For the first 25 minutes the New England Patriots had the ball against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, they played sloppy, uncreative football. But down three points with 2:31 left in the game, Tom Brady led a precision air-strike that culminated in Brady’s 8-yard bullet to Aaron Hernandez in the end zone, completing yet another comeback in the saga of Tom Terrific. Coupled with a Buffalo Bills loss to the New York Giants, the Patriots enter their bye-week in first place in the AFC East.
Who qualified for the AP class and who’s taking Remedial English? Here’s one analyst’s opinion.
Brady played B/B- football for most of the game, struggling to solve the Cowboys’ complicated defense before their bloodthirsty pass-rushers could reach him. On his final drive, however, Brady’s play became immaculate. Brady went 8-for-9 on that drive, averaging nearly 10 yards per completion. The Cowboys never knew who Brady would throw to next: he targeted his tight ends three times, Wes Welker four times, and Danny Woodhead twice. He also converted a third-and-1 from the Dallas 29 with a QB sneak, capping a 17-yard rushing day to go with his 289-yard and two-touchdown passing day.
Brady’s only truly boneheaded play came in the fourth quarter, when he threw to Hernandez in double-coverage and linebacker Sean Lee easily picked him off. That interception – Brady’s second – killed a drive that had already entered field-goal territory, but better protection might have prevented the snap-judgment throw.
Running backs: B+
The Patriots on Sunday rejected the balance that had worked so successfully the previous two weeks, returning to a pass-heavy offense (41 passes to 21 running-back carries). BenJarvus Green-Ellis led both teams with 59 rushing yards, and Stevan Ridley led with 6.3 yards per carry. Neither back could get into the end zone, however, and both struggled at times to find holes in the Cowboys’ offensive line. Woodhead and Green-Ellis were still useful check-down receivers, catching three of the four balls thrown to them and averaging 11 yards per catch.
Wide Receivers: B+
No matter how smart Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan might be, even he can’t find a way to contain Rob Gronkowski, who caught all seven passes thrown to him for 74 yards, including an 11-yarder in that final drive.
Until that final drive, Hernandez had only caught half the balls thrown to him. Hernandez is still regaining the speed and agility that makes him so dangerous, and he and Brady might miss each other a few more times until he’s back to full strength. His big-time catch in tight coverage in the end zone showed he’s working his way back, but he can’t get stripped again as he was in the third.
Deion Branch and Welker combined to catch just 60 percent of the passes thrown to them, though Branch averaged 23 yards a reception. Welker’s flat-route put the Patriots up 13-3, but otherwise the Cowboys defense contained him rather successfully.
Offensive Line: B-
Blah blah blah, “DeMarcus Ware is a monster,” blah blah blah. Whatever. Three sacks. Eight quarterback hits. Another Nate Solder holding penalty. If the Patriots want to finish their season with Brady’s head and legs still attached to his torso, the offensive line must step up.
Defensive Line: A-
The defensive line held Cowboys running backs to 60 yards, averaging less than 3 per carry, and no touchdowns. While we’re still not seeing the quarterback-crunching pass-rush of the preseason, the line produced the bulk of New England’s behind-the-line hits and tackles. Andre Carter recorded both sacks (as many as Ware), including one on third down in the first quarter. Vince Wilfork forced and recovered a fumble, then batted down a pass and almost picked it off.
On the one hand, the linebackers looked powerless to stop tight end Jason Witten, who caught all four balls thrown his way – all over the middle of the field – for 48 yards and the Cowboys’ one touchdown. On the other hand, the linebackers were the reason no Cowboys back averaged even 4 yards per carry nor broke off a run longer than 8 yards. Gary Guyton led the front seven with 10 tackles (second-most behind Patrick Chung‘s 11). His tackle behind the line on the Cowboys’ first play of their second-to-last drive forced them to either pass and risk stopping the clock or run with a likely three-and-out.
Giving up 317 passing yards to Tony Romo isn’t great, but the secondary helped hold the Cowboys to just three third-down catches for positive yardage. The Cowboys went just 4-for-12 on third downs Sunday, whereas the Patriots went 8-for-13. While Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant torched the Patriots for a season-high 78 receiving yards, the secondary held him to just 50 percent catching, four times denying him. More than coverage, the secondary struggled most with their tackling technique. Cowboys receivers too often and too easily shrugged aside their defenders, gobbling up yards after the catch.
Special Teams: A-
Matthew Slater‘s inexcusable fumble kept this from a straight A, and a resultant Cowboys score would have dropped it lower. Otherwise, full marks. Stephen Gostkowski did his job, nailing both field goals and both extra points. Zoltan Mesko got out-punted by Mat McBriar, but only by 3.1 yards. And New England’s punt and kickoff returners all out-gained Dallas’. Aside from Slater – who’s been returning for the Patriots since 2009 and ought to know better – not much to complain about.