- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It doesn't seem right that two of the most decorated franchises in NFL history have met so infrequently, but when the Dallas Cowboys visit the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, it will be only the 11th meeting between the two teams.
Consider this: Tom Brady has started 12 career games against the Indianapolis Colts. In a decade-long span, Brady has played a single team more times than two squads that have combined to appear in 14 Super Bowls (winning eight of them) over the past four decades.
Yes, under the current schedule rotation, a Patriots-Cowboys clash is as frequent as a presidential election (or your favorite seasonal Olympic Games). Dallas boasts a 7-3 lifetime advantage over New England, but the Patriots have won the past three meetings between the two teams.
That unfamiliarity was a popular topic this week, with the Patriots hitting the film vault to brush up on an opponent they haven't seen since laying a 48-27 thrashing in a battle of 5-0 squads four years ago.
With the Cowboys coming off a bye week and enjoying more preparation time, New England put a heavy focus on catching up this week.
"The more you watch them, the more appreciation I have for this football team," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday, offering his usual dose of end-of-the-week hyperbole. "They do a lot of subtle things that sometimes you don't see the first or second time around. All three phases of the game, they're creative. You go back and, rewatching some of the games from 2010, even in preseason, they're really well-coached, players are very good. They have a lot of talent on that team. This will really be a big challenge for us on Sunday -- we have a lot of things to worry about."
Two things top that list of concerns for New England:
Limiting Witten and the Cowboys' offense: Belichick dubbed seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten "one of the all-time greats" this week, and it's obvious the Patriots will put a hefty focus on taking away quarterback Tony Romo's security blanket. Sure, the Cowboys have talent on the outside in receivers Dez Bryant (a player the Patriots passed on twice in the 2010 draft) and Miles Austin. But much like their focus in a Week 2 win over San Diego centered on erasing Antonio Gates (one target, zero receptions), expect the Patriots to chip away at Witten much of the day, hoping to disrupt the Dallas offense.
Slowing DeMarcus Ware and a "kitchen sink" defense: Informed that the blitz-happy Cowboys planned to bring the "kitchen sink" at Brady on Sunday, Patriots veteran tackle Matt Light quipped: "Is this a full-fledged double sink with a disposal? That's a heck of a sink." Kidding aside, the Patriots know that protecting Brady is key to their offensive success, particularly when it comes to linebacker Ware (who sacked Brady once during the 2007 meeting). Given that Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was the last person to keep Brady & Co. under 30 points (as defensive coordinator in Cleveland last year), New England will have to show it learned from the schemes Ryan unleashed in last year's Week 9 loss to the Browns.
What should concern the Cowboys? The Patriots are attempting to match an NFL record by scoring 30 or more points in 14 straight games, a mark set by the 1999-2000 Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
Brady has won 30 straight regular-season starts at Gillette Stadium, and the Patriots have won their past 19 regular-season games there. (The streak started in 2008; the NFL record is 27 set by the Miami Dolphins from 1971 to '74.).
With a win against Dallas, Brady and Belichick could tie another Dolphins record, as Dan Marino and Don Shula boast the most career wins by a QB-coach duo in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) with 116. Brady and Belichick already have left some elite company behind in Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll (107); Buffalo's Jim Kelly and Marv Levy (99); and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid (92).
Belichick will kindly point out that past success won't help the Patriots one bit on Sunday. Neither, he says, will superstition. The Cowboys are set to wear their blue jerseys, which some believe are cursed.
"I think whatever team plays well, I think that team has a big advantage," said Belichick, who shrugged off the suggestion but would certainly know about the superstition after his time with the Giants in the NFC East. "I wish that's all there was to it -- wear striped shoelaces or wear white ones or wear black ones. There's a lot more to it than that."
True, Coach, but maybe, just maybe, the Cowboys are actually a bit of good luck for New England. After all, in three of the past four seasons that the teams have played, the Patriots went on to compete in the Super Bowl (2007, 2003 and 1996).
And, according to ESPN Stats & Info, a win Sunday would give the Patriots their fifth start of 5-1 or better under Belichick. In the previous four seasons, New England went on to win at least 12 games and the AFC East title, which would certainly aid that Super Bowl pursuit.
In the end, the Patriots probably don't mind the large gaps between games against the Cowboys. But long Super Bowl droughts are certainly a matter of contention.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.