By Chuck Pollock, Senior Sports Columnist
If you’re wondering how much the Cowboys are favored by when they meet the Bills Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium … they’re not.
Dallas, 10-3 and tied for the NFL’s best record, while on a five-game win streak in which coach Mike McCarthy’s team has averaged 40 points per start, are two-point underdogs against Buffalo (4:25, FOX-TV, 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 550 AM).
How that math works in Las Vegas is a mystery.
The Bills, 7-6, are admittedly coming off a season-saving win when a controversial but correct call saved them from a heart-breaking loss at Kansas City that would have virtually ended Buffalo’s playoff hopes.
Still, this is a team that has lost five of the last eight games, all by single-possession scores, four of them despite fourth-quarter leads, three in the final two minutes.
On the plus side, the team’s offensive performance has improved since coach Sean McDermott fired coordinator Ken Dorsey after the embarrassing second-chance field goal home loss to Denver.
THAT THE Bills are favored seemingly defies logic, even at home, where that edge has shrunk for NFL teams to nearly toss-up level the past few seasons.
Dallas is 7-0 at home, but 3-3 away from AT&T Stadium, yet does that nudge Buffalo into the favorites role?
Is it because the win against the Chiefs has pushed the controversy over Von Miller’s felony domestic assault charge for violence against his pregnant girlfriend and the embarrassing 9-11 analogy about teamwork coach Sean McDermott made during a training camp meeting has already made its way into the “old news” bin?
Fact is, the Cowboys have scored a league-leading 421 points this season, 32 per game. They’ve outscored the opposition by an NFL-best 188 points, 108-43 in the first quarter, and eight of their 10 wins have been by three touchdowns or more. Equally impressive is the play of quarterback Dak Prescott who leads the league in touchdown passes with 28 and only six interceptions. In the current five-game win streak he’s thrown for 15 scores with one pick.
THE POINT IS, it just seems odd that, given the Cowboys’ credentials, Buffalo would be favored.
Clearly the national perception is that, the fact all six Buffalo losses have been in one-possession games, this is still the same Bills team that was a favorite to make the Super Bowl when the season began and the win at Kansas City seemingly reaffirmed that.
Then, too, as good as Dallas’ pass rush is (39 sacks), Buffalo leads the league in fewest sacks allowed (18) and stands third in dropping the quarterback (42) behind only Baltimore (49) and the Chargers (44).
The Bills’ main weapon remains quarterback Josh Allen, whose 25 touchdown passes are tied for second with San Franco’s Brock Purdy behind Prescott in the league. But, combined with his 10 rushing scores, Josh’s 35 TDs top the NFL with only Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts (31) and Prescott (30) even close.
However, if Buffalo is to win on Sunday, Allen needs a lot of help from his No. 1 wide receiver, Stefon Diggs.
The veteran started the season like the Pro Bowl player he is. But after the first six games he’s gone into a funk. In the seven starts since, he’s caught 14 balls for 105 yards, under eight per catch, with a single touchdown. So far this season, Diggs has eight drops, tied for his career-worst, with four games to play. Five of them have come in the past seven starts, two against the Chiefs when he had four receptions for a mere 24 yards.
BUT THE Bills’ real problem will likely be on the other side of the ball.
Buffalo has played the last nine games without three key defensive starters lost to injury: outside linebacker Matt Milano, cornerback Tre’Davious White and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones.
During that stretch, McDermott’s defense has given up a relatively-modest 21 points per game and, on the season, Buffalo is sixth in the NFL in fewest points surrendered (just under 19) and 12th in yards given up.
However, the Cowboys will give the Bills ‘D’ its toughest test as besides the missing trio, at least this week, also absent will be improving defensive end A.J. Epenesa (ribs) and safety Micah Hyde (neck/stinger) while Taron Johnson (ankle), the heavy-contributing nickel back, is questionable.
That means, even if Johnson plays, and his status was uncertain after Friday’s practice, the Bills will be without four key starters and a critical substitute from the crew that opened the season. And no matter how much McDermott recites the “Next Man Up” mantra, beating the NFL’s top offense will be a seere test.
Besides Prescott, Dallas’ weapons include wideouts CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup, tight end Jake Ferguson and running back Tony Polland, a heavy lift for Buffalo’s banged up defense.
On the Cowboys’ injury report, Cooks and former Bills’ cornerback Stefon Gillmore missed practice time due to illness but are good to go. However, defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins is likely out with knee/ankle issues while free safety Malik Hooker is questionable with an ankle injury.
Dallas does get a big break as the game-time temperature is supposed to be an un-mid-December-like 50 degrees, though there’s an 80% chance of rain.
Cowboys 30, Bills 20
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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