FOXBOROUGH -- When the going gets tough…
Apparently, the Patriots win.
Bill Belichick’s team proved that yet again Sunday evening at a rainy, windy Gillette Stadium with a 13-9 win that was far more impressive than the final score could possibility indicate.
A week after a single touchdown was enough against the Eagles in Philly to earn what many described as New England’s best win of the season, a single touchdown was once again enough to dispatch a Dallas squad that may be among the most talented in the game. Might have to update that best win of the season assessment.
Tom Brady was dealing with an elbow injury against the high-powered Cowboys that reportedly forced backup Jarrett Stidham to take the bulk of the first-team reps on Friday.
Julian Edelman has a shoulder issue that clearly limits his range of motion and ability to catch passes over the 5-9 receiver’s head.
Phillip Dorsett (concussion) and Mohamed Sanu (ankle) were both inactive. So, too, was starting cornerback Jason McCourty.
Oh, and for good measure, Marcus Cannon is fighting an illness that not only hindered his ability to practice to the point that he didn’t even warm up for the game, but had his head coach doubting whether he had the strength to even put his pads on never mind deal with Dallas’ dangerous defensive front.
Mix in the bad weather and adversity was the name of the game and the opponent for the Patriots in Week 12.
Of course no team in football deals with adversity like Belichick’s. Past squads have proven that and the current edition has clearly done the same as the Thanksgiving holiday and “real” NFL football arrive.
“It’s really good to be able to stand up here after a win today,” Belichick said to open his postgame press conference. “I was really proud of the way the guys stood up and came through. We were missing a few key players, and we had a couple of guys that were playing, I’m sure, well less than 100 percent, but really sucked it up, and played hard for the team and gave us a great effort tonight.”
As most of New England’s wins have been this season, and as Belichick noted, the latest hard-fought win included key plays in all three phases.
The special teams group got into the fun with its third blocked punt of the year – a Matthew Slater effort recovered by Nate Ebner at the Cowboys’ 12 late in the first quarter – that set up a Brady-to-N’Keal Harry 10-yard connection for the first and only touchdown of the game.
Dallas’ next possession ended with a Stephon Gilmore interception of a Dak Prescott throw for Amari Cooper at the Cowboys’ 29. The short field led to a short field goal from Nick Folk and the 10-0 lead on the way to victory. When you have the type of defense these Patriots do, playing from in front is like running downhill.
Overall the offense got just enough plays, including a gutsy, game-high 93 yards on eight catches for Edelman. The unit saw Sony Michel run for 85 yards on 20 attempts, including a key runs of 5 and 12 yards to pick up a first down to help run out the clock in the final two minutes. The rookie receivers Harry and Jakobi Meyers stepped up and made plays when they had to.
Defensively, what is there to say that hasn’t been said? Gilmore and Co. held the NFL’s No. 1 offense to 2 of 13 (15 percent) on third down conversions. An attack that came in averaging better than 28 points a game, that had scored more than 30 points in six times, including three of the last four weeks, was able to muster a mere three field goals.
While the scoreboard may have said the Cowboys were within striking distance all night, it never felt like the Jason Garrett-“led” team had a sniff of a chance.
Much the way the early-2000s Patriots teams could put a team away with barely 10 points, barely reaching the end zone, the 2019 squad is doing the same thing.
Sure, maybe the 59-0 blowouts are gone. Likely the days of the roll-out-of-bed-and-score-30 Patriots offense are a fond memory.
In their stead is a team that’s built to win tough, tight, hard-fought football games in which situational plays and complementary contributions are the core of the winning formula.
Some might use the counterintuitive phrase “winning ugly” to describe what the Patriots are doing these days, especially in the modern, finesse, pass-happy NFL.
Well, do players like winning ugly?
“Without a doubt,” Duron Harmon said with a smile. “It doesn’t matter. Ugly. Good. Anything in between. Winning is a great thing. In this league winning is tough. That was an exceptional football team. Any time we get a win, that’s good.”
Of course winning ugly isn’t easy, even if the Patriots find a way to make the difficult look simple.
The margin for error is shrunk. The need for key plays at key times is increased.
Of course, in many ways, that describes playoff football. And playoff football is exactly what these Patriots are built for.
They sit atop the AFC East. They’re in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the conference playoff picture heading toward December.
And there is little question they are proving their mettle.
They did that again Sunday evening.
“That is what we strive to be -- a mentally and physically tough team,” Edelman said of dealing with adversity. “Our coaches do a great job of preparing us. That is part of them, doing what they do -- bringing in guys that can play. I think it also comes practice. When we have good weeks of practice, good things happen. It usually translates. It doesn't translate necessarily as much as you want it to, but you see little things here, little things there. As long as we continue to go out, practice hard and gain confidence and gain those types of experiences together, I think that is when you start getting things going. We just have to stay on it."
They have and they will.
When the going gets tough…
…these Patriots get going.