OXNARD, Calif.—The Dallas Cowboys can only hope they have to worry about the New England Patriots this season.

A Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl would have been a dream matchup for the NFL last season, when Dallas led the sport’s post-election rebound in television ratings and the Patriots were, well, the Patriots, the team that everyone loves or loathes. It didn’t happen, as the Cowboys were ousted in the NFC playoffs and the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl triumph with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback came at the expense of the Atlanta Falcons.

If there is to be a Cowboys-Patriots matchup this season, it will come only in the Super Bowl, with the two teams not scheduled to face one another during the regular season. So the Cowboys say their thoughts about the Patriots are limited, at this point, to an appreciation of what has been achieved.

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“We certainly have incredible respect for what they’ve accomplished,” Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said during the team’s training camp. “Just look at it and it speaks for itself. Obviously the foundation of that is Tom Brady. We had that run with Troy [Aikman]. We certainly understand when you get a quarterback that is a winner like Brady is and his championship pedigree, you’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for it.

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“You certainly aspire to accomplish what the Patriots have accomplished, which is, if you measure it head to head, it’s probably even more than we did in the early ‘90s in terms of the run they’ve made with Tom and Coach Belichick and the Kraft family. Nothing but the utmost respect and we certainly aspire to accomplish what you need to do.”

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But the Cowboys say they have not, even with last season’s success, constructed their roster with beating the Patriots specifically in mind. And they do not, they say, actively measure their progress against the standard set by the Patriots.

“Everybody goes about winning championships in different ways,” Jones said. “It starts with the quarterback position. But we also have to look because we haven’t consistently beaten the teams in our division and won the NFC East year in and year out yet. So we have to certainly first and foremost look to our division, and then you start to look to your conference. And you know, hey, we haven’t been able to beat [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers yet, either. So we’ve got to figure out how we get him. And then, of course, you look at teams like the Falcons and the Seahawks who have had recent success. And you’ve got to put together teams that can compete with those type of teams.

“So I think you do look at the Patriots. You certainly aspire to be the Patriots in terms of emulating their success on the field. But we have to look further than that. I think it’s premature for us to look over at another conference and say, ‘We’ve got to get them.’ We’d better consistently be able to beat people one, in our division and two, in our conference.”

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The Cowboys could be primed for another run of success as “America’s Team” with quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott each entering his second NFL season. But the chances of the Cowboys securing a second straight No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs were complicated when Elliott was suspended for six games by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. His status remains unresolved.

Without Elliott, the burden on Prescott becomes greater. The Cowboys, if the suspension stands, would have to rely on Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris at tailback. But they still have a dependable group of wide receivers and a powerful offensive line. A rebuilt defense will have to do its part, but linebacker Jaylon Smith could emerge as a significant contributor after missing his entire rookie season because of a knee injury and nerve damage suffered in his final college game for Notre Dame.

For the Cowboys, last season ended with a strange mix of pride and disappointment following a loss at home to the Packers in a memorable conference semifinal.

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“Certainly when you first lose and the season ends, there’s a huge sense of disappointment,” tight end Jason Witten said during training camp. “Our eyes were focused. That team, we won 11 straight. The way it unfolded, sometimes you just feel like the mojo is with you. So there was a huge sense of disappointment when it happened. But as I reflected back, how proud am I of that team? There’s a great sense of joy and pride that I took being a part of that team and being a leader of that team.”

The idea now is to take the next step and actually have to be concerned about the Patriots.

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