Thirteen thoughts on the Patriots’ 13-9 victory over the Cowboys …
1. Put an asterisk next to it if that’s the kind of thing you like to do when attempting to diminish something great. Blame the Cowboys’ struggles on the rain. Note, with some accuracy, that Dallas got called for at least one absurd penalty. But whatever you do, give the Patriots defense the credit it deserves, please. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys came to Foxborough with an offense that rated as the most potent in the NFL. When they left, they had not scored a touchdown, Stephon Gilmore had caught more Prescott passes than did star receiver Amari Cooper, Jamie Collins (10 tackles) got more face time with Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott than Jason Garrett will this week, and the Patriots had their 10th victory, the record 17th straight season in which they’ve hit that milestone. The weather might have been lousy, but the defense was excellent again, and make no mistake: This is a win to savor.
2. Over the last couple of weeks leading up to his NFL debut last week, Patriots fans have heard mixed messages regarding how much rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry might help upon coming off injured reserve. Tom Brady seemed hesitant to offer anything resembling a glowing endorsement. There was chatter that he was struggling to catch the ball, or that his GPS didn’t always put him where Brady expected him to be. But the Patriots’ defensive backs praised his competitiveness and ability to fight for the ball. We needed to see him for ourselves.
3. It was fairly encouraging watching him make his debut with three catches on four targets last Sunday in the win over the Eagles. But this Sunday brought even more reason for optimism that he can be a helpful and perhaps even reliable member of the Patriots offense going forward. Harry scored the first touchdown of the game – and the first of his NFL career – in the first quarter on a 10-yard back-shoulder catch-and-throw in which he had to twist to get his feet down in bounds. It was a tremendous play, a tough one even for a veteran to make. Maybe he’s raw, but the talent was obvious Sunday.
4. The young receivers appeared to do at least an adequate job stepping up in the absence of Phillip Dorsett (concussion) and Mohamed Sanu (high ankle sprain), both of whom were inactive. Jakobi Meyers had a spectacular 32-yard catch and run with about eight minutes left in the second quarter, picking up 23 of the yards after the catch. He had another crafty catch and run for a first down early in the fourth quarter and finished with 4 catches for 76 yards. That was a nice bounce-back play after dropping a catch-able ball on third down on a third-quarter drive. The young guys missed some makeup catches in the rainy weather. But overall, this was encouraging.
5. We should note that Harry’s touchdown was set up by a spectacular punt block by Matthew Slater (who else?), who pulled some Matrix-level stuff in reaching out and deflecting Chris Jones’s kick as he tumbled by him. Much like the blocked punt against the Bills he returned for a touchdown earlier this year, Slater’s block stirred social media chatter on his Hall of Fame chances. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s either the best special teams player ever to play or the co-greatest with ex-Bill Steve Tasker, but it’s hard to put together a convincing highlight reel of a gunner downing punts inside the 5. Plays like this one will only help his case with those who don’t already know how great – and Canton-deserving – he is.
6. Tremendous game – as usual, really – for Jonathan Jones, who made a terrific tackle on third and 2 to keep Randall Cobb from converting a first down in the third quarter. Earlier, he had a nifty third down pass breakup to abbreviate the Cowboys’ first possession of the game. He also recovered the football after Slater’s blocked punt.
7. The Cowboys were as sloppy as the conditions the first half. There was Slater’s blocked punt, an interception by Gilmore (who should get defensive player of the year consideration) of a Prescott third-down throw that set up a Nick Folk field goal, plus a couple of other instances where the Cowboys bobbled the ball or fumbled it and recovered. They did not look like a team that has spent much time in their lives playing football in the rain.
8. Michel’s 17-yard gain halfway through the first quarter was the best run I can remember from him this season. He had a hole, and center Ted Karras was at least in the way of two Dallas defenders, but Michel delivered an effective shoulder-fake and shimmy. He hasn’t had too many runs of style and substance this season.
9. Michel was actually good out of the gate for the Patriots, carrying the ball on their first four plays from scrimmage for 27 yards, including a 13-yarder on his first touch. That drive stalled when, on their second set of downs, Brady’s first two passing attempts of the day fell incomplete. The Patriots forgot about him in the middle quarters, but he had an important 17-yard run late, finishing with 89 yards, more than Ezekiel Elliott (86). I suspect having Isaiah Wynn back at left tackle had something to do with that.
10. If there was one play that encapsulated the afternoon for the Cowboys, it came late in the third quarter when they were trailing, 10-6. Prescott, who seemed to throw the ball better in the second half after he began wearing a glove on his right hand, made his best throw of the day to Amari Cooper for a first down on third and 3. The catch was Cooper’s first of the day – hello, Stephon Gilmore – and it must have been satisfying for him for the brief moment it counted.
11. Cooper got sent back to zero when tackle Tyron Smith was called for his third penalty of the day, a holding call committed against Jamie Collins. Prescott threw incomplete on the next play, and the Cowboys fell to 2 for 11 on third down as they left the field.
12. Jake Bailey, the Patriots’ excellent rookie punter, didn’t have his best game Sunday, booting two punts into the end zone and hitting others for just 30 and 32 yards. But he did come through when it mattered most, pinning the ball at the Cowboys’ 8 with 2 minutes 38 seconds left. Yes, it was Slater who downed the punt.
13. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett gets a lot of second guessing, and he generally deserves it. But I can’t really blame him for taking the 29-yard field goal, cutting the score to 13-9 with 6 minutes and change left in the fourth, to going on it from 4th and 7 from the Patriots 12. The Cowboys did get the ball back and had another crack at it. They just couldn’t do anything against this Patriots defense, no matter where they had the ball and what the circumstances happened to be.