Every season, a winning coach or player says after a game: ``We're likely to see them down the line at some point.'' That's a polite pat on the back to a quality opponent with playoff expectations.
If someone says it after New England visits Dallas on Sunday, ``down the line'' can mean only in the Super Bowl. Given both teams' unbeaten starts, it's a possibility.
Not that anyone involved will concede such a thing after only five games.
``We're just not that familiar with that NFC team. We play them every three years,'' says Bill Belichick, predictable for a coach who rarely says anything about anything. And, just to be precise, they play every four years.
But there's no question right now the Cowboys and Patriots are at the top of the NFL. Indianapolis is the only other unbeaten team, and few other teams in either conference seem to have the top-to-bottom talent of these two.
This is just the fifth time in NFL history that teams who are 5-0 or better have met. Two of those games were in prehistoric times: 1921, when the Akron Pros and Buffalo All-Americans played a 0-0 tie, and two years later, when the Canton Bulldogs beat the Chicago Cardinals 7-3.
There figures to be a lot more scoring in this game.
In an unusual way, Dallas demonstrated how good it is in its 25-24 win over Buffalo last Monday night, overcoming five interceptions and a fumble by Tony Romo. The Cowboys finished with a minus-5 turnover differential, meaning that statistically, they had only a 3 percent chance of winning.
``If we play our worst football and happen to win with a field goal, that tells me something about this team,'' wide receiver Patrick Crayton said.
The same theory applies to Romo, who bounced back from four interceptions in the first half, two returned for touchdowns, to lead an 80-yard touchdown drive, then a short drive after an onside kick recovery to set up Nick Folk's winning 53-yard field goal. If nothing else, it demonstrates Romo's resilience.
By their standards, the Patriots didn't play well either, beating Cleveland 34-17 at home. ``The way we played, we'd have gotten blown out if it was Dallas,'' defensive end Jarvis Green said.
Still, the 17-point margin was their smallest of the season and the points total tied their low; they've scored 38 in three of their wins and 34 in the other two. And Tom Brady's 16 touchdown passes in five games puts him on course to break Peyton Manning's single-season record of 49.
For the purposes of the standings, this is a low priority, non-conference game, meaning it won't figure in tiebreakers for division championships and home-field advantage.
Not only are the teams unbeaten but they bring a wide receiver sideshow of Randy Moss of New England and Terrell Owens of Dallas. Both are playing and behaving very well.
But not talking.
``Due to the magnitude of this week's game and high volume of questions for the Original 81 about the other 81, I will be taking all questions immediately following Sunday's game,'' read a note on Owens' locker this week.
Indeed he will.
In other games Sunday, Minnesota is at Chicago; St. Louis at Baltimore; Philadelphia at the New York Jets; Miami at Cleveland; Washington at Green Bay; Cincinnati at Kansas City; Tennessee at Tampa Bay; Houston at Jacksonville; Carolina at Arizona; Oakland at San Diego; and New Orleans at Seattle.
The New York Giants are at Atlanta on Monday night.
Buffalo, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Denver, Detroit and San Francisco are off.
Washington (3-1) at Green Bay (4-1)
Two teams that might threaten Dallas in the NFC. Interesting factoid: The four NFC East teams have just two non-division losses and both, by the Giants and Eagles, are to the Packers.
Washington, which allowed 24 points a game last season, is giving up just 13 this year and blew out a sometimes explosive Detroit team 34-3 last week. The Packers lost for the first time, falling to the Bears by turning over the ball five times, including a critical interception thrown by Brett Favre, his first ``old Brett'' moment of the season.
``I fully understand how this works,'' coach Mike McCarthy says. ``We were glorified for four weeks. We need to clean our own house right now. It's sloppy and we need to get it cleaned up.''

Oakland (2-2) at San Diego (2-3)
The Raiders, 2-14 last season, have equaled their 2006 win total and lead the AFC West by a half-game. Daunte Culpepper starts at QB because Josh McCown isn't recovered from a foot injury.
But they should lose their lead here if the Chargers, a prohibitive favorite to win the division before the season, play as they did last week in their 41-3 win in Denver. So Norv Turner, fired by talking heads all over the nation, is safe this week if he doesn't lose to the team he coached in 2004-2005.

New York Giants (3-2) at Atlanta (1-4) (Monday night)
After an 0-2 start in which they surrendered 80 points, the Giants have won three straight and the defense has allowed only one touchdown in the last 10 quarters. The main reasons: the front four; the improvement of converted end Matthias Kiwanuka at linebacker; and rookie cornerback Aaron Ross, who had two interceptions against the Jets, one for a touchdown, the other preventing one.
The Falcons had five takeaways against Tennessee last week but still lost, in part because Joey Harrington threw an interception for a touchdown. Harrington, who had thrown for 584 yards and four TDs the previous two weeks, was lifted for Byron Leftwich. He will start this week, although he might be in trouble because Atlanta starts two inexperienced offensive tackles against New York's fierce pass rush.

Minnesota (1-3) at Chicago (2-3)
The Bears probably saved their season with their win in Green Bay; a loss would have left them four games behind the Packers in the NFC North. Brian Griese seemed more in control at quarterback than the previous week, and more cautious than turnover-prone Rex Grossman.
The Vikings seem ready to put Tarvaris Jackson back at quarterback in place of journeyman Kelly Holcomb despite Jackson's dismal passer rating of 40 in his two starts before getting hurt. Rookie running back Adrian Peterson has been most of Minnesota's offense. And no, he's no relation to Chicago running back Adrian Peterson, the backup to Cedric Benson.

Houston (3-2) at Jacksonville (3-1)
As usual, the Jaguars are on no one's radar screens because they're in a small market. But they are allowing just 10.2 points a game, just behind Pittsburgh's 9.4, and would lead the league if not for a meaningless last-play TD by Kansas City last week in Jacksonville's 17-7 win.
Houston, undermined by injuries at receiver and running back, can thank Kris Brown for last week's win. He had three field goals of 50 yards or longer, including the 57-yarder that won it on the final play.

New Orleans (0-4) at Seattle (3-2)
The Saints are once again on national television to show the nation how far they've fallen. It's not all his fault (dropped passes, little protection, no running game), but Drew Brees has just one TD pass and nine interceptions and his passer rating of 57.4 is almost 40 points lower than the 96.2 he finished with in 2006.
Seattle's offense was shut down in Pittsburgh last week, in part because Shaun Alexander couldn't run. Alexander's problems (a 3.7 yard-per-carry average) are due to a broken thumb and perhaps to the absence of blocking fullback Mack Strong, who retired this week after 15 seasons because of a neck injury.

Philadelphia (1-3) at New York Jets (1-4)
After a week off, the Eagles return to the Meadowlands for a second straight time. Donovan McNabb was sacked 12 times against the Giants in a 16-3 loss two weeks ago.
Chad Pennington was victimized by the Giants' defense, too, throwing three interceptions in a 35-24 loss last week, one of them returned for a touchdown. That's made second-string QB Kellen Clemens very popular with Jets fans.

Carolina (3-2) at Arizona (3-2)
Kurt Warner, who did well alternating with Matt Leinart, now will be the full-time QB for the Cardinals with Leinart out for the season. That may not be a great thing, because when he's played regularly recently, the 36-year-old Warner has been prone to turnovers, and the Arizona offensive line isn't one of the NFL's strongest.
Jake Delhomme also is gone for Carolina, leaving David Carr as the likely QB. Carr hurt his back last week against New Orleans, then returned to the game, but is a question mark for this one. Behind him are 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde, who was just signed, and undrafted rookie Matt Moore.

Tennessee (3-1) at Tampa Bay (3-2)
The Titans were lucky to win last week against Atlanta, turning the ball over five times, including three interceptions by Vince Young.
The Bucs, whose three wins are over teams that are a combined 3-11, were beaten 33-14 in Indianapolis. They also lost running back Michael Pittman, who took over when Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams was lost for the season. Earnest Graham is the new starter.

St. Louis (0-5) at Baltimore (3-2)
Two teams with injury problems.
The Rams' woes started when star left tackle Orlando Pace was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in the opening week, and have multiplied. Running back Steven Jackson remains out and QB Marc Bulger probably sits, with Gus Frerotte in his place.
The Ravens played with three rookies in the offensive line in their 9-7 win in San Francisco last week and still have problems, although there's a chance that Jonathan Ogden, their version of Pace, will be back.

Cincinnati (1-3) at Kansas City (2-3)
The Bengals are paying the price for their off-field troubles. Their biggest weakness is linebacker, where they've been crippled by injuries but also are without Odell Thurman, a star as a rookie in 2005 but suspended for the last two seasons.
That could help Kansas City's running game. Larry Johnson is averaging just 3.7 yards a carry and griping loudly. A smart game plan: give it to LJ and keep giving, a strategy that also keeps the Bengals' explosive offense off the field.

Miami (0-5) at Cleveland (2-3)
Miami, already in trouble, has lost Trent Green last week with a concussion. Cleo Lemon will start at QB and second-round pick John Beck is likely to get a trial soon considering the Dolphins' winless state.
The Browns can wait to give Brady Quinn his chance because Derek Anderson has played well enough to make people wonder how he ever lost the job (for one game) to the now departed Charlie Frye in their training camp duel.

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