FOXBOROUGH – Tom Brady was standing inside the thick white stripe that borders the field late in Sunday afternoon’s game against the Cowboys, near the home team’s 27-yard line, playing catch with backup Jarrett Stidham, who stood about 10 yards downfield. Like the rest of the rain-soaked, wind-blown folks inside a packed Gillette Stadium, Brady was eagerly awaiting the result of a crucial late-game review, one that would determine whether he could take his warmed-up arm back onto the field, or whether Amari Cooper’s 20-yard, fourth-down catch would stand for the Cowboys, sending Brady back to his bench.
As officials huddled, the replay was shown on the home team scoreboards. The crowd erupted, convinced the football hit the ground and their Patriots should get the ball back with 1:44 to go. Brady clearly concurred, and did his best to urge the zebras to overturn the call, slicing his hands repeatedly from side to side, the universal sign language for “no catch.” They would agree with him, and when Sony Michel reeled off 17 yards on the next two carries, the Patriots had sealed a 13-9 victory.
Or had they?
Something strange happened on the way to Brady’s victory formation. And the bizarre sequence that led to Dallas getting the ball back with one second left on the clock left the 20-year veteran quarterback shaking his head in new frustration, confused why officials blew the whistle when his fourth-down, high-arcing throwaway pass was clearly still in the air.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve never seen that before,” Brady said. When the throw was described to him as having a seven-second hang time, he added, “It was still up in the air when they stopped the clock, so I don’t know. Everyone says a Patriot gets advantages – I don’t know about that.”
Welcome back, cranky Tom.
No, Brady was not nearly as morose as he was after last week’s equally tough win over Philadelphia, and was decidedly complimentary of the two young receivers who stepped up with big plays Sunday, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, and opened his postgame remarks by saying he was “proud of the effort the guys gave. It was a hard-fought win.” But the way the quarterback has projected his satisfaction, or lack thereof, with what his side of the ball has been doing to contribute to a record that improved to 10-1 has been one of the more intriguing ongoing stories of the season.
If we’ve come to accept that he has not been his most agreeable self, with a mere five games remaining in the regular season, even he has to accede this season just feels different, that it is destined to be carried by the defense and special teams, but can still win if the offense is as gritty and tough as the one we saw Sunday.
“I think every team develops at different times and so forth. I think we just have to take the challenges as they come and try to do the best we can,” Brady said. “It was a great win. They’re a good football team, and I’m happy we came away with more points than them.”
They did, mostly thanks to the set-up work by the other units. The opening touchdown — a beautiful back shoulder fade to Harry, who used his 6-foot-4-inch frame just well enough to ward off his defender — came after Matthew Slater blocked a punt that Nate Ebner recovered at the Dallas 12. One 2-yard run by Michel set up the TD. As drives go, almost as easy as they come.
Then there was the field goal one possession later, when Nick Folk upped the advantage to 10-0 with a nervy 44-yard kick. The kick came after three offensive plays that netted 3 yards. It started at the Dallas 29-yard line thanks to Stephon Gilmore’s diving interception in front of Cooper, the team’s leading receiver who finished the day with zero catches. Add the two scoring drives up and you get 10 points on 15 offensive yards. Sure, they count all the same, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a cause for concern.
“It was awesome being able to run the ball. It was awesome seeing young guys make plays,” veteran receiver Julian Edelman said when asked about signs of encouragement for his offense, at least those other than the team-high eight catches he made for 93 yards on a day when it was clear his shoulder continues to bother him. But with neither Phillip Dorsett or Mohamed Sanu able to play because of injuries, Edelman, as usual, was there to make the crucial catches, a 20-yard third-down catch here, a 23-yard second-down catch there.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we left out there, there’s a lot of stuff we got to work on, but it’s good to go get a win in November against a team like that,” he said. “Yeah, it goes into that category [of gutting it out]. They came in here and played us tough. We both had to play against the elements, we played against Dallas, we didn’t play against the rain. It was good to go out and get a win, especially November at this late a time. Now we have to get back to work this week and get ready for the next one.”
This edition of the Patriots remains a tough team to truly figure out, one that hasn’t been whole along the offensive line for most of the season, one that has seen a revolving door of wide receivers leave Brady unsure of who is even going to be out there on Sundays. For every legitimate plaudit they earn for being 10-1 and staying ahead of the rest of the AFC pack, there is just as legitimate a question as to whether the offense can pack enough punch to win another title. And around here, that’s the way seasons are judged, not just at the end, when the confetti is falling, but every single week, when the focus on one single game is always honed as part of the full season story, when everything is done with an eye on winning in the playoffs.
Being at home would sure help, as Sunday’s weather reminded us. Not many teams can beat the elements the way this one can.
“It was definitely slip ’n’ slide but it just shows you the resiliency of the team to just push through it,” the rookie Harry said. “Obviously it’s going to be hard for a lot of teams to come up here and get used to it like we are, so I think we used it to our advantage.”