Patriots

5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 13-9 win over the Cowboys

Forget about the aesthetics, Pats fans. The time has come to embrace the grind.

An official signals the ball is going the other way as Patrots DB Stephon Gilmore (24) smiles following his interception. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 13-9 win over the Cowboys, which secured yet another 10-win season while keeping New England alone atop the AFC …

EMBRACE THE GRIND

It’s been about a month now since things looked pretty. Over their past 15 quarters the Patriots have scored a total of five touchdowns, and over their past three games they’ve held a lead of larger than a touchdown for all of 4 minutes and 10 seconds. Since a 17-0 lead over the Browns ballooned their scoring margin to 192 for the season, they’ve actually been outscored by nine points.

Forget about the aesthetics, however, Pats fans. The time has come to embrace the grind.

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Long gone are those early days, when everything looked easy and an unbeaten start brought on talk of maybe going 19-0. Now we’ve seen the warts, and the shortcomings, and with that snap back to reality it’s become apparent that the Patriots’ talent probably isn’t of the caliber it had appeared to be earlier.

But over these past couple of weeks, what’s also become evident is that while the group may not be as gifted as it looked initially, it’s every bit as gritty and gutsy as it needs to be in order to make something special of this season.

Whether it’s shaking off a brutal pre-bye beating by overcoming a 10-point deficit at Philadelphia, or powering through pouring rain and a pile of injuries against the talent-stacked Cowboys at Gillette Stadium, this club has proven that has the type of mental toughness that has been a prerequisite for the truly elite teams of their ongoing dynasty.

It may not be as exciting as a long touchdown pass, a lengthy drive, or an ego-pumping rout — but there’s plenty to love if you’re willing to pay attention to some of the nuance.

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Enjoy the situational excellence. Appreciate the preparedness. Wrap your arms around the ability to figure out, and execute, whatever is needed to win the game — as they’ve now done 10 times in 11 tries.

“When you look at it, I think everyone wants to see 30 points on the board, and we hold the team to nine,” captain Devin McCourty said afterward.

“But when you talk about winning football games, it’s those things, understanding how to take advantage … that’s winning football, and we’ve just got to continue to do those things.”

DEFENSE PROVES ITSELF IN THE RED ZONE

The Cowboys became the fifth offense in 11 games to go without a touchdown against the Patriots, but Dallas did threaten more than most. Over the first 10 games, only 13 drives against New England entered the red zone; Dak Prescott took his team inside the Pats’ 20 twice, and two other possessions brought the ball inside the 30.

Of those four trips, the Cowboys settled for three made field goals and a miss, as the Pats held tough against a team that had converted better than 58 percent of its red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, and was the NFL’s No. 1 unit on third down.

Percentage-wise, the Patriots ranked as the third-stingiest red-zone defense in football, but because they’d been so good at stopping opponents before they got so deep the Patriots hadn’t had a lot of chances to validate that status. After Sunday’s additions to the sample size, there should be less doubt about their validity.

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Inside the red zone, New England allowed two three-yard runs, a two-yard catch, and forced three incompletions. It thwarted both third-down tries, including one at the 11-yard line with barely six minutes to play in what was a seven-point game.

Jason Garrett settled for the field goal rather than trying to convert a fourth-and-six. Up against the clock it was a questionable decision by the coach.
But given the defense he was up against, it might’ve been the more pragmatic option.

“Earlier in the season we didn’t get a lot of red-area opportunities, but my whole time here we’ve put a lot of focus on third down and the red area. So when we get in the red area, we’ve talked about it a lot. Guys understand what the team wants to do,” McCourty said. “We know we really need to play our best football for three downs.

“Bill [Belichick] always talks about those four-point plays, and we did a good job on those plays.”

THERE’S SOMETHING THERE WITH THE ROOKIES

With Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu both inactive because of injuries, the Patriots really had no other choice than to rely on their rookie receivers. After all, beyond them and Julian Edelman the depth chart was Matthew Slater. Period. End of list.

And at times, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers looked very much like rookies. Meyers let a would-be first down slide right through his arms along the sideline. Meyers was flattened before failing to hang on a perfectly thrown pass up the seam. Of their 13 targets, only five resulted in receptions.

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But within that handful of grabs there were reasons to believe New England has something with its pair of young pass catchers.

That list starts first and foremost with Harry’s 10-yard touchdown catch. It put on full display the difference-maker he could be this season, based on his size and strength alone, and even in limited usage. All year the Patriots have been an offense that has struggled to capitalize in the red zone, so it had to be a sight for Brady’s sore eyes to look left, fire a perfect throw where only his 6-foot-4 receiver could squeeze it, and see him flex the athleticism and footwork to get both feet down before he crashed to the ground.

Meyers, meanwhile, made a tough run to turn a short catch into a 32-yard gain, then later made a 23-yard catch on third and 8, then a nine-yard snag on third and 7. There are still times where the undrafted product of North Carolina State looks unsure of exactly what Brady wants — but the quarterback does appear to trust him. When Brady needs a completion, his first choice is Edelman. As always. Meyers, however, has looked at times this season, and again Sunday, like a worthwhile back-up plan in big spots.

When Dorsett and Sanu come back, the rookies may not be needed to fill those roles. But, then, they may not be covered by a team’s No. 2 or 3 cornerbacks, either.

SEIZING THE SHORT FIELD

The Patriots’ 10 first-half points came as cappers of drives that traveled 12 and 3 yards, the touchdown set up by Matt Slater’s punt block, then the field goal facilitated by Stephon Gilmore’s interception.

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With those, the Pats improved to 12 for 15 in scoring at least three points after the defense or special teams set them up with possession at the 50 or better. Harry’s touchdown was the fifth among that set; Nick Folk’s 44-yard was the team’s seventh field goal after starting on a short field.

Entering Sunday, no other team had scored more than nine times after taking over in plus territory after a turnover, with the league converting for points at an average of 73.3 percent. So the Patriots offense has been good enough to take advantage at a rate slightly higher than the league average, and even with those short fields New England’s typical touchdown drive still stacks up respectably. The Pats’ average touchdown drive started Sunday at 64.4 yards; league-wide it was 64.75. Those drives had averaged 3:39; league-wide it was 3:30.

THE OFFENSE FUNCTIONED, IN SPITE OF THE NUMBERS

Time will tell how much of a difference is made of Isaiah Wynn’s return to left tackle after a toe injury, but in his first game since Week 2 the Patriots did run the ball effectively. And, with the game in the balance, the offense looked, well, functional and reliable.

Outside of Sony Michel’s 85 yards on 20 carries, the numbers don’t tell such a story — but given the rain, wind, cold, and situation, Sunday was a step forward for the offense.

For proof, look no further than the last two series for that unit. The first began at the New England 25, after Dallas had cut the deficit to 13-9, and quickly became a statement on the belief the coaching staff still has in its franchise quarterback. Completion percentage and aching elbow be damned, they recognized that he was better in this game than his stat line (17-for-37, 190 yards) might’ve said, and they entrusted him with securing the victory.

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The Pats threw the ball on four straight snaps, completing three of those, and not going to the ground until they were already in Cowboys territory. That tilted the field and allowed them to kill three and a half minutes, so when Dallas took over it did so at its own 8, with 2:38 left.

“We obviously have a lot of confidence in Tom, and the receivers we had out there,” Belichick said. “He made good decisions and we were able to convert some short passes into first downs, and eventually gain enough yardage to kick the field goal and to make it a seven-point game.

“We certainly have a lot of confidence in Tom and his ability to handle any conditions.”

Although the Pats’ defense forced a turnover on downs on the subsequent series, the game wasn’t over. New England needed another first down, because Dallas had three timeouts, and this time that critical yardage came via the run. Michel went for five, then for 12 — both times running to Wynn’s left side — and that was effectively the ball game.

Neither of those last two series produced points. But in the bigger picture, their results might’ve been even more valuable.

“We mixed the running game and the passing game,” Belichick said. “They both came through for us in the fourth quarter at various points where we really needed it.”

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