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Stops got it started

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 17, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Vince Wilfork knew something was up with the Cowboys’ offense.

Guarding a 13-13 tie with just under six minutes left in yesterday’s game, the Patriots’ defense was put to the test.

With the Cowboys facing third and goal from the New England 5, Wilfork alerted his teammates that something different was coming, he just didn’t know what.

The big tackle warned the defense. Linebacker Brandon Spikes picked up on Wilfork’s signal. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo then tossed a shovel pass to Tashard Choice and Spikes bolted through the line and dropped the running back for a 3-yard loss that forced the Cowboys to settle for a 26-yard field goal.

It was the first of two critical stops in the final minutes for the defense.

“In my stance, I kind of smelt some boo boo,’’ Wilfork said. “Just being in that situation, that was one of the situations that we covered during the week . . . I didn’t know it was going to be that, but I had the feeling it was going to be some type of run.’’

For all of the holes in the defense this season, the group banded together to give the Patriots a chance to win yesterday, finding ways to pressure Romo, make stops, and force turnovers in a 20-16 victory at Gillette Stadium. The plays, coupled with conservative play calling by Cowboys coach Jason Garrett down the stretch, are the reasons the Patriots’ defense turned in one of its better performances.

The Cowboys were 4 of 12 on third down, with the most critical stop occurring with 2:42 left in the game. The drive began at the Dallas 28 with 3:36 to go, but on three consecutive snaps the Cowboys were hit with negative plays.

The first two plays were tackles for losses and the third pushed the Cowboys back an additional 5 yards when Tyron Smith was called for a false start. It left the Cowboys facing third and 18 from their own 20 when Choice picked up 8 yards on a run before being tackled, forcing the Cowboys to punt.

The Patriots turned the game over to Tom Brady with 2 minutes 31 seconds left to lead them to victory.

“It’s just another steppingstone,’’ said defensive end Andre Carter, who had two sacks. “It can be a sign of how we can be, we just have to take that mentality and learn from it and grow and be consistent.’’

The Cowboys came in ranked sixth in total offense, collecting 417.8 yards per game. Dallas was ranked third in passing offense at 331 yards per game. Opponents have found ways to exploit the Patriots pass defense, but the Cowboys couldn’t get beyond their mistakes.

Romo completed 27 of 41 passes for 317 yards and an interception by cornerback Kyle Arrington. The Cowboys scored just one touchdown in three red-zone trips and Choice fumbled in the first quarter on the New England 21.

The Patriots’ defense had its moments, including Wilfork batting down passes and forcing a fumble, Carter’s two sacks, and Spikes’s strong play against run.

“Our offense has done a great job helping us out at the beginning of the season when we struggled,’’ Spikes said. “It’s about getting better. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.’’

Yesterday the Patriots showed signs of being better and did what they could to make the difference.

“All we had to do is get [Brady] the ball and you know what he’s going to do after that,’’ Spikes said.

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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