Depleted Cowboys can still cover against Patriots

It had the potential to be one of the great games of the NFL season. Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots, renegades on a mission, riding into Dallas to trade shots with Tony Romo.

Bill Belichick matching wits in a chess match with Jerry Jones. OK, so Jones is not really coaching the Cowboys, but he does all the media appearances and pretends to be a coach.

The Patriots are holding up their end of the deal. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are falling without some stars, most notably Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant. It’s not nearly the same Dallas team. It’s probably not going to be a great game Sunday.

But that’s why point spreads exist. Will the Patriots cover 9½ on the road? Now, it gets interesting.

I’ll side with Dallas because of its defense, which on the surface makes little sense because it’s a defense ranking in the bottom half of the league in most key categories. But two impact players — Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain — are being released from commissioner Roger Goodell’s jail and returning from suspension. In addition, Sean Lee, the leader of the unit, passed concussion tests and is cleared to play.

The Cowboys will need all of their guns blazing — in Hardy’s words — to keep Brady from being the week’s top quarterback on DraftKings and FanDuel. Brady is doing exactly what we expected, completing 72.2 percent of his passes for 1,112 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions while spitting in Goodell’s face.

New England is scoring a league-high 39.7 points per game. Dallas’ defense ranks 19th in scoring (25.3) and passing yards allowed (256.0). However, Hardy and McClain will improve the pass rush and run defense, and Lee will help in almost every area.

Lee left last week’s game in New Orleans, and Drew Brees torched the Cowboys for 359 yards passing, including an 80-yard touchdown in overtime.

Dallas also can hang in this game because of its dominant offensive line. Brandon Weeden is limited and he’s no Romo, but this is not one of Belichick’s greatest defenses, either.

The Patriots are 3-0 — 4-0 counting Brady’s victory over Goodell — and 2-0-1 against the spread. They had to sweat a little in wins against Pittsburgh and Buffalo before pummeling the jokers from Jacksonville. Next week, when they go to Indianapolis to exact revenge for Deflategate, there’s no chance I’ll bet against the Patriots.

But I’ll take the points with Dallas as a home ‘dog. Wait to wager, though, because the line might tick up to 10 before kickoff.

Four more plays for Week 5 (home team in CAPS):

Redskins (+7½) over FALCONS: This is a sharps-versus-public showdown, with the public obviously riding the red-hot favorite. Atlanta, 4-0 straight up and ATS, is trying to complete a four-game sweep of the NFC East. But this should be a manageable matchup for Washington. The Falcons rank 27th in total defense, allowing 390.5 yards per game. Alfred Morris, Matt Jones and the Redskins can run the ball.

EAGLES (-5) over Saints: Philadelphia’s disappointing offense is overdue for a breakout performance. If Chip Kelly can’t find holes in the New Orleans defense, he’s not a play-calling genius. His quarterback, Sam Bradford, is showing positive signs. The Saints had their moment against a depleted Dallas team, but the Saints are weak, especially on the road.

BENGALS (-3) over Seahawks: Russell Wilson is scrambling behind a bad Seattle offensive line, and running back Marshawn Lynch’s absence is another negative. Cincinnati has failed too often in these big-game spots, but maybe the hot start by Andy Dalton (nine touchdowns, one interception) is for real. The Seahawks defense did not allow an offensive touchdown in the past two games. Do not lay 3½.

Steelers (+3½) over CHARGERS: If Pittsburgh can find a kicker, watch out. The Steelers are loaded on offense, and their defense is making progress. Michael Vick can make plays. Vick avoiding costly mistakes is the X-factor. San Diego is 3-12 ATS in its past 15 games.

Last week: 2-3 against the spread

Season: 9-11

— Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow: @mattyoumans247.

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