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BOB RYAN

It appears the Tuna not surprised by loss

FOXBOROUGH -- His team shut out in its last two road games, Bill Parcells was soft-spoken and about as humble as he's ever going to be as he reached the podium.

It was 16-0 in Tampa three weeks ago, and it was 12-0 last night at Gillette. "They played better than we did tonight," the Tuna declared to the assembled media. "We didn't give ourselves a chance to win."

He was clearly referring to the 10 penalties assessed against his club, a total that remained that low only because several more were declined. It almost seemed as if every member of the offensive line had arrived in Foxborough having made a solemn vow to hold somebody. By that measure, the Cowboys had a great evening.

It was another one of those grim, trench warfare games that seem to be in vogue all around the league this season. The Dolphins and Ravens had played one earlier in the day (9-6, Fish, in overtime). Apparently figuring that some Americans had been out raking leaves or getting a jump on their Christmas shopping during the afternoon, the Patriots and Cowboys thoughtfully staged an encore presentation of what we can label an economical offensive game last evening.

What transpired wasn't a shock. Who didn't know that the under was the smart play? The Patriots haven't ascended to their lofty status by being some kind of offensive machine. They do what they have to do offensively, but their calling card is defense. The same can be said for the 'Boys, who arrived here at or near the head of the class in many relevant defensive statistics.

"They've got a good team," Parcells acknowledged. "Their defense is really solid. But I thought our defense held its own."

I can't prove this. I offer it as a gut feeling. But something about the tone of his voice and his general demeanor told me that what Bill Parcells saw last night didn't surprise him one bit. I think he not only got the kind of game he expected to get, he also got the outcome his intellectual self expected. On a couple of occasions during his postgame remarks, the translation might just as well have been a pleading, "But you could also say that about us, too. Don't forget about us!"

Analyzing this game wasn't all that difficult. The Patriots created the only turnovers. The Patriots made the single biggest defensive stop. The Patriots made more significant offensive plays. And the Patriots didn't continually kill their drives with penalties.

"We haven't been a heavily penalized team," Parcells pointed out. "We've only been averaging about six penalties a game."

The Cowboys actually outgained the Patriots (291-268) and had more first downs (17-14). But the closest they came to scoring was a drive that carried them to the New England 19 late in the third quarter with the Patriots leading, 9-0. On first and 10, quarterback Quincy Carter threw a pass that deflected off tight end Jason Witten's hands and landed in the grateful grasp of Ty Law. That really hurt. Even 3 points would have been welcome in this kind of game.

But the killer sequence came in the fourth period. The Cowboys took advantage of a Richard Seymour roughing-the-passer penalty for one first down, and were on the move with a third-and-1 smack at midfield, still trailing by that manageable 9-point margin with more than nine minutes left. This was as far as they would get, however. First, Troy Hambrick was stopped for no gain, and then on fourth and inches, the Cowboys first called time out and then decided on another straight-ahead plunge by Hambrick. Tedy Bruschi came flying in to nail the running back for a 2-yard loss.

"We thought about going outside, which we retroactively should have done," admitted Parcells. "They basically were in their goal-line defense and they got good penetration."

Talk about understatement.

Understatement and restraint were the hallmarks of this Parcells press conference. He's been telling people all along not to be fooled by his team's gaudy record, that there were still many flaws, especially on offense, and there was too much football to be played for anyone to get unduly excited.

Someone wanted to give him and his team an excuse by asking if the absence of wide receiver Joey Galloway was a big factor in the defeat, but the Tuna wouldn't bite. "I won't use that as an excuse," he said. "They didn't have Troy Brown, either, and he's a pretty good player."

He just wasn't in a haranguing mood. Even the penalties were shrugged off -- sort of. "We've just got to execute a little better; that's all," he said. "We tried to keep the game balanced. I didn't want to get into a passing contest."

Nope, the Tuna was docile. The way he saw it, his team came into a hostile stadium atmosphere and was beaten by a better team. It wasn't more complicated than that.

Oh, and as for all those, you know, peripheral issues involving him and his coaching counterpart? They hugged at midfield afterward, and here's all the coach of the Dallas Cowboys had to say about that: "I'm about tired of talking about that. The guy did a great job for me for a long time, and people in the media can drive a stake between us, but it's not gonna happen to me."

That's the Tuna's story, and he's sticking to it. And this coming week we'll be talking about football, football, football. Unless you know any dirt involving Bill Belichick and Dom Capers, in which case feel free to contact the e-mail address below.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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