The New England Patriots dropped a thriller to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, losing 35-29 in overtime. Here are eight things we learned in that Week 6 matchup at Gillette Stadium:
1. Yet again, the Patriots were a play or two away
That’s been the story of the season thus far for the 2021 Patriots. None of their four losses have been blowouts. They’ve been competitive in every game. They’ve pushed two of the NFC’s better teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4 and the Cowboys on Sunday — to the brink but have been unable to finish.
Several late-game plays in this latest defeat stand out as game-changers. There was the pick-six by Mac Jones when the Patriots needed just a first down or two to salt away a victory. There was the fourth-and-4 conversion on the next Cowboys drive — an incredible catch by Cedrick Wilson over Jonathan Jones. Then the 24-yard strike to CeeDee Lamb on a subsequent third-and-25 that set up the 49-yard Greg Zierlein field goal that forced overtime. And, of course, Dak Prescott’s walk-off 35-yard touchdown pass to Lamb, which exploited an inopportune Patriots coverage call.
“The games that we’ve lost, we’ve been two or three plays away,” Mac Jones said postgame. “I guess it’s just how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way.”
The Patriots have lost games by one, two and six points this season. They lost by 15 to the New Orleans Saints in Week 3 but were within a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
2. The Patriots’ defense excelled in key situations — until it didn’t
Before folding on Dallas’ final two possessions, New England’s D played solid bend-but-don’t-break football against one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. The Cowboys piled up yards — their 567 were the most ever allowed by a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team, smashing the previous record of 538 from Super Bowl LII, as were Prescott’s 445 passing yards — but converted on just one of their first four red-zone trips.
On one of those visits, reserve cornerback Justin Bethel broke up a pass in the end zone that Kyle Dugger intercepted. On another, the Patriots stopped the Cowboys on four straight plays from the 1-yard line, with Ja’Whaun Bentley punching the ball out of Prescott’s hands on fourth-and-goal. New England also stuffed Dallas on fourth-and-1 on its opening possession.
The Cowboys also went just 3-for-13 on third down in the game. But the Patriots’ late failures spoiled an otherwise respectable effort.
3. The Stephon Gilmore trade looks worse and worse
Despite that series of stops, 445 passing yards still is 445 passing yards. The Patriots have allowed 757 over the last two games. Jalen Mills was in coverage on two of the Cowboys’ biggest plays Sunday — the aforementioned third-and-25 and the walk-off touchdown. On the former, safety Devin McCourty lamented the Patriots didn’t have more defensive backs on the field.
Mills has largely been solid this season, but the Patriots should be replacing him with Gilmore this week — a clear upgrade. But with Gilmore now in Carolina, there are no reinforcements coming for this Patriots cornerback group, which got dangerously thin when slot corner briefly Jonathan Jones was sidelined with an injury.
The pass rush didn’t do much to help the secondary, though. The Patriots finished with zero sacks and just four quarterback hits on 51 Prescott dropbacks.
4. The Patriots rolled out a productive new personnel package
New England’s favorite offensive look early in the game was one we hadn’t seen before: a beefy personnel grouping that featured a running back (Damien Harris or Rhamondre Stevenson), fullback Jakob Johnson, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, and the Patriots’ largest wideout (N’Keal Harry).
The idea seemed to be to bully the Cowboys’ defense, and early on, it worked. The Patriots ran their first three offensive plays out of that package, and those went for 21 yards, 9 yards and a 4-yard touchdown. Their second drive was split between 22 personnel and 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers). The result: 13 yards, 23 yards, 4 yards (plus 15 more for unsportsmanlike conduct), 20-yard touchdown. It was the first time all season New England had opened a game with back-to-back scores.
Per NESN.com’s in-game tracking, the Patriots ran just one play out a three-receiver set over their first three possessions, straying from what has been their most frequently used personnel package. They then opted to use only 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) on their fourth drive, and their offense stalled. They went three-and-out, had their punt blocked and proceeded to generate little offensive momentum until the fourth quarter. Their first third-down conversion came with just over 11 minutes remaining in regulation, and 12 of their 13 possessions lasted five plays or fewer.
The Patriots also lacked aggressiveness offensively, choosing to kneel at the end of the first half rather than trying for a double-score and punting on fourth-and-3 near midfield in overtime. New England has gone for it on fourth down just three times through six games (2-for-3), tied for second-fewest in the NFL.
5. Offensive tackle was a problem spot
The Patriots’ offensive slowdown also coincided with a key first-half turnover. On the final play of New England’s third possession, defensive end Randy Gregory abused right tackle Yodny Cajuste and buried Jones, slamming the rookie quarterback to the turf and knocking the ball out.
The strip-sack seemed to leave the Patriots’ offense reeling, and it prompted a swift lineup change. Out came Cajuste and left tackle Justin Herron, in came Mike Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn, who’d begun the game on the bench after lengthy stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list. After Wynn, who had missed two full weeks of practice, also was beaten by Gregory early in the second half, the Patriots benched him and reinserted Herron.
Jones only took five official hits in the game but was under frequent pressure. Herron posted the lowest pass-block win rate of any NFL tackle this week, per ESPN’s Seth Walder. (Also of note: The Patriots finally decided to use Onwenu at right tackle after playing him exclusively at guard over the first five weeks.)
6. The run game is back on track
After abysmal rushing performances against the Saints and Bucs, the Patriots have run for 120-plus yards in back-to-back games, averaging 4.2 and 4.4 yards per carry. Lead back Harris delivered despite a nagging ribs injury, leading all rushers with 101 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries (5.6 per rush). Stevenson also had his best day as a pro, rushing five times for 23 yards (4.6 per) and a score while adding three catches on three targets for 39 yards.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to expunge the third-and-1 handoff to Brandon Bolden from the playbook, though. It’s just not working.
7. Mac Jones again showed the toughness he’s been lauded for
Both physical and mental. He stayed in the game after being flattened by Gregory and immediately bounced back from what could have been a game-losing pick-six, throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne on the very next play. Jones also fired a first down to Jakobi Meyers in overtime while being knocked to the turf.
“That’s just showing the grit he’s always showed us on the field,” Bentley said of the young QB. “He’s constantly growing every day.”
Outside of his bomb to Bourne, this probably was Jones’ most nondescript performance of the season. He attempted a career-low 21 passes, completing 15 for 229 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Five of his completions went to Meyers, who also caught a two-point conversion after Bourne’s score and had a touchdown of his own wiped out by a penalty.
8. The Patriots’ season is slipping away
Bethel said after the game that the Patriots are “a good team with a bad record.” That’s probably is true. With so many newcomers playing key roles, New England should be a better squad in the back half of the season as it continues to build chemistry and consistency. But by that point, it might not matter.
The Patriots now sit at 2-4. As we mapped out last week, if you assume they need to win 10 games to make the playoffs, and that they’ll beat the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, that means they must go at least 5-3 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills (twice), Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins (in Miami).
That’s a tough ask for a team that’s only beaten the bottom-feeding Jets and Houston Texans this season and can’t even get wins in its home stadium. The Patriots are 0-4 in Foxboro, Mass., for the first time since 1993, Drew Bledsoe’s rookie year.
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