ARLINGTON, Texas — The Patriots suffered one of their worst defeats in recent memory, dropping a 38-3 decision to the Cowboys Sunday. Making things worse was the loss of two of their most important defensive players, cornerback Christian Gonzalez and outside linebacker Matthew Judon.
Gonzalez went down with less than two minutes left in the first quarter, suffering what the team called a shoulder injury during a tackle of running back Tony Pollard. The rookie went right to the blue medical tent, to the locker room, and with him, any shot the Patriots had when it came to slowing Dallas’s receivers.
Judon left with what the team called an elbow injury in the fourth quarter. According to an NFL source, Judon suffered a biceps tear.
“Devastating. Devastating,” defensive end Deatrich Wise said. “But he was in good spirits. And we’ll be with him mentally throughout this year, and we’ll be with him, too. There will be some guys behind him who will be stepping up and filling in his spot.”
The two body blows were a difficult pair of losses to handle, but the injury to Gonzalez really seemed to set the tone for the afternoon. It wasn’t the only reason Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott looked for Myles Bryant on the play after Gonzalez went down, a 20-yard touchdown toss to Cee Dee Lamb, but it didn’t appear to be a coincidence.
Gonzalez wasn’t necessarily trailing Lamb but it became evident the presence of Gonzalez — the reigning AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month — allowed the Patriots to mask their personnel losses at cornerback, particularly against the likes of Lamb.
Prescott’s numbers weren’t necessarily overwhelming — he finished 28-for-34 passing for 261 yards and a touchdown in three-plus quarters. But the Dallas passing attack faced little resistance after Gonzalez left.
“We got punched in the mouth today,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “We got our [butts] kicked. We didn’t come out here and do what we were supposed to do tonight. That’s just the end of it.”
Without Gonzalez, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, and Jack Jones, Bryant was left to defend Lamb. And while Bryant has proven to be a good third or fourth option at corner, trying to body up Lamb in the red zone is a tough assignment.
“I don’t think they changed anything, necessarily,” Bryant said, referring to when Gonzalez went down. “They came out with the same approach. They came out and did what we thought they would do. They just executed a lot better than we did fundamentally. It was just a matter of making plays, and they made more than we did.”
Of course, even if the Patriots had all three Joneses and a healthy Gonzalez, there’s no guarantee they could have pulled off the upset. The Patriots were ineffective in all three phases of the game, while the Cowboys were sharp across the board.
But the losses of Gonzalez and Judon underscored just how little margin for error the defense has, especially when it comes to defending elite offensive talent.
“It’s only Week 4,” Bryant said, “so we still have time to reach our goals.”
“It’s a next-man-up mentality. That’s alway been the motto. If they’re out there, they’re capable,” Peppers said. “They were just better today, We’ll look at the film and see the errors. But they had a good game plan today. We just didn’t come out on the right side of things.
“Just have to keep fighting until the last whistle. Show some heart. It is what it is, man. We didn’t come out and play the way we were supposed to play today. That’s the end result.”
Shuffling the offensive line
The Patriots starting offensive line was (from left): Trent Brown, Atonio Mafi, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, and Vederian Lowe. It was the fourth different starting combination through the first four games … Sunday marked the first indoor game of the 2023 season for the Patriots, who were last inside on Dec. 18, 2022, against the Raiders at Las Vegas. New England is 4-4 in its last eight games indoors dating to the 2021 season.
Nicole Yang of the Globe staff contributed to this report.