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It's hard to believe, but we're now into Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season. This week's edition of "Thursday Night Football" pits the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys, who have lost three of their last four games, against the New Orleans Saints, who are trying desperately to hold onto their playoff hopes in the absurdly crowded NFC after having lost four games in a row. 

Dallas is closer to getting whole as it bring several players back from either injury (CeeDee Lamb and Demarcus Lawrence) or COVID-19 (Amari Cooper), but will also be without head coach Mike McCarthy (COVID-19) and several assistants. New Orleans is still dealing with several important injuries, but should at least get Mark Ingram back in the lineup, and may have Alvin Kamara as well.

So, which of these two teams will get back on track? We can't wait to find out. Let's break down the matchup.  

How to watch

Date: Thursday, Dec. 2 | Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: Caesars Superdome (New Orleans)
TV:
FOX | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Cowboys -4.5, O/U 47.5

When the Cowboys have the ball

For the first time ever, the Cowboys will have each of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins -- aka the core players of their offense -- in the starting lineup together. They've had games where only one or two of those players were out, but never have they had all eight on the field together. So, this should be an interesting game to watch on that level alone. 

Of course, not all of those players are fully healthy. Elliott has been dealing with a knee injury for several weeks, and despite Jerry Jones' repeated assertions that the running back is just fine, he is very clearly not. Prior to the team's bye, Elliott was averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Since then, he's at only 3.4 per carry. Tony Pollard has been less effective during that more recent stretch than he was earlier in the year, too, but not to the same degree as Elliott. And Pollard has at least broken some big plays during that time. Zeke hasn't broken a run longer than 11 yards since Week 6, and has only two carries of 10 or more yards in that time. 

Running behind the full-strength offensive line (with Collins in the lineup in place of Terrence Steele, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list and unable to inexplicably start ahead of Collins) should help both players. Having to face the Saints' No. 1-ranked run defense (by Football Outsiders' DVOA) probably will not help, but if there's any offensive line that come move the Saints' seemingly immovable front, it might be that of the Cowboys. Dallas checks in second in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards and first in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades. That hasn't helped the team run the ball all that well of late, but that may have something to do with being without at least two of Smith, Collins, Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb in their recent games.

The line being at full strength should afford Dak Prescott the best protection that he's had in recent weeks. It hasn't been a major issue for the Cowboys, but when the group up front is really cooking and Prescott has time to set his feet and look downfield, he is as dangerous as any passer in the league -- as we saw earlier this season.

We don't yet know whether or not we'll see a full workload for Cooper, who is returning from the COVID list. Mike McCarthy told reporters earlier in the week that Cooper was still not feeling great and had a bad cough, and he got in only one limited practice during the week. It seems reasonable to expect Lamb and Gallup to play most of the snaps in two-receiver sets, while Cooper joins them on the field when Dallas goes three-wide (which is most of the time) -- even if only to preserve Cooper's energy. 

Cooper's probable return moves Lamb back to the slot, which provides the Cowboys with a big advantage. The Saints have allowed 66 catches for 690 yards to receivers aligned in the slot, per PFF. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is the team's most heavily-utilized slot cover man, and he's allowing career-highs in completion percentage, yards per target, and passer rating. 

It'll be interesting to see whether the Saints use Marshon Lattimore, their top corner, on Cooper or Gallup on the outside. Cooper is the better player, but he's also a worse matchup for Lattimore (much like Stefon Diggs was a week ago). He might be able to do more good for the New Orleans defense by taking away the deeper routes to Gallup than trying to stay with Cooper on short and intermediate stuff. That would leave Cooper to work against rookie Paulson Adebo, though, and the Saints might not want to task him with that responsibility. However New Orleans lines up, Dallas should have advantages on the outside. 

Meanwhile, Demario Davis should be able to do a solid job of taking away passes to one of Prescott's favorite outlets over the middle of the field: Dalton Schultz. Davis continues to play at an extremely high level even as he nears his mid-30s, and while he's not quite the coverage player he was at his peak, he is still quite good. 

When the Saints have the ball

It appears as though the Saints will be changing course and starting Taysom Hill at quarterback, rather than Trevor Siemian. Many expected Hill to open the season as the team's starter, only for Sean Payton to opt for Jameis Winston instead. When Winston got injured, it was again expected that Hill would start, but he was stilll dealing with the after-effects of a concussion at the time, so the Saints rolled with Siemian. Averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt and having racked up an 0-4 record as a starter, he'll now hit the bench. 

Hill had some success as a fill-in starter last season, but it's worth noting how much different his supporting cast was then than it is not. For one thing, Michael Thomas is out for the year. So is Andrus Peat. Jared Cook is on the Chargers, and Adam Trautman is injured. Both Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are listed as questionable, but seem unlikely to play after logging DNPs on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Alvin Kamara is questionable as well after being limited all week. If he plays, he seems unlikely to see his full compliment of snaps. 

Hill performed better than expected as a passer when he filled in last season (82 of 114 for 834 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions across four games), but he will likely challenge the Dallas defense more with his abilities as a runner -- especially in these circumstances. 

The Dallas defense has not been nearly as solid against the run (18th in DVOA) as against the pass (fourth), and it has yet to face a quarterback who can threaten the defense as a rusher like Hill can. The only two mobile quarterbacks the team has played against are Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes, who each run the ball as more of a last resort. It'll be interesting to see how Dan Quinn's defense, which plays extremely aggressively up the field, deals with a quarterback run threat both up the middle and to the perimeter. (It'll also be interesting to see if being on the sideline, rather than in the booth, affects Quinn's play-calling.)

Getting Demarcus Lawrence back on the field will surely help. Lawrence was widely, and rightly, considered the team's best defensive player coming into the season, and he hasn't played since Week 1 after fracturing his foot in practice the following week. The Cowboys have gotten by thanks to a breakout season from Randy Gregory (who is now on injured reserve himself) and the outrageous talent of Micah Parsons, but it's notable that Lawrence is easily the team's best edge defender against the run. That should help immensely against Hill. 

Dallas has used Trevon Diggs to shadow the opponent's top receiver fairly often this year, but it's tough to determine who that would be in this case. Tre'Quan Smith has seemingly taken over the target lead in recent weeks, but that was with Siemian under center. Hill locked in on Thomas last year, but he's not in the lineup. The Cowboys might be better served playing things straight up until the see how the Saints want to attack in the passing game, and then adjusting to that plan.

Latest Odds: New Orleans Saints +6.5

Prediction: Cowboys 27, Saints 17