FOXBOROUGH — Mac Jones was flat on his back. Literally.
An off-target throw, a pick-6 by the NFL’s leading defender, and the loss of a fourth-quarter lead left the Patriots rookie prone on the Gillette Stadium turf. As images go, it’s a pretty fitting one for what happened Sunday at Gillette Stadium, an afternoon and evening of football filled with frustration and fueled by the regret of lost opportunity.
In the aftermath of a 35-29 overtime loss to the Cowboys, maybe that’s how the Patriots look now too. They haven’t won a game at home this season, haven’t won at home with fans in attendance in their last six tries, and fell to 2-4 after landing on the wrong end of a wild, back-and-forth slugfest that ended with Dak Prescott’s knockout punch — a walkoff touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb.
They’re staggering, still searching for that one crucial defensive stand, that one breakout offensive night, that all-around brand of football that once made Gillette a house of horrors for visiting teams. Close losses at home to Dallas, to Tampa Bay, to New Orleans, to Miami, all of them blur together in some odd, unfamiliar mix, marked by an inability to get a crucial play at a crucial moment.
And yet, for all the disappointment of the latest close loss, there is optimism to be found in hanging with a Cowboys team quickly emerging as one of the most dangerous in the NFL.
At the core of that hope is a young quarterback who continues to prove he can get up off the mat. From pick-6 to 75-yard touchdown throw on his very next play, from flat on his back to raising his arms to the sky, Jones continues to show a brand of toughness and resilience to go along with a skill set that features impressive accuracy and anticipation. It’s a combination that was particularly impressive Sunday, when he went toe-to-toe with Prescott, not on the stat sheet, which the veteran dominated with 445 passing yards compared with Jones’s 229, but in ways that don’t always show up in a boxscore.
Like the ability to forget a terrible interception and throw a beautiful touchdown on the very next play.
“That’s the grit he’s showing us on the field every week,” teammate Ja’Whaun Bentley said. “Give him credit. He’s constantly growing, it’s great to see him grow. To see him make that play, it’s impressive.”
As center David Andrews put it: “How do you respond any better than what he just did?”
Let’s go back to the pivotal fourth-quarter sequence. It started when Jones got the ball with 2:42 to go and his team clinging to a 1-point lead: a.k.a. run-out-the-clock time. A first down or two was all Jones and Co. needed to secure what would have been their biggest win of the season, a victory that would have earned Jones the type of mano-a-mano QB matchup he’d almost scored against Tom Brady a few weeks back, only to see a late field goal doink off the upright.
But Jones’s second play of the drive ended up in the wrong hands, a throw intended for Kendrick Bourne that sailed wide and was picked off by Trevon Diggs instead, with Diggs sprinting 42 yards to the end zone. While the Cowboys’ breakout defensive star was busy tying an NFL record with an interception in his first six games to start the season, Jones was trying to lift himself up off the ground and make his way to the sideline.
A failed 2-point conversion attempt left the score at 26-21 Dallas, 2:21 left to play.
Jones, taking over at his 25, was about to change that. On his very next play.
With one of the prettiest throws of his career, Jones went right back to Bourne, and right back at Diggs, a double move route that hit Bourne right in his stride, and sent him streaking down the field and into the end zone.
“He has some guts,” Andrews said. “Talk about mental toughness. ... We needed a play and we got one from him.”
That’s the positive to be taken from this game. Moral victories don’t count for a lot, but when a quarterback is young and learning, when a team is evolving and rebuilding, they can count for something.
“When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you’re close, and it’s hard to do that, but the games that we’ve lost we’ve been two or three plays away, and I guess it’s just how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way,” Jones said. “But we can’t hang our heads, we just have to come back tomorrow, get up early and come back to work.”
Jones will be sore again — an early strip-sack and fumble at the hands of Randy Gregory was one of the hardest hits he’s taken as a pro, and after a torrid first-half start that staked his team to a 14-7 first-quarter lead, he cooled off after the hit. But he kept on getting up. Even on his overtime possession, a disappointing five-play drive that stalled at his 46-yard line, he was solid. Referees missed a clear facemask on Jones’s final third-and-3 incompletion to Nelson Agholor.
“It’s bang-bang, but when it’s one-on-one, things happen, and it’s not my job to throw the flag,” Jones said. “I’ve just got to stick to my rules and stick to my keys, and sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t blame everything on the refs or anything. They call their game, and we have to execute our game plan. It’s an it-is-what-it-is situation and we just have to move on and find ways to not be in that position where we can be ahead and we don’t have to be in that position.”
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
Cowboys 35, Patriots 29 (OT): In a game of plot twists and incredible lead changes, Patriots were finally knocked out by Cowboys
Patriots notebook: Patriots offensive linemen Mike Onwenu, Isaiah Wynn return from COVID list but do not start
Bill Belichick praised Dak Prescott after Patriots’ loss to the Cowboys
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Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.