Patriots

5 takeaways as Patriots falter in crunch time (again) vs. Cowboys

The Patriots continue to falter in close games because they're playing not to lose rather than trying to win, plus the offensive line situation has reached a breaking point.

Cowboys Patriots
CeeDee Lamb of the Dallas Cowboys (88) celebrates after a play against the New England Patriots in overtime. Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images
Recent Links

As with three of the Patriots’ other losses this season, one could argue New England should have won Sunday’s overtime game against the Dallas Cowboys. They certainly had every opportunity to.

But, as with three of those four overtime losses, the Patriots couldn’t seal the deal at the end of the game, falling 35-29 to the Cowboys and dropping to 2-4 overall (0-4 at home).

There’s a word for teams that repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot when they have opportunities to win, whether because of lack of talent, execution or solid coaching: bad.

To be fair, the Patriots are not yet a bad football team, even if their record is starting to suggest they might be.

Advertisement:

They certainly have the talent on both sides of the ball to be competitive in every game and even to stay in the playoff race for much of the season if they can get back on track starting this week against the lowly New York Jets.

But they’re making a lot of mistakes, from the coaching staff on down, that are typically associated with bad teams. And those miscues have now prominently cost them in every loss this season.

Here are a few takeaways from the crushing defeat against the Cowboys.

The Patriots might have a coaching problem.

Dallas’ Mike McCarthy is not a very good football coach — something we saw evidence of when he opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Cowboys’ own 34-yard line on the first possession of the game. That move, and the corresponding failure to get the first down, gifted the Patriots seven points from the jump.

Here’s the thing, though: no one has accused McCarthy of being a particularly good coach or expects that of him.

Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and the Patriots coaching staff on the other hand? They’ve been thought of as a gold standard for years as the team repeatedly won conference titles and Super Bowls.

Advertisement:

That’s why it might sting to admit that they’re not doing a great job at the moment.

For the second time this season, Belichick’s conservative decision-making has arguably cost the Patriots a game as he both conceded a possession at the end of the first half with 1:30 and a timeout left and then punted in overtime on 4th-and-3 from just shy of midfield.

Though the latter decision wasn’t quite as egregious as opting for a 56-yard field goal through the rain against Tampa Bay rather than going for another 4th-and-3 in that game, the Cowboys had essentially lived in Patriots’ territory all game and marched with relative ease to beat New England once they got the ball back. Hindsight is 20-20, but the decision proved pointless rather quickly.

McDaniels’s questionable run calls, including a third-down puzzler to Brandon Bolden on a third-quarter drive Rhamondre Stevenson had been playing well on to that point, put the offense behind the eight ball in a way that’s become all too familiar.

The Patriots had yet another punt blocked thanks to a breakdown by Jahlani Tavai and a good playcall by Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel.

The defense gave up 24 yards on 3rd-and-25 with the clock ticking down in the fourth quarter, allowing Dallas to tie the game on a field goal from Greg Zuerlein.

Advertisement:

Obviously, the coaches don’t play the game and can’t execute for the players on the field. But at this point, it seems clear the Patriots’ coaching staff is no longer an edge in close contests the way it used to be. If anything, it’s been a liability (unless they’re going against David Culley, of course).

That leads into another point.

The Patriots’ offense is still playing not to lose, and that has to stop.

Mac Jones’s (15-of-31 passing, 229 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) two turnovers on the day hurt. There’s no question about that.

The sack-fumble he surrendered continues an unfortunate trend with Jones, who has fumbled three times in six games (losing one). The interception he threw just flat out missed the mark, and it could’ve cost New England the game.

It didn’t because Jones shook it off and hooked up with Kendrick Bourne immediately to get the points back and put the Patriots in position to win.

But no matter how efficiently Jones plays — he started the game 7-of-7 passing for 100 yards — McDaniels and crew simply aren’t ready to go all-in with him and roll the dice.

If the Patriots wanted to run the football and just control clock, then they might as well have played Cam Newton instead of Jones.

The whole point of playing the rookie passer early was that he looked ready to run the passing offense competently and help the team win. When given the chance, he has proven he can do exactly that even as he goes through growing pains.

Right now, the Patriots appear to be toeing a fine line between trying to win games and protecting Jones from failure.

Advertisement:

But Jones doesn’t need their protection. He’s shown he can rebound from failure and make winning plays, as he did against the Texans and did again in hitting Bourne for the then-go-ahead score late in fourth quarter against Dallas.

It’s about time New England realized the best chance it has to win is to put the ball in Jones’s hands when the chips are down.

Playing scared puts the defense in tough positions and keeps them on the field too long against good teams — the Cowboys ran 82 plays to the Patriots’ 50 yesterday. As tough as the defense held yesterday in multiple bad spots, that’s simply untenable.

No one’s asking Jones to do everything himself. But the Patriots have to let him try and potentially fail to score points. We’ve already seen what happens when they don’t give him the chance: they lose all the same.

Trading Stephon Gilmore might have been a big mistake.

It feels like a crushing piece of irony that the Patriots’ defense just surrendered 445 passing yards to Dak Prescott the day before Stephon Gilmore would have been available to officially return to practice if New England hadn’t traded him.

Now, one can certainly question whether or not Gilmore would have still played on his $7 million contract if the Patriots hadn’t approached him about restructuring his deal. Reports suggested he would have, but no one will know now.

What does seem clear, however, is that the Patriots absolutely could use Gilmore right about now.

Though the cornerback group has largely played well with J.C. Jackson handling top cornerback duties, they clearly still miss Gilmore’s talent.

For example, the Jalen Mills experiment finally hit the sour note everyone was expecting as CeeDee Lamb beat him for the game-winning touchdown last night. He’s been solid, but he’s not a great outside coverage corner.

Advertisement:

Jackson backed up his bold talk last week with four passes defended against the Cowboys, taking on the challenge of being a No. 1 cornerback with pride. Jonathan Jones also keeps making big plays, robbing Cedric Wilson of a touchdown on a great pass deflection.

But maybe Gilmore grabs a couple of the jump balls that have victimized Jackson this season and led to big plays. Maybe Gilmore’s ability to lock down a whole half of the field, when healthy, allows the secondary to shift its attention elsewhere or creates more opportunities to get to the quarterback. Having Gilmore also could’ve allowed for Mills to play a more jack-of-all-trades role in reserve, which he’s better suited for than what he’s doing now.

Bottom line: the Patriots defense, which has already proven resilient and dependable (for the most part), would’ve been better with Gilmore’s presence alone. And their mismanagement of the cornerback’s situation, coupled with the trade, has now willfully left a key position group worse off than it needed to be.

Perhaps the Patriots weren’t really that serious about making the playoffs this season after all. If they really wanted to field the best possible roster, Gilmore would still be on it, and maybe they wouldn’t be 2-4.

Rhamondre Stevenson is here to stay.

The Patriots are giving the rookie running back a chance to shine, and he’s been seizing that opportunity with both hands — in more ways than one.

Stevenson showed of his reliable hands out of the backfield with three catches for 39 yards, including a nice downfield grab on a seam route. He also showed off good wiggle in the open field when Jones got him the football in space.

On top of that, Stevenson also ran the ball strongly and securely for the second week in a row, tallying 23 yards on five carries (4.6 yards per carry). He even added his first touchdown of the year, blasting defenders into the end zone from the 1-yard line.

Advertisement:

As long as he continues to pick up the blitz well and not put the ball on the ground, it looks like he’ll be the first back off the bench to spell Damien Harris, who also had a good game against Dallas (18 carries for 101 yards, 1 TD). The fourth-round rookie outsnapped veteran back Brandon Bolden 18 to 11 — a sign that Stevenson is becoming the clear No. 2 back.

The Patriots badly need him to excel in that role with James White gone for the season. Bolden is experienced, but he offers very little with the ball in his hands. J.J. Taylor clearly isn’t ready for primetime either. And you can’t afford to grind Harris down to the nub so early in the season.

Fortunately, Stevenson looks like he’s up to the task.

The offensive line has reached its day of reckoning.

All things considered, the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line once again did an admirable job despite surrendering a couple of sacks to Randy Gregory and five quarterback hits on Mac Jones.

But things could get very interesting once this unit returns to full health.

Neither left tackle Isaiah Wynn nor left guard Michael Onwenu, who were both activated off the Reserve/COVID list ahead of the game after missing last week, got the starting nods at their positions. But Onwenu ended up playing the bulk of the snaps at right tackle after coming on in relief of Yodny Cajuste.

Wynn, however, played just nine snaps at left tackle before giving up a lightning-quick sack to Gregory and giving way to Justin Herron, who started the game at left tackle, for the rest of the game.

On one hand, Onwenu’s move to right tackle should be permanent until Trent Brown returns. Ted Karras is more than good enough to start at left guard once Shaq Mason returns, and Onwenu is simply better than any backup tackle the Patriots have on the right side.

But things are far less clear on the left side. As poorly as Wynn has played this year, it’s worth wondering if he might be in danger of forfeiting the left tackle starting spot for good. But would the Patriots be comfortable rolling with Herron? If nothing else, Herron has earned more of a look on the left side, where he seems more comfortable, given the way he’s played.

Regardless, the Patriots can no longer afford to kick the can down the road on these questions. New England needs to put the best offensive line product on the field, and that means making some difficult choices going foward.

Jump To Comments

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com