Before we even saw the wind and rain, the Patriots' best approach for beating Dallas was anything but a full-frontal assault.
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Not enough manpower. Not enough artillery.
This game would require a more tactical approach. Trip wires. Booby traps. Small, subtle gains that might seem trivial in the moment but would in reality add up to a massive advantage.
Put another way, Bill Belichick and his coaching staff undressed Jason Garrett and his Dallas Cowboys on Sunday by finding little threads to pull and tug until - by the end - the Cowboys were bare assed and didn't even realize it.
Silly Cowboys, they left town blaming Mother Nature, not the dozens of little things the Patriots did and Dallas did not.
"No excuses, but you know the weather had an impact on offense, it was really hard to handle the ball throughout the game," is how Garrett started his postgame press conference.
Belichick, to be fair, noted the regrettable weather as well. Of course, he routinely makes his players practice in crap conditions and if they aren't bad enough, he'll spray footballs with water during practice to add to the adversity. So the weather sucked. It happens. Best be ready for it. Dallas wasn't. I mean, they were aggressively unprepared.
It rained all afternoon during warmups. Dak Prescott was on the field for all of it. Yet it took him until the second quarter when the Cowboys were down 10-0 and Prescott had already thrown a weak pick to Stephon Gilmore for him to realize maybe he should put some gloves on. And that realization only came after he missed a simple third-and-3 throw to Randall Cobb.
"I struggled early in those first few series before I put the gloves on," he said. "I couldn't get a real grip on the ball, I wasn't driving the ball, and that's all me. That hurt the team. I missed some throws, obviously some wide-open throws to convert third downs so that we could continue to move. I can't do that."
Well, ya did it. And it was preventable. Imagine spending all week putting in a game plan, practicing it, getting on a plane, flying halfway across the country, going to the stadium to play for a $5 billion corporation on national television and not being able to perform because you didn't realize you needed to put on gloves to be effective?
Is that Prescott? To a point. But it goes to preparation, too.
The Patriots knew what kind of game this would be. They also know what kind of team they have this season. Preparation and self-knowledge are elemental to Belichick's approach. When Belichick was unveiled last week as one of the league's 10 top coaches in the NFL 100 list, Belichick talked briefly about coaching philosophy and foreshadowed this Week 12 game with Dallas.
"Fundamentally it goes back to a few hundred years B.C.," Belichick said. "Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Attack weaknesses. Utilize strengths. Figure out what the strengths are on your team, there are some things you have to protect. Find the weaknesses in your opponent and attack. You can't win a war by digging a hole. You gotta attack. You have to figure out where you want to attack, how you want to attack and that changes week to week and game to game."
The Patriots offense isn't potent to begin with. Injuries made it a liability on Sunday. To cover for that, the Patriots had to forage for yards in other ways. Their defense and special teams would need to prop up the offense. Put it in position to score. By the end of the first quarter, they'd put them in position to score all the points New England would need. A punt block led to a touchdown. A pick led to a field goal.
The two scoring drives combined went 15 yards. Forty-five feet. Ten points. Dallas scored nine all day.
During the week, Belichick praised the Cowboys as "a good situational team and they make you work for everything, make you earn everything."
He went on, "I don't think there's any team in the league that's had fewer line of scrimmage penalties than the Cowboys have offensively. They don't false start, they don't have illegal formations, they don't have illegal shifts, they don't do any of that. So, I think that's the mark of a well-coached, well-disciplined unit. Some teams will maybe help you out defensively with some penalties in those situations where you don't have to really do anything, just stand over at any other side of the ball, and they make some mistakes. You're not going to get that from Dallas. They're not going to make those kind of mistakes, fumbled snaps and stuff like that, they just don't do it. So, well-coached, well-disciplined, a lot of good players."
Was he buttering them up? Feels like he was buttering them up. Let's go through a brief history of plays where Dallas got outfoxed, nearly outfoxed or was just plain exposed as unprepared.
Cowboys' second drive, third-and-5, they take a false start penalty from the Patriots 27 and subsequently fail to pick up the first down and miss a field goal.
Next Dallas drive, the Patriots outflanked them and blocked a punt, a play which would have a ripple effect later in the game.
After the touchdown, the Patriots pooched the kickoff, the Cowboys muffed it at their 12 and only got out to their 18. On the first play of that drive, tight end Blake Jarwin had the ball poked loose but recovered it. Two plays later a snap nearly went over the head of Prescott, he corralled it, remained panicky and hurried a back-foot throw in the direction of Amari Cooper which was picked by Stephon Gilmore and - after a 3-yard drive, turned into a field goal.
Dallas muffed the ensuing pooched kickoff as well and gained 5 yards on the return.
Fast forward now to crunch time. End of the third quarter, the Cowboys - freaked out by the Patriots' punt block earlier - can't get their protection right and take a delay when they are punting from their 40 with 1:23 left in the third while trailing 10-6. After that, the Patriots alter their punt block and punt return strategy and the Cowboys take an illegal shift that nullifies a punt putting the Patriots at their 18.
On the ensuing punt, the Patriots send out a returner to fair catch the ball at the 38 and gain 20 yards. Twelve plays later, after the Patriots grind out 38 yards, Nick Folk kicks a field goal to make it 13-6.
Those insurance points can be traced back to the first quarter punt block.
But wait, there's still more. Dallas AGAIN misplays the pooched kickoff and has to dive on the ball at their 11. The Cowboys dug out quickly with a 59-yard catch-and-run to Randall Cobb (17 of Prescott's 33 attempts were at or behind the line of scrimmage out to 5 yards. He was 1 for 6 on passes 5-to-10 yards. His longest targeted pass was 21 yards.) . And even on that play, the Patriots were big-braining it as Devin McCourty came centimeters from executing a Peanut Punch on Cobb.
What did the Cowboys do with this good fortune? When they got into the red zone, they ran a shovel-pass fake reverse (which lost a yard), got a 12-yard screen to Ezekiel Elliott, ran the option around left end for three and then threw incomplete twice to their tight ends. Then kicked a field goal.
By the time they were done, the Patriots had pushed another NFC East coach to the precipice of getting fired - their second this season.
This isn't intended to be the hagiography it reads like. Brady fumbled a snap. The Patriots had penalties on Sunday and plenty in Baltimore a few weeks back. There were calls that seemed to benefit New England.
The Patriots weren't perfect. But the beauty in their preparation is knowing they will not be and making damn sure arrangements are made. "There are some things you have to protect," as Belichick said on that NFL 100 show. If the offense can't gain yards, it needs to at least make sure it doesn't lose them or - worse - give the ball away. And if the offense can't gain yards, the approach - even though the greatest quarterback in league history is on your side - can't be prideful.
On Sunday, the Patriots were like a billionaire returning a trash bag full of empty bottles for the five-cent deposit. In the end, it all added up.
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