FOXBOROUGH - For 57 minutes and 29 seconds yesterday, Rob Ryan and the Cowboys defense threw the kitchen sink at Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
And for much of that time, New England made some plays, but for a unit that had posted eye-popping numbers on a near-weekly basis dating to last season, it was largely held at bay.
But take note of the timing: for 57:29, the Cowboys defense had success against the Patriots, giving them a multitude of looks, holding Wes Welker in check, making life uncomfortable for Brady.
When Brady got the ball for one last time, however, with the Patriots trailing by 3 points and 2:31 left on the clock, it was his time. With the surgical precision that has become his trademark, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player completed 8 of 9 passes for 78 yards and the winning touchdown to Aaron Hernandez from 8 yards out.
The 20-16 win was the fifth of the season for the Patriots, and the 32d fourth-quarter comeback victory of Brady’s sterling career.
“Down at the end of the game we had a great drive and we came through with some big plays in the clutch, so you’ve got to give the players all the credit in the world,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They hung in there. It was a hard-fought game. It’s a good win. It was a tough week of preparation and that’s a good football team.’’
As receiver Deion Branch noted, it was an ugly win. “You can’t get a better example of that than today,’’ he said, adding that there was a lot to be desired from the offense’s performance.
Chalk it up to the Ryan Effect. The Rob Ryan Effect, that is. For the second straight season, a Ryan-coached defense was able to stymie the New England offense. Ryan was the coordinator in Cleveland last season when the Patriots were upset by the Browns and held to just two touchdowns. With a more talented Cowboys unit, Ryan showed Brady a number of different looks and prevented the usually high-octane Patriots from posting big numbers.
New England entered yesterday’s game having scored 30 or more points in 13 straight regular-season games - the streak began in Pittsburgh last year, the first game after the Patriots lost to the Browns.
“They did quite a few things, as they said they would,’’ Brady said. “I think we expected a lot of it. We were prepared for a lot of it. I just don’t think we executed as well as we were capable.
“I feel like we’re holding ourselves back; it’s a lot of self-inflicted issues with communication, mental errors, and ultimately, execution. At times it was better than others and when we needed it in a critical situation, we got it, so that’s the most important part.’’
In the end, Ryan’s defense couldn’t trump coach and offensive play-caller Jason Garrett’s conservative end-of-game approach.
The Cowboys were ahead, 16-13, with 3:36 to play after the defense forced the Patriots into their only three-and-out of the day.
But when Dallas got the ball, rather than trying to slam the door on New England with a touchdown - or even a field goal, which would have necessitated that the Patriots get into the end zone when they got the ball back - Garrett called nothing but running plays. The Cowboys went nowhere and punted back to Brady.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said his team “rolled the dice at the end of the game and went conservative rather than try and get some points and it bit us.’’ But the rolling the dice analogy doesn’t hold a lot of water: instead of gambling and betting that quarterback Tony Romo, who has had his share of end-of-game mistakes, would be able to move his team at least into field goal position, Garrett decided to leave a lot on the table: namely, points and time.
So Brady was Brady and led his team on the 10-play drive that ended with the 8-yard score to Hernandez. The touchdown was redemption for Hernandez, who earlier fumbled away a catch.
That one TD play wiped away a lot of mistakes for the Patriots offense: Brady was picked off twice, and in addition to Hernandez’s fumble, Matthew Slater also lost a fumble on a kickoff return.
“He was able to redeem himself today,’’ Belichick said of Hernandez. “Luckily, he got that chance. That opportunity doesn’t always come again. We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball, period. Two fumbles, two interceptions - you’re not going to win many games with four turnovers. We were fortunate today, but that won’t last long.’’
While the offense did its best to fight through all of the challenges that Ryan threw at it, the oft-maligned Patriots defense posted perhaps its best effort of the season. It was able to pressure Romo and stuff the run game, though Romo had his own problems, missing open receivers several times, including tight end Jason Witten on more than one occasion and receiver Dez Bryant in the end zone late in the game.
“The key thing for us right now is how to get better,’’ cornerback Devin McCourty said. “We still had a few [negative] plays. Take away those plays and you’re talking about a great defensive effort.’’
Brady praised the performance of his defensive teammates, calling them “awesome’’ and tipping his cap to the way the unit stepped up, particularly when the offense turned the ball over early in the game. Brady’s first interception meant the Cowboys began a drive at the New England 23, and they wound up losing 7 yards on the possession, settling for a 48-yard field goal.
Slater’s lost fumble, also in the first quarter, gave Dallas the ball at the New England 32, and this time the defense forced a turnover, with Vince Wilfork knocking the ball out of Tashard Choice’s hands and Gerard Warren falling on the ball.
The play led to the Patriots’ second field goal of the day.
Brandon Spikes, who has not had a strong start to his second season, made a good play in the fourth quarter, when on third and goal from the 5, Dallas tried a shovel pass to Choice. Wilfork and Spikes had seen the play on film, Wilfork alerted his teammates, and Spikes stuffed Choice for a 3-yard loss.
“That was one of the situations we covered throughout the week,’’ Wilfork said. “When they get down there on third down, there are some things that they do a little differently. I didn’t know it was going to be that, but I had a feeling it was going to be some type of run. So I sent the alert and said, ‘Hey, look to the run here,’ and Spikes was over it and we just ate it up.’’