Posted October 12, 2011 on AP on Fox
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Just beginning to find a good balance on offense, the New England Patriots are also starting to see some improvements on the defensive side. The Dallas Cowboys are among the best in the NFL on both sides of the ball, but quarterback Tony Romo is struggling to deliver a full 60-minute effort. Tom Brady will try to lead the Patriots to their 20th consecutive victory at Gillette Stadium on Sunday when the well-rested Cowboys attempt to bounce back from another late-game meltdown. Through the first three games, 80.5 percent of the Patriots' offense came through the air, with Brady setting a league mark for most passing yards over a three-game stretch with 1,327. But in two games since a 34-31 loss at Buffalo on Sept. 25, Brady is averaging 273.5 yards as New England (4-1) has run for 335. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has accounted for 211 of those yards after setting a career high with 136 and scoring two touchdowns in last Sunday's 30-21 victory over the New York Jets. "Obviously, our passing game has been unreal," Green-Ellis said, "so we want to be an offense that can be able to do whatever we want to do, run or pass, and complement our defense." The Patriots' new-look defense entered last week's contest ranked last in the NFL with 477.5 yards allowed per game, but the unit surrendered a season-low 255 despite linebacker Jerod Mayo sitting out with a serious knee sprain. "I am very proud of the defense," veteran tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Is everything perfect? No. There are a lot of things we could do better, but I think the penalties are down, we aren't giving up big plays. We have to continue to grow." The Cowboys' defense has done just that under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. After being ranked 23rd in the league in total defense with an average of 351.8 yards allowed last season, Dallas is fourth in that category at 291.8 per game. Ryan was the Patriots' linebackers coach during their Super Bowl-winning seasons in 2001 and 2003. "He's excited," safety Abram Elam said. "We're relishing the challenge." The challenge is a tall one, with Brady throwing for a league-high 1,874 yards and wide receiver Wes Welker leading the NFL with 45 receptions and 740 yards - the most in league history by a player through his team's first five games. The Patriots, averaging a league-best 495.2 yards of offense, are one shy of tying the 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams for the league mark by scoring at least 30 points in 13 consecutive games. The last time New England failed to reach 30 was a 34-14 loss at Cleveland on Nov. 7, when Ryan was the Browns' defensive coordinator. Brady, who saw a number of formations in that contest - including one with a single down lineman - can expect plenty of pressure from the Cowboys (2-2). They are tied for eighth in the NFL with 13 sacks, getting five from linebacker DeMarcus Ware. "He can get after a quarterback as good as anyone we play," Brady said. That could be a problem as the Patriots have three new starters on the offensive line, which surrendered a season-worst four sacks last Sunday. Staying on his feet hasn't been a problem for Romo, who has been sacked just once in each of the last three games, it's been finishing off opponents. After committing two late turnovers in a 27-24 season-opening road loss to the Jets when the Cowboys blew their largest fourth-quarter lead (14 points) in team history, Romo was picked off three times in the second half as Dallas coughed up a 24-point third-quarter advantage in a 34-30 loss against Detroit on Oct. 2. It was the largest lead ever blown by the Cowboys in a defeat. "You have to compete for 60 minutes of hard-core football," linebacker Victor Butler said. "We've seen what happens if you don't." Still, Romo guided comeback wins in between those losses and leads the NFL's sixth-ranked offense at 417.8 yards per game. He used the bye week to heal his cracked rib and could have both of his top receivers available as Miles Austin and Dez Bryant practiced Wednesday. Austin has been out the last two games with a hamstring injury, while Bryant has been playing with a bruised thigh. If both play, Romo could have plenty of opportunities to pile up yards against the Patriots' league-worst pass defense, which allows 326.6 yards per game. New England has won three straight against Dallas, posting a 48-27 road victory in the last meeting Oct. 14, 2007.
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