There was no second-guessing for the Cowboys this week, as they bounced back from their embarrassing loss to the Cardinals in a big way. Dallas beat up on the Patriots from start to finish, winning to the tune of 38-3 and handing Bill Belichick the worst loss of his career.
The Patriots lost by 35 points to the Cowboys on Sunday, the worst loss of Bill Belichick's head coaching career. pic.twitter.com/xrE2OrNKDn— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 1, 2023
The Cowboys looked significantly better than they did a week ago, and they jumped out to a huge lead early on, just as they did in the first two weeks. There were plenty of moments that reinforced the dominant win, but these five plays were quietly a big part of the final outcome.
Tony Pollard moves the chains on third down
The Cowboys offense once again demonstrated an innate ability to move the ball down the field until they reached the red zone, settling for a field goal on the opening drive. When the Patriots matched them, tying it up 3-3, it was clear the Cowboys would need to score touchdowns.
On their next drive, the Cowboys were moving well as always, but drew a third down at the Patriots’ 29-yard line, needing just one yard. Going with tempo, Dak Prescott dropped back on a quick passing play but saw that everything was covered. Tony Pollard, who had been in pass protection, leaked out into the center of the field, just beyond the sticks, for Prescott to hit him.
The Patriots defense had done a good job of covering the initial options on this play, and Prescott had nowhere to throw until Pollard went out for his delayed route. The play, while seemingly unremarkable at the time, proved to be the difference between a touchdown and field goal; two plays later, Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb for a touchdown pass.
Mac Jones gets stuffed on QB sneak
Early on, the Patriots were responding well to the Cowboys going up 10-3. The offense had just crossed midfield, and they very nearly overcame a false start on third down by picking up 14 yards when they needed 15. In a rare move for Belichick, the Patriots opted to go for it on fourth and one.
Mac Jones lined up for a quarterback sneak, a play that the Cowboys and many other defenses have struggled to defend. As the ball was snapped, Jones lunged forward but was stopped short. The officials brought out the chains to measure, but it was still quite short of the first down.
That killed what had been a positive drive for the Patriots, and while the Cowboys didn’t score on their ensuing possession it did kill the momentum that the Patriots offense had; they gained a total of 31 yards on their next four drives, with two touchdowns from the Dallas defense in between.
Jalen Tolbert’s strong tackle sets Patriots up with bad field position
Speaking of, the Cowboys’ first defensive touchdown was, in large part, set up by what happened after the failed quarterback sneak. The Cowboys offense would go three-and-out after the turnover on downs, leading to a punt from Bryan Anger.
In typical fashion, Anger boomed the punt 55 yards all the way to the New England 12-yard line. That’s when Jalen Tolbert made an incredible tackle, bringing the returner down two yards behind where the punt had been caught.
Cowboys WR Jalen Tolbert with the special teams tackle pic.twitter.com/y34HFFN1nb— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 1, 2023
The combination of a great punt and an even better tackle set up the Patriots offense with terrible field position. Two plays later, Jones was strip-sacked and the ball recovered by Leighton Vander Esch, who ran it back 11 yards for the touchdown. However, Vander Esch only had to go so far for the score because of the big play from Tolbert.
DaRon Bland learns quickly, gets rewarded with a pick six
After another Cowboys drive fizzled out in the red zone, Dallas extended their lead to 21-3 before handing the ball back to the Patriots. New England was quickly approaching the danger zone, and needed to get something going.
For a moment, it looked like monentum was building in their favor when Jones completed an ill-advised throw across his body to Kendrick Bourne, who had gained position over DaRon Bland. However, Jones tried a similar throw against Bland five plays later, just after the offense had crossed midfield. It did not go as well for Jones.
Bland, who led the team in interceptions a year ago as a rookie, undercut Bourne this time and picked the ball off with a full head of steam towards the endzone. The Patriots had been putting together a good drive, but Bland’s ability to quickly course correct after giving up the big completion to Bourne a few plays earlier paid off in a big way.
Bland’s second interception slams door shut on comeback effort
The Patriots got the ball to start the second half, down 28-3. Their odds of coming back were exceptionally low, but not zero. After all, this team has come back from that kind of deficit before, and they even did so against a defense led by Dan Quinn. The Cowboys would need to slam the door shut on the Patriots in the second half.
They did exactly that. A scramble from Jones set up a fourth and two at the Dallas 40, and the Patriots had no choice but to go for it. Jones once again targeted Bland, and he once again came to regret that decision.
The Cowboys would only manage a field goal afterwards, but they burned off four minutes of clock in the process. More than that, though, the second pick from Bland effectively crushed the Patriots offense, with Jones being benched after the following drive and the team effectively admitting defeat. It was already mostly assured, but Bland hammered the final nail into the coffin here.