FOXBOROUGH — With apologies to HBO, this was a real life version of “Hard Knocks.’’ And unfortunately for the Patriots, they absorbed the biggest hits of this Sunday show.
The Cowboys, whose summer was chronicled in the series, delivered a knockout punch in overtime when the ever-elusive Dak Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb with a 35-yard touchdown pass on Dallas’s only possession to secure a thrilling 35-29 win at Gillette Stadium.
Prescott lived up to his billing as a leading man, completing 36 of 51 passes for 445 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Cowboys handed the Patriots (2-4) their fourth straight home loss.
Prescott, just a year removed from a devastating ankle injury, masterfully manipulated the pocket and the Patriots defense for much of the game. He continually found ways to buy extra time — even if it was a split-second — to make plays.
“We would have liked to have made him a pocket passer and try to limit the damage he can do when our [defensive backs] have their backs turned,” said Matthew Judon. “But it’s easier said than done.’’
Despite Prescott’s heroics, the Patriots were in prime position to win as this episode had more plot twists than any drama series — reality TV or the make-believe stuff. With four lead changes in the fourth quarter and overtime, the packed house at Gillette Stadium, including a good dose of Cowboys fans, were riveted.
After Rhamondre Stevenson’s first career touchdown gave the Patriots a 21-20 lead with just over six minutes remaining, all hell broke loose.
The Cowboys (5-1) drove to the New England 33 on the ensuing possession, but Greg Zuerlein’s 51-yard field goal attempt sprayed far left, with the kicker likely influenced by Justin Bethel’s closing push.
With a chance to salt the game away, the Patriots fell victim to Trevon Diggs, who snagged a Mac Jones pass that tipped off Kendrick Bourne’s fingers and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown and a 26-21 Dallas lead.
Jones was disappointed but undaunted.
The rookie connected with Bourne on a 75-yard touchdown pass on his next snap — burning Diggs in the process — and giving the Patriots a 29-26 lead after he hit Jakobi Meyers with a 2-point conversion pass.
“That just showed the grit that [Jones] has always been showing us,’’ said linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Bourne had to move on from the pick, which deflected off his hands on his first target of the game.
“Crazy play, crazy sequence, but just tried to keep my head in that game — not point fingers in that situation,” said Bourne. “I kind of blamed myself, like what could I have done better, that’s how I looked at it ... Just grateful we had another chance.’’
With the crowd at full throttle and just 2:11 left in regulation, Prescott kept his foot on the gas, driving the Cowboys into Patriots territory, where Zuerlein punched home a 49-yarder to tie it at 29 and set the stage for the extra session.
The Patriots won the toss in overtime but weren’t able to get into scoring position.
The Cowboys took over at their 20 and Prescott was as nimble and as spry as he’d been all day, moving in the pocket to buy extra time and make key completions, the final one the deep crosser to Lamb that sealed it.
“They made some big time plays in the clutch moments, so kudos to them,’’ said Bentley.
The Patriots had built a 14-10 halftime lead but after scoring on their first two drives, had trouble building any momentum until the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys gambled early, and as is often the case, the house won.
The Patriots defense stuffed Zeke Elliott on fourth and 1 at the Dallas 34 on the Cowboys’ first possession, giving the hosts terrific field position before most of the fannies had settled in their seats.
Jones needed just three plays to get his mates in the end zone. Harris ripped off a 21-yard burst through the A gap on first down and after 9-yard completion to Jonnu Smith, Harris barreled in from 4 yards on a wildcat strike and it was 7-0.
Prescott and the Cowboys hardly seemed discouraged, however, needing just seven plays to pull even.
Big completions to Dalton Schultz (18 and 23 yards) were sandwiched between a 17-yarder to Amari Cooper. Prescott hit Blake Jarwin from 1 yard out to cap the drive.
The blitzkrieg continued on the ensuing possession when Jones hit Rhamondre Stevenson with back-to-back passes (a swinger for 14 yards and a seam shot for 22) to get things rolling.
A 4-yard Stevenson run, plus a 15-yard personal foul on Diggs, put the Patriots in the red zone. From there Jones hit Hunter Henry with a 20-yard touchdown pass for a 14-7 lead.
Dallas crept closer on Zuerlein’s 30-yard field goal, which cut the Patriots’ advantage to 14-10.
The Cowboys appeared poised to take the lead after Luke Gifford blocked a Jake Bailey punt, giving the Cowboys possession deep in New England territory.
Prescott and Co. drove it to the 1-yard line where they hit a red, white, and blue brick wall.
Elliott was turned back twice and Prescott found no space on third down. Rolling the dice again on fourth down, Prescott fumbled on his sneak (with help from Bentley) and the Patriots recovered for the touchback before heading for the locker room with 14-10 edge.
The final 30 minutes was ratings gold.
“Tough one to lose tonight. That’s a good football team. Give Dallas credit. They’re a good team. They’re well-coached,’’ said Bill Belichick “We came up a little bit short. I thought we went toe to toe with them for 60 minutes. They just made a few more plays than we did, so let’s give them credit for that. We’ll move on.’’
More Patriots-Cowboys coverage
▪ Chad Finn | Unconventional Review: The Patriots had to have Sunday, and per usual, they couldn’t quite get it
▪ Ben Volin | Instant analysis: Patriots somehow hung in with the Cowboys, but the more talented and better team won