Grading the Cowboys heart-stopping 35 - 29 victory over the Patriots

Your 2021 Dallas Cowboys are nothing if not entertaining. Sunday they traveled to Foxboro, Massachusetts to take on a struggling New England team. Dallas had not won in Foxboro since 1987 and had not beaten the Patriots in any game since 1996, losing their last six contests.

And your Cowboys did virtually everything within their power to lose yet again. Consider:

  • Committed 12 penalties for 115 penalty yards.
  • Twice turned the ball over in the opponent's end zone.
  • Failed on two 4th down attempts.
  • Converted only 3 of 13 3rd down attempts (23%) and only 5 of 15 3rd/4th down attempts (33%).
  • Missed a go-ahead field goal with just over two minutes remaining.
  • Netted only 3 points from 3 consecutive red zone opportunities.
  • Surrendered not one but two long, 4th quarter touchdown drives after taking the lead.
  • Lost the overtime coin toss.

Do two or three of those things and you usually lose the game. Do all eight and your chances for victory are microscopic. And yet today the Cowboys sit at 5-1 with five consecutive wins including Sunday's hard-fought character-test. This is due to the fact that when Dallas wasn't stumbling over yellow handkerchiefs they were mostly having their way with an overmatched Patriots squad. Consider:

  • Generated 567 yards of offense (most ever against a Bill Belichick-coached team).
  • Outgained Patriots by 230 yards (567 to 335).
  • Blocked a punt for the first time since 2015.
  • Generated two turnovers, including a late pick six by phenom Trevon Diggs.
  • Drove to the end zone or tried a field goal on nine of eleven offensive drives.
  • Ran 32 more offensive plays than the Patriots (82 to 50)
  • Controlled the ball for 12 more minutes than the Patriots (39:17 to 26:51).
  • Held Patriots to a combined 69 yards over six possession, forcing a fumble, four punts and the end of the first half.

Again, do three or four of those things and you'll win the vast majority of games. Do all eight and your odds of losing are microscopic. So something had to give and in this case it was the Patriots who couldn't keep their first drive of overtime going and punted, giving Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense an opportunity for the win. They took advantage, marching 80 yards and emphatically winning on this 35-yard touchdown throw from Prescott to CeeDee Lamb.

If you were to listen to NFL talking heads last night and today it seems they all expected Dak to take the team down for the victory in overtime. And that's pretty much the best thing you can say about a modern NFL quarterback: don't let him have a chance to win at the end because the expectation is he'll do it and that's exactly what happened.

And perhaps the best thing you can say about an NFL team is they can win despite not playing their best. The Cowboys definitely didn't play their best Sunday, and yet they exit Foxboro with their fifth consecutive victory, a 5-1 overall record and a full 3-game lead in the otherwise woeful NFC East division. Let's go to the grades.

Overall: B

This was, by far, the sloppiest game the Cowboys have played in 2021. In addition to all the troubles highlighted above we also saw a defensive unit completely unprepared to play an NFL football game. Consider the Patriots first two drives:

  • Harris middle run for 21 yards
  • Jones pass to Smith for 9 yards
  • Harris middle run for 4 yard touchdown
  • Jones pass to Stevenson for 14 yards
  • Jones pass to Stevenson for 22 yards
  • Stevenson run for 4 yards - unnecessary roughness on Trevon Diggs for 15 yards
  • Jones 20 yard TD to Henry

That's 109 yards and two touchdowns surrendered on 7 plays. The Patriots not only scored twice while not facing a 3rd down but barely saw any 2nd downs. It was an abject performance with the Dallas defense badly losing each and every play.

This was very reminiscent of the 2020 version of Cowboys' "defense". Which makes it so odd that the next six Patriots' drives were basically a series of 3-and-outs.

Then we had a Jekyll and Hyde 4th quarter defensive performance. Twice the Dallas defense took the field with a lead. In the first instance they allowed the Patriots to march 75 yards on 13 plays for a lead-changing touchdown. The final 37 yards came on the ground as the Patriots simply lined up and ran over the Dallas defense.

The second time they took the field with a lead Mac Jones threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne. So twice with opportunities to get a stop and give Dak and the offense an opportunity to close the game out the defense came up woefully short.

Of course, the other time the Dallas defense took the field in the 4th quarter was following Greg Zeurlein's missed field goal and Trevon Diggs simply intercepted yet another pass and returned it for a touchdown. And finally, in overtime the unit managed to stop the Patriots near midfield, with cornerback Anthony Brown getting away with a mild facemask on 3rd-and-3.

Note: Bill Belichick bypassing a fourth down try on 4th-and-3 in overtime and punting instead sure looks like a poor decision in retrospect. But Belichick has gone for it (checks notes) exactly zero times when analytics says he should go for it in 2021. He also decided to sit on the ball at the end of the 1st half, despite 90 seconds remaining on the clock. It's clear he has zero confidence in Mac Jones and the Patriots offense. Yes, I'm the know-nothing internet nerd questioning the greatest coach in NFL history.

So defensively it was a typical Cowboys performance. They look vulnerable at times, giving up 120 rushing yards and 29 points to a very pedestrian Patriots' offense. They also generated two turnovers and made enough plays to win.

Offensively the train keeps on chugging. It's fairly easy to take this production for granted but we shouldn't. And while the standard stats (35 points, 567 yards, 445 passing yards, 120 rushing yards) are impressive the advanced stats show how the Cowboys were clearly the better team play-to-play. The following uses the Expected Points Added measure that is used extensively throughout the analytics community:


This shows the Cowboys were the much better team overall and on per-play basis. It also shows:

  • The Patriots had a negative Total EPA and negative result per play - so this measure likes the Cowboys' defense better than traditional measures.
  • The Cowboys' run game was a very negative EPA per play - reflecting a failed 4th down, four failed attempts to score from the opponent's 1-yard line and a 4th-down goalline fumble.
  • The Cowboys' passing game was outstanding, generating huge positive results on per-play basis.

However, if we segment results by early downs (1st and 2nd) compared to late downs (3rd and 4th) we see an interesting story emerge:


While Dallas was very successful on 1st and 2nd down, they were absolutely terrible on 3rd and 4th downs. The Patriots were bad on early downs and also very bad on later downs. Basically, both teams were getting big plays and moving the football on early downs but if the opponent could force them into 3rd downs the result usually favored the defense.

And if you're looking for a sign this iteration of the Cowboys is indeed a good team there's this:


Dallas has generated more total EPA than their opponent in every 2021 contest, even in their loss to Tampa Bay. We also see this is the third time opponents have had a negative total EPA; that's a reflection of the Cowboys' ability to generate turnovers as much as anything.

Finally, let's throw the numbers out and just admire the grit and mental toughness on display in Foxboro. Cowboys' fans have watched many games like this play out over the last 20+ years and they've almost always ended with Dallas the loser. Not this team. Despite all the mistakes and penalties, despite missing a late field goal, despite allowing a late 75-yard touchdown they kept getting off the mat. That's another good quality because things won't always go to plan. If my Twitter feed during the game was any indication, pretty much everyone assumed the Cowboys would figure out a way to blow this. But they didn't. They figured it out and made the plays they had to make.

It's a new era folks.

Coaching: B-

I was tempted to give a B but then I remembered those first two putrid defensive series. Again, that's the first time the team has looked totally unprepared. And of course we had all the penalties. But we also had all the good. In fact, overall, I'd argue this is the best coached Cowboys team we've seen since Jimmy Johnson; certainly since Bill Parcells.

Yet head coach Mike McCarthy is, again, being questioned for his game management decisions. Let's go through them:

  • Going for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 34 in the first quarter. I have zero issue with this decision. The Cowboys have one of the best offenses in the league; you want to maximize every possession and get as many points as possible. I wasn't too excited about calling plunges into a loaded box on both 3rd and 4th down but you should be able to get a yard there. The RBDSM 4th-down analytics agree with McCarthy, showing the decision increased the team's likelihood of winning by 2.4%.
  • With 2:47 remaining the Cowboys face a 4th-and-2 at the NE 33. McCarthy bypassed the 4th down attempt to try a 51-yard field goal. The kick was wide. This was a bad decision. Not only because converting 4th-and-2 is more likely than converting a 51-yard field goal. But even if you make the FG, you give the ball back to NE with more than 2 minutes remaining. There's no outcome where you try the FG where the opponent doesn't have a chance to then win the game. If you go for it on 4th down, however, success means you can likely run the clock out while simultaneously moving into range for an easier field goal. The RBDSM bot shows this decision reduced the Cowboys' likelihood of winning by 3 percent (not as big as I would have thought). About the only thing I can say in McCarthy's favor is Dallas had struggled mightily on 3rd and 4th downs and short yardage (as the EPA stats above show). Here's each short-yardage play they faced:
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  • Dallas faced 8 short-yardage plays and failed to net a first down five times, a meager 37.5% success rate. Thus, it's easy to understand McCarthy and Moore didn't have much faith in this portion of their offense. Those 8 plays gained only 8 yards in total, four netted no yards and one resulted in a fumble.
  • Finally, on the last drive in regulation Dallas called timeout with 24 seconds remaining after Dak completed a 24-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb on 3rd-and-25. I assumed McCarthy planned to go for it on 4th down. Because that's the only reason you'd stop the clock. If you're going to kick a field goal you don't call timeout, you let the clock run down to a few seconds left. This way, if you make the field goal the opponent doesn't have an opportunity to score. This was the worst of all worlds.

So McCarthy is going to continue to get criticized for these decisions. He's had multiple such blunders this year. And he's had them in the past. He deserves the scrutiny and the criticism. It's also just the way it is in the modern NFL where every geek with a slide rule and an internet connection knows better than the people who've spent their lives playing and coaching football.

Quarterback: B+

This is an A+ performance except for the fact Dak had two serious red zone blunders and both cost the team dearly. First we had a bad throw when Dak targeted Cedric Wilson in the end zone. It was a tight window but if Dak puts the ball in the right place it should be an easy touchdown. And of course he then fumbled on a play when the one thing you absolutely cannot have happen is to drop the ball.

Outside of that, however, he was masterful - again. I wrote last week, regarding the Cowboys passing game:

I've said it before, there will come a time when teams will start committing more resources to stopping the Cowboys' running game and when they do, this group will be called upon to provide the answer. I believe they'll be up to the task.

Well, this was that week. While Dallas did indeed run for 120 yards that was well under their average. They also gained only 4.1 yards per carry after averaging nearly 6 yards per carry coming into the game. Thus, Dak dropped back 51 times. It's the first time Dak has thrown more than 32 passes since week 1 when he threw 59 against Tampa Bay. Just like in Tampa Dak was highly effective. His 445 passing yards was not only the most against Bill Belichick as a head coach, it was the most against any team with Belichick as a head coach or defensive coordinator. Rarefied air.

Prescott just made play after play. This play where he's flushed from the pocket and routinely rolls to the right to hit Cooper for a 1st down is indicative of what he's now doing on a regular basis.

In fact, during the 4th quarter and overtime he threw for 187 yards on 22 attempts on possessions where the team pretty much had to succeed. Dak's biggest play, outside of the game-winner was this 24-yard desperation throw on a 3rd-and-25. Dak had to not only overcome the Patriots, but also the eight penalties called on the Cowboys' offensive line. Mike McCarthy quipped today that the team's "1st and 20" offense was pretty good. That's Dak Prescott. He also enjoyed some good fortune such as this ricochet that not only avoided any Patriots but somehow ended up in the hands of Dalton Schultz.

Here's Dak's numbers over the 10 games he's started and finished with McCarthy and Moore:


He's averaging 350 yards per game on 71% passing with 2.5 TDs and 8.4 yards per target. Over a 17-game schedule that translates to nearly 6,000 yards passing and 43 touchdowns. He and the Cowboys coaching staff are a well-oiled machine at this point and, as I've written often this year, present an enormous challenge for opposing defenses.

Running backs: B+

Belichick is known for taking away an opponent's biggest offensive strength. Dallas, of course, is balanced so it makes that harder. But it was clear by the mid-point of the game New England's priority was to stifle a Cowboys' running attack that had decimated previous opponents.

The final numbers were actually pretty good, if you consider the receiving yardage:


Most teams won't complain about their two running backs accounting for 182 yards from scrimmage. And I'm not complaining. But Dallas wasn't as effective when handing the ball to Elliott and Pollard as noted by the poor EPA metrics noted above. Zeke did manage to bounce outside and convert this 4th and short attempt. But one of the impressive things about this duo is they're not just threats to run the ball they can also make plays out of the backfield in the passing game.

Sunday they combined to catch 10 of 12 balls thrown their way for 71 yards and a 91.7 passer rating. Probably the biggest issue was the inability to convert on those short yardage plays, something Dallas has been quite good at throughout the season.

Wide receivers: A

Most Cowboys' watchers have been excited about CeeDee Lamb ever since it looked like he might possibly, maybe, potentially fall to Dallas in a draft where no one mocked him to the Cowboys. He was considered a top-10 draft talent and he's largely shown he was deserving of such status but hasn't looked like a superstar. After five games he was on pace for 58 catches for just under 1,200 yards and 7 touchdowns. Good numbers on a balanced offense.

Well, that changed Sunday as CeeDee Lamb had a superstar breakout performance. Not only did he finish with 149 yards and two touchdowns on 11 targets, he also made multiple big plays:

In fact, in the fourth quarter and OT alone Lamb accounted for 126 yards on seven targets for a 158.3 rating:


We see that when not targeting Lamb Prescott's numbers drop precipitously, with his yards per attempt declining from 18.0 to only 4.1 and his passer rating from 158 to 64. After Sunday's big game Lamb is now on pace for 93 catches for 1,400 yards and 11 TDs.

I said earlier this season Amari Cooper is the team's number one wideout until proven otherwise. I think Lamb might have proven otherwise in week 6 of the 2021 season.

Luckily, this team still has a deep and productive WR group. Sunday they netted 246 yards on 26 targets for a 109 passer rating.


The 26 targets, 18 catches and 246 yard were, by far, the most the wide receivers have seen since week 1:


In addition to Lamb's exploits Cedric Wilson had arguably the most important play of the game, deftly snagging this high throw on 4th-and-4 to set up Zuerlein's game-tying field goal. Honestly, when the ball was in the air I thought he had no chance at making the catch. Without that catch the Cowboys lose.

Unfortunately Wilson couldn't hold onto this potential TD catch. Amari Cooper had a fairly ho-hum game, as he's prone to do on the road, but did contribute a nice 9-yard catch on the team's game-winning overtime drive.

Tight Ends: B

Dak had good numbers with his wideouts, good numbers with his running backs and, again, good numbers with his tight ends. Sunday future BIG TICKET FREE AGENT tight end Dalton Schultz had a typical day with five catches on six targets for 79 yards. Second fiddle Blake Jarwin chipped in a touchdown catch. Interestingly, the two combined to have a passer rating significantly higher than either had alone:


This clutch late game 1st down catch by Schultz pretty well captures what he offers on a regular basis. The two combined have become an extremely efficient, highly predictable unit. In the last four games they've never had fewer than 6 or more than 8 catches. They've varied from a low of 76 receiving yards to a high of 94. The lowest passer rating they've generated is 105.


One sign of how effective Dalton, in particular, has been is Belichick went out of his way to take him away in the red zone by bracketing him with two defenders. I feel this contributed to the Cowboys' red zone woes and is likely to be copied by others moving forward.

Offensive line: C-

Eight penalties. That's one every ten plays. Connor Williams alone had three holding calls and an unsportsmanlike conduct call. Two of those came on the same play and forced Dallas into the desperate 3rd-and-25 that yielded Dak to CeeDee magic.


The good thing is mostly of these happened on 1st and ten, allowing the potent Dallas offense to recover and continue the drive. Also, none of the penalties wiped out big gains, which is kind of amazing considering how many big plays Dallas had. (This is based on the pro football reference play by play; my memory is at least one of these penalties negated a big gain but my memory must be wrong).

Edit: apparently PFR assigns zero yards gained to any play with an offensive penalty. My memory is one of the holding calls negated a big offensive play for the Cowboys.

Beyond the penalties Prescott was not sacked but again was under moderate pressure. You could see by the end of the game, having faced 80 snaps, the Pats defense wore down. In particular, terror Joe Judon looked spent and couldn't muster much of a rush. On the game-winning play note Terence Steele having his way with Judon in impressive fashion.

There were some running holes to be found but not as many as we've come to expect from this unit. And we've already documented the short yardage failures, which is usually a combination of a not-so-great playcalling, stacked boxes and poor execution.

Not a great day for the offensive line.

Defensive line: B

From the patience is a virtue department I present Randy Gregory. He appears to finally be contributing at the level the Cowboys' hoped for when they drafted him back in 2015. Sunday he contributed two sacks, another quarterback hit and a forced fumble.

In fact, he single handedly turned the game around with a 2nd quarter sequence. With the Cowboys already trailing 14 - 7 the Patriots appeared to add another 7 points to their lead to stretch the deficit to 14. But the 25-yard TD pass was negated by a clear holding penalty on James Ferentz forced by Randy Gregory. On the very next play Gregory appeared to plant Patriots' QB Mac Jones several feet into the turf while simultaneously separating Jones and the ball. Chauncey Golston recovered the fumble, Dallas kicked a FG on the ensuing drive and what looked like a 21 - 7 deficit was instead a 14 - 10 deficit.

That was a massive sequence all driven by Gregory. He would add another sack and his speed / strength combination is a problem for opposing tackles. Dan Quinn lining him up on different sides of the ball is a plus. The prospect of Gregory, Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence rushing the passer together should excite Cowboys fans.

Outside of Gregory no one seemed to flash. Osa Odighizuwa was quiet, as was Golston other than his fumble recovery. Jayron Kearse and Jourdan Lewis had the only QB pressures other than Gregory, so the DLine wasn't getting there.

In addition we had the poor opening sequence and the poor 4th quarter drive when the Patriots just ran the ball down the Cowboys' gut. That looked a little too much like last year's leaky run defense for my liking.

Linebackers: C+

Not a good day for this group. Micah Parsons, after exploding onto the NFL early in the season, has not been as dynamic since assuming a more traditional off-ball linebacker role. Sunday he had five tackles but no splash plays to speak of. I honestly don't recall seeing him do much. Leighton Vander Esch was also quiet, and the only time I noticed him was when he badly whiffed on a runner in the flat.

Secondary: B

I mean, I guess? Maybe a B+? I mean, the Patriots have barely any downfield passing game so this allows corners and safeties to be aggressive. And the Cowboys were, as evidenced by both Trevon Diggs' pick-six and the Patriots' 75-yard touchdown on the following play. I'm still convinced Diggs either grabs another interception or at least makes a play on the ball if Kazee is not involved in the play.

But I feel Diggs kinda got spooked by seeing Kazee out of his peripheral vision and pulled up. And I have no idea what Kazee is doing; his only responsibility on that play is to prevent the big, deep play and he failed. Jayron Kearse had another solid game with five tackles, including a tackle for loss and two QB hurries. Diggs also contributed a nice play on a quick out.

While Cowboys fans had much to complain about from the referees we also enjoyed a break on this play when Anthony Brown clearly grabbed Nelso Agholar's facemask, if briefly, on the Patriot's final offensive play of the game. Otherwise Brown was pretty solid, though he did get beaten badly early on the Patriots' first series.

Much like the rest of the team the secondary continues to be what it's been all season: leaky at times but also a playmaking group that has an instinct for making big plays.

Special teams: B+

On the positive side of the ledger is the team's first big special teams play of the year. You don't often get such plays against a Belichick-coached team as he emphasizes special teams. This block gave the Cowboys offense a short field and led to an eventual field goal.

We also had yet another long, last-second Greg Zuerlein field goal to extend the game into overtime. He's a bit of a roller-coaster because he's not super reliable on extra points and your average 42-yard kick in the 2nd quarter. But he sure has done well at these last second kicks. Thought McCarthy placing faith in him to convert from 50+ in Foxboro as opposed to going for it on 4th down was misguided.

The punt unit also allowed a lengthy punt return which set the Patriots' offense up near midfield.

Bonus grades - referees: C-

Where to start? While a referee crew with a known history of....ahem...favorable results for the Patriots in Foxboro seemed intent on calling any perceived infraction against the Cowboys offensive line also somehow missed two obvious roughing the passer penalties against Dak.

Then we have a 3rd down play where, underneath a pile of humanity 3/4 of Dak Prescott's body is across the goal line but the ball is place a full yard backwards.

We also noted the missed facemask call on Anthony Brown above. The illegal man downfield call against the Cowboys also seemed wrong as the OL didn't look like he was more than a yard beyond the line of scrimmage. Finally, the phantom holding call on Connor Williams late in the game was atrocious; if that's holding there isn't a single NFL pass where holding isn't happening. It also looked pretty clear Hunter Henry pushed off on this early Pats TD.

Only fate delivering a fair result (the Cowboys deserved to win) saved this crew from getting eviscerated for what was a terrible performance.


The beat goes on for your Dallas Cowboys. They now lead the NFL is scoring. They have an offense that "struggled" to 500+ yards and 35 points. They just played a sloppy, error-filled game and still beat a Bill Belichick team on the road. Now, they should have beat this team, but how many times did we watch Jason Garrett or Wade Phillips or Bill Parcells or Chan Gailey teams lose to opponents they were supposed to beat?

No opponent has solved the McCarthy/Kellen Moore/Dak Rubik's Cube offense that seamlessly involves every member in matriculating the ball down the field.

The defense isn't a shut down unit but somehow finds ways to make plays. Week after week I think this is the week Trevon Diggs' interception streak stops and instead he's streaking into the end zone for the biggest play of the game. Randy Gregory has finally developed into the edge rush demon we hoped he'd become.

This team is explosive and dynamic and exciting and they're having fun. And fans should enjoy it. There's zero reason not to. With a full 3 game lead (three and a half over Philadelphia and New York) the Cowboys should walk to an NFC division crown. Which means they have the luxury of being able to experiment and test things as the season progresses without a lot of stress (call me on this if they somehow lose 4 of 6 at some point and allow one of these dumpster fire division opponents to get back in the race).

Six weeks into the season virtually everything Cowboys' fans could have hoped for has come true. They have multiple quality players returning in the coming weeks (Demarcus Lawrence, La'el Collins, Michael Gallup, most notably). It doesn't take a lot of imagination to envision a top NFL offense combined with a dynamic, youthful, playmaking defense leading this team into the post-season and that's very exciting.

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