ARLINGTON, Texas – Here are my five takes for Thursday's game between the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
1. Take advantage of the opportunity to make a mammoth statement.
Circumstances don't get much more ideal than this. The Bills aren't merely performing in front of the most captive of all television audiences. They're doing so against as high-profile an opponent as any in the NFL.
Beating the Cowboys would give the Bills more than a third consecutive victory. It would provide validation that they belong among the upper-echelon teams at a time when the league appears to have some room for newer blood to make some noise at the top.
Oddsmakers have the Cowboys as a fairly significant favorite even though they have a 6-5 record and the Bills are 8-3. The common view around the country is that the Bills are a nice story, an interesting club on the rise with a highly impressive defense and a young quarterback finding his way in a fast-paced offense.
If they go on the road with abbreviated time to prepare and take care of business – especially against a team that has the advantage of annually hosting a Thanksgiving game – they'll have put the league on notice. Even the biggest skeptic would have to surrender to the idea that the Bills must be taken far more seriously than all of those wins against losing clubs have allowed.
In front of millions of TV viewers, the Bills can step up to an entirely a level of relevance that they haven't reached in more than two decades. At 9-3, they would be on the doorstep of a playoff berth with five games left.
Their players and coaches realize how much the right outcome for them could mean.
Even Sean McDermott, who rarely accepts an invitation to make big-picture observations, gave the following answer Tuesday to a reporter's question about this being "arguably" the biggest regular-season game: "I'd say it's an opportunity for us to take a step, another step this season as a football team, and I think our players are aware of that."
2. Move even faster on offense.
As quickly as the Bills have run their no-huddle attack the past two weeks, they need to take it up another notch or even two against the Cowboys.
The quicker tempo gave the Denver Broncos' solid defense fits last Sunday, and went a long way toward the Bills having success running and passing. The Broncos' defenders constantly found themselves out of sync, unable to make substitutions that would permit them to get proper personnel on the field to handle what the Bills were doing on the ground and through the air. A hurry-up pace, by nature, keeps the opposing defense on its heels and exhausted – especially when big men aren't able to take a breather between series.
The Cowboys have a solid defense, but it doesn't have any real feel for the Bills' offense nor has it had sufficient time to become acclimated with it before kickoff. The same can be said about the Bills' offense in relation to the Cowboys' D, but defenses are reactive by nature and when you're forced to mainly do things on the fly, it's hard to respond well.
The no-huddle is clearly bringing out the best in Josh Allen, allowing him to operate with greater confidence and freedom. Even when he makes a mistake, such as his interception against Denver, he seems to be able to shake it off with greater ease.
3. Maintain the commitment to the run.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has shown far greater trust than he has all season in his offensive line's capacity to take charge of a game. That was never more apparent than in the Denver game.
Daboll was persistent with running the ball, showing patience even when the offense wasn't finding the end zone in the first half. He needs to keep up that level of confidence, because the success Devin Singletary, Frank Gore and Allen have carrying the ball will do plenty to help open the game-breaking throws to John Brown and former Cowboy Cole Beasley, looking forward to retribution against the team that let him become a free agent. Jet sweeps have also become an effective component of the Bills' offense, and should challenge the lateral movement of Dallas' defense.
Daboll's confidence in the line mainly stems from the fact the group, with four new starters, has had 11 games to build a tight bond. The cohesion is so strong, in fact, that the injured hand that caused center Mitch Morse to leave the Denver game early couldn't ruin it. Jon Feliciano stepped in and kept the everything on track, and should be able to do the same against the Cowboys if Morse, who is questionable, can't play.
4 Don't let Ezekiel Elliott find his groove.
The NFL's seventh-ranked rusher, with 919 yards, is always capable of setting the tone for the Cowboys' offense. If he gets any traction as a runner, Dak Prescott invariably starts to get rolling in the passing game.
The Bills have the ability to take away Elliott by closing off the inside with stout play from their defensive tackles, and spilling him to the outside. That's where linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds can use their speed and sideline-to-sideline pursuit to prevent longer gains.
The Bills' defense didn't allow the Broncos, who have a decent rushing attack, from getting anywhere. That set the stage for them to make life miserable for young quarterback Brandon Allen.
Tre'Davious White can lock down Amari Cooper and prevent him from breaking the game open. Provided the defensive front can do its job against the run, Prescott will likely be inclined to try to force throws that can lead to miscues.
5. The Cowboys' coaching staff doesn't have much in the way of incentive.
Not after Jerry Jones publicly called out Jason Garrett and his assistant coaches after the team's loss against the New England Patriots last Sunday. The Cowboys' owner has already set the stage for Garrett to be gone after the season by not giving him a contract extension.
Jones' complaints to the media about the coaching blunders in the Patriots' game – while pointing out the talent the team has to be more successful – would figure to have left Garrett and his staff with more than a little cause for distraction before a vital game to the Cowboys' playoff hopes.
The situation has prompted multiple NFL analysts to wonder whether a Bills victory could, in fact, prompt Jones to relieve Garrett of his duties as soon as Friday.
Here is what you need to know for Thursday's game.
TV: CBS. Announcers: Jim Nantz (play-by-play), Tony Romo (analyst).
Radio: Bills Radio Network. Buffalo-WGR 550 AM; Toronto-Fan 590 AM; Rochester-WCMF 96.5 FM and WROC 950 AM; Syracuse-WTKW 99.5 FM and WTKV 105.5 FM. Announcers: John Murphy (play-by-play), Eric Wood (color analyst).
Series history: The Cowboys lead the series, 8-4, including two Super Bowl victories.
Bills injury report: Out: OT Ty Nsekhe (ankle). Questionable: C Mitch Morse (hand), WR Robert Foster (hamstring).
Cowboys injury report: Out: LB Leighton Vander Esch (neck), DT Antwaun Woods (knee). Questionable: S Jeff Heath (shoulder).
Point spread: The Bills are a 7-point underdog at footballocks.com.
Did you know: The Bills are playing on Thanksgiving for the first time since 1994 and ninth time in franchise history.
Next: The Bills' next game isn't until Dec. 8, when they face what arguably is the strongest team in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, at New Era Field.