Tale of two coaches

Sunday night's Dallas Cowboys-New England Patriots game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) should be an exciting matchup between two teams in the thick of the playoff hunt. With all of the hype of Frazier-Ali, this game features two coach-of-the-year candidates in Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. These two defensive masterminds know each other very well.

This trip to New England completes Parcells' homecoming tour as the new head coach of the Cowboys. He's already beaten the Giants and Jets at the Meadowlands. Now, he'll face his former protege in an attempt to make a clean sweep of his former teams.

What makes this matchup even more intriguing is the familiarity these coaches have with one another. They spent time so much time working together, on three different staffs (Giants, Jets and of course, New England), that some have questioned Parcells' abilities without Belichick.

Well, if he hasn't already, this season's 7-2 resurgence of the Cowboys, should certainly silence any thoughts negating his football genius -- Parcells has proven he can win with everybody and anybody.

Meanwhile, with his own Super Bowl championship under his belt, Belichick has moved beyond the shadows of his former predecessor. For all intents and purposes, this game could be the second coming of the "Thrilla in Manila."

Dallas Cowboys
With all of the attention focused on Bill vs. Bill, the players are able fly under the radar and just do their thing. I'm sure it's a much-needed break, particularly in Dallas, where the Cowboys surprising success is causing quite a commotion.

I have to admit, I didn't expect the Cowboys would be playing this well. At the season's start, offensively, the Cowboys looked flawed.

But Quincy Carter has done a nice job of progressing into a steady quarterback who makes plays while limiting mistakes. And he stands behind a big offensive line and has the luxury of a wide-receiving corps that's essentially made up of two No. 1s and a No. 2, with Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant.

Last season, the Cowboys defense was one of the most underrated in the league. When people thought about the Cowboys, they only recalled their horrible offense. But what got lost in the shuffle was their solid, No. 5 ranked defense.

So, Parcells inherited a good defense, and he and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer have now made them the best in the league. And with the added stability on offense, the defense is able to really shine.

Parcells has done a terrific job of returning a belief in winning to Dallas. There's no other coach who could have made such an immediate and distinct impact. For proof, one only needs to look at his track record, and the winning records of teams he's coached.

Get it done once, you're lucky. Twice? Chalk it up to coincidence. But on the third and fourth time, you just have to realize and accept that he's clearly one of the best coaches the NFL has ever seen.

Keys for the Cowboys:

1. Convert the big play
To beat the Pats and their tough, run-stopping defense the Cowboys must put points on the board with a couple of of big plays from Carter and that wide receiving corps. In doing so, it will be paramount that Carter protects the football. Neither team can afford costly turnovers.

2. Pressure Tom Brady
Brady has been fairly consistent all year long, and he's as good as any quarterback in the league at getting the ball out of his hands quickly. The Cowboys must pressure him and force him into making bad decisions.

New England Patriots
In a pressure-packed game of this nature, having an experienced quarterback, who's been to and won the Super Bowl, will bode well for the Patriots. Brady has played in his share of big games, and often come out on top.

Of New England's top four receivers, the most catches any one receiver has is 29, and the least is 20. What that tells me is that they've got great balance in their air attack.

Although the Patriots lack a star running back, they've done a solid job of utilizing their running-back-by-committee, of Kevin Faulk, Antowain Smith, and Mike Cloud.

But it's the Patriots defense that continues to dictate and dominate games. They'll give Carter a million looks on Sunday night. Regardless of the game's outcome, Carter will get a graduate-level education in reading defenses from all of the looks and schemes Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will dream up and throw at him.

Belichick continues to prove, not only what a terrific coach he is, but what a mastermind he is when it comes to adding to his roster. Tedy Bruschi put it best when asked to comment on all of New England's injuries, he said, "From top to bottom, we have guys who can play at a high level."

There are so many NFL teams with great starters. But when they lose starters, production drops off. In New England, when someone goes down, there's a viable replacement there to take his place, and the expectations are for him to play at the highest level. And most importantly, those players are producing -- that's a testament to good coaching.

Keys for the Patriots:

1. Spread out the Cowboys
Make the Cowboys' safeties less effective blitzers by spreading them out. The Pats are capable of four wide receiver sets; let Brady throw the ball.

2. Stop the run on first down
Force the Cowboys into known throwing situations, which will put more pressure on Carter. Then, the Pats can't give up the big vertical play to the Cowboys' speedy wide receivers.

A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.