: The Patriots have converted 43 percent of their third-down situations, which ranks in the middle of the league. Tom Brady has been on fire in every aspect of the passing game, but he has been especially impressive connecting on short and intermediate throws to slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Ben Watson. Although the Cowboys do a nice job of generating blitz pressure, their linebackers are extremely vulnerable in pass coverage. Look for Welker and Watson to keep the chains moving and help set up bigger plays through the air.
> The Patriots will connect on their share of long passes to Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth: Brady has developed instant chemistry with all of his new targets -- Moss, Stallworth, and Welker -- but the ease with which he consistently connects with Moss on deep patterns is nothing short of astounding. Expect Moss to produce his share of game-breaking catches against the Cowboys. A high-ankle sprain to cornerback Anthony Henry makes an already weak Dallas secondary even weaker. The Patriots will take advantage of that by spreading the field with three- and four-receiver looks.