For the first time all season, an opposing defense put consistent, sustained pressure on Tom Brady and the Patriots offense...and they still managed to put up 30 points on the scoreboard.
Facing a front that was bolstered with the additions of one Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, and combined with a unique game plan, the Dallas D brought the heat against Brady, sacking him five times and recording eight total QB hits on the day.
The only problem was that pressure only lasted for 30 minutes of the contest. The Pats adjusted at halftime, and the second half was a much different story, all the while the defense smothered Brandon Weeden and the anemic Dallas attack throughout, keeping them out of the endzone on the day.
At the end of said day, even though Dallas gave New England their toughest resistance they've faced all season, it still wasn't nearly enough, as was evident by the 24-point victory.
Quarterback - B+
The offense put up just 13 points in the first half while punting four times, even after securing great field position on most of their drives. This was arguably Brady's worst game of the season, which is sick considering he went 20/27 (74%) for 275 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a 130.9 QB rating. A unique 3-2-6 Dallas defense posed a ton of problems by tying up receivers with man-coverage while the blitz was able to get home before Brady could get the ball out. Yet the second half was a different story, with Brady leading the team on a pair of 80-yard drives to put points on the board.
Offensive Line - C
For the first time all year, a defensive front posed serious problems for the O-Line, both up the middle and on the edge. Brady was sacked five times after he had been taken down six times all season. Greg Hardy abused Nate Solder and directly contributed to the tackle's season-ending biceps tear. The Dallas front recorded five tackles for loss and were constantly buzzing around Brady and managed to get the offense off the field multiple times. The issue for them was that Brandon Weeden was unable to capitalize going back the other way. New England made their adjustments in the second half and righted the ship, allowing Brady to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball with ease.
Running Backs - A
The backs would've gotten an A if Dion Lewis' ridiculous catch and run for the score was the only play they made all day. That sequence was insane on so many levels, from Lewis reaching back across his body to one-hand Brady's throw, to him keeping as balance as he juked four Cowboys defenders off him, to that last burst at the goal line to fight through the tackle and hit the endzone. It's one of the best plays we've seen across the league and will be one of the best when the season concludes. Lewis' 93-combined yards and LeGarrette Blount's 74 yard (5.7 average) add to quality on the day.
Wide Receivers - B-
The Cowboys must of sent a complaint to the league ahead of the game detailing the Pats running pick-plays because the officials were all over it on Sunday. The refs flagged New England for two offensive pass interference calls, one on Julian Edelman and another on Keshawn Martin, both of which wiped out huge gains by Danny Amendola. Edelman finished with 120 yards on four catches, highlighted by his 59-yard touchdown scamper and his juke move on Mo Claiborne in a play we've seen looped on repeat since the game ended. But, #11 was also whistled for three flags (OPI, holding, false start). Martin did make a nice diving catch on third-down in the fourth quarter to keep a drive going.
Tight Ends - B-
Rookie Byron Jones was able to keep Gronk muted through the first half by jamming him at the line and in coverage, but you cannot stop The Mountain, you can only hope to contain him. Gronk made up for it by catching four balls for 67 yards but failed to find the endzone for the second straight game. He also missed a few plays in the run game, while Scott Chandler didn't factor into the passing game whatsoever.
Defensive Line - B+
Jabal Sheard was nails yet again with two sacks, two tackles-for-loss and three QB hits, although a holding penalty negated a Jamie Collins sack. Rob Ninkovich made only one tackle on the day but did record a PBU. Besides that, the line wasn't spectacular, but they didn't make any glaring mistakes. Knowing the Cowboys run on first-down at practically every opportunity, the Pats loaded up the box and the line penetrated often against one of the best offensive lines in the game. Chandler Jones did himself no favors when he dropped a surefire interception after dropping way back into coverage.
Linebackers - A
Jamie Collins was a monster, recording a game-high 10 total tackles, a TFL and a forced fumble. He was all over the field causing problems. Before a rib injury took him out of the contest, Dont'a Hightower recorded four tackles and a sack of Weeden when he bowled over Darren McFadden's cut block up the middle. Jerod Mayo looked alright in playing more snaps with Hightower out, although he was slow to catch Joseph Randle out of the backfield on a pass in the flat. Jonathan Freeny scooped up the fumble Collin's forced on Jason Witten.
Secondary - B+
Going up against Weeden and no Dez Bryant, the secondary didn't have to sweat all that much. Malcolm Brown played Terrance Williams well on the day, holding him to just two catches. There were some high tackle counts, with safeties Devin McCourty recording eight total (and a PBU), Pat Chung recording seven and Tarell Brown finishing with seven as well. Logan Ryan picked off Weeden in the fourth quarter, and overall, the secondary played tight end Jason Witten strong and forced Weeden into his secondary reads and checkdowns, AKA his MO as a below-average QB.
Special Teams - A+
What else is there to say about Stephen Gostkowski? The best kicker in the game nailed three more field goals, with one coming in at 49-yards and then his career-high 57-yarder just before halftime. He also boomed six touchbacks on seven kickoffs, giving the Cowboys no chance to advance the ball and spring a return for any kind of positive boost. After getting two weeks off, Ryan Allen punted four times for a 42.3 average and pinned Dallas inside the 20 three times.
Coaching - A
It took a half to adjust to what the Dallas defense was doing, but once they did, head coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels found the soft spots in the coverage. On offense, they added an extra blocker on the left to help deal with Greg Hardy and put Brady in shotgun in the second half to get him more time to do his thing. On D, the Pats played Jason Witten tight and added help over the top. The renowned Dallas O-Line couldn't free up their backs for any huge gains, leaving Weeden to throw in 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations.
Photo Credit: Central Maine