ARLINGTON, Texas — Second-stringers were in and a sizable portion of the 93,054 in attendance already had filed out, yet members of the Patriots’ defense were treating the fourth-down play as if Sunday’s outcome depended on it.
Actually, the game had long been decided, but the Patriots were intent on keeping the Dallas Cowboys out of the end zone. So when Brandon Weeden’s last-gasp pass fluttered high and fell incomplete with 80 seconds left, the emotional reaction from the Patriots’ sideline mirrored something you’d see after a game-changing stop.
The turnover on downs didn’t change the game — the Patriots beat the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, 30-6, to improve to 4-0 — but it did put a nice bow on the team’s best defensive performance of the young season.
Perhaps taking a back seat to the league’s top-ranked offense, the defense, at least on Sunday, showed that it has some teeth.
“We really wanted to hold them to 6 points. It worked out for us, so we were excited,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “Playing 60 minutes, I feel like the first couple games of the year we didn’t close out the game on defense the way we should have. So it was nice to do exactly that. We closed the game out on our terms. A turnover on downs is a nice way to end it.”
The game might not have had the start they were looking for, but perhaps that had to do with a light layer of rust picked up during the early bye week. Once the Patriots took a deep breath and blew that away, they picked up right where they left off, rolling past another overmatched opponent and remaining perfect in what’s been a dominating opening month.
Tom Brady threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns, Julian Edelman had four catches for 120 yards and a score, and the Patriots forced a pair of turnovers. How strong was the defense? Dallas had scored a touchdown in 65 consecutive games, a streak that ended Sunday.
“It’s definitely a pride thing for the defense, just being able to go out there and have a team not score a touchdown on you,” said defensive tackle Alan Branch. “That says a lot. It says we played well enough in the red zone and the strike zone where they couldn’t put points on the board. We take pride in that. As you saw, we take a lot of pride in it.”
The Patriots built quick leads in wins over Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Jacksonville. They needed more time to do the same against Dallas, which pressured Brady in the first half, sacking him five times. Field goals by Stephen Gostkowski (49 yards) and Dan Bailey (51) had the score locked at 3-3 deep into the second quarter, but that’s when the Patriots began to take control, scoring 17 points in a span of 8:51.
A 1-yard touchdown sneak by Brady, a career-long 57-yard field goal from Gostkowski, and a 10-yard scoring pass from Brady to Dion Lewis on the opening drive of the third quarter turned a 3-3 game into 20-3.
The touchdown by Lewis, who signed a two-year contract extension last week, was a thing of beauty. He took a pass in the right flat, cut hard left to let Barry Church go by, slipped under defensive tackle Jack Crawford, eluded another defender who whiffed on the tackle, then bounced into the end zone while being hit by safety J.J. Wilcox.
“I was trying to catch the ball and let my instincts take over after that, trying not to get hit,” said Lewis, who had 34 rushing yards and caught eight passes for 59 yards. “I was just trying to make a great play for my team. It was a great way to get us some momentum.”
It did, and with the way the Patriots’ defense was making things difficult for Weeden — who threw for 188 yards in place of injured starter Tony Romo, and was sacked three times – the 17-point lead would be more than enough.
They did it mostly without Dont’a Hightower, who left the game early in the first quarter with a rib injury and did not return. Hightower’s absence at linebacker was hardly felt: Jerod Mayo played more snaps, Jamie Collins had a game-high 10 tackles, and when he forced a fourth-quarter fumble out of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten after a short catch, fellow linebacker Jonathan Freeny was there to scoop it up. It was one of two turnovers; Logan Ryan intercepted Weeden on the Cowboys’ next possession.
With Romo and top wideout Dez Bryant out for Dallas, Witten was the Patriots’ primary focus on defense. He didn’t get a pass thrown his way in the first half, and finished with just 33 yards on five catches, the definition of a non-factor.
“I thought we had good team defense,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Our secondary played well. Linebackers were in on a lot of the plays up front. We had a lot of different guys step up and make plays.”
After a 23-yard field goal by Bailey brought the Cowboys within 20-6 late in the third quarter, the Patriots put the game away with a 59-yard scoring strike from Brady to Edelman early in the fourth. It capped quite a turnaround for Brady and the offensive line; the Cowboys recorded five sacks in the first half, including two by Greg Hardy, making his first appearance since Week 1 of last season. But the Cowboys couldn’t get to Brady in the second half. No sacks.
It allowed for the Patriots to find their rhythm on offense. The defense had theirs from the start; the total yardage allowed has gone down every game, from 464 to 349 to 293 and now 264. The offense might earn most of the praise when it comes to the Patriots, but the defense can play a little, too.
“On defense, the big thing is we don’t pay attention to anything the offense does. They’ve got a job, and we’ve got a job. Whether they’re scoring every possession, going three-and-out, or kicking field goals, we’ve just got to give them the ball back,” said safety Devin McCourty. “From playing here for a couple years, we know if we can give them the ball back, no matter what they’re doing, eventually points are going to go on the board and we’ll be able to make a run.”
Next stop: Indianapolis on Sunday for a prime-time game against the Colts. It’ll be a rematch of the AFC Championship Game, which prompted the Deflategate scandal that hung over the Patriots for seven months.
It figures to be an eventful week.