In what ended up being a wild, back-and-forth game, the Cowboys escaped Foxborough with an overtime win to move to 5-1. Dak Prescott played one of the best games of his career, throwing for more yards than any quarterback ever has against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team.
Here are some things we learned:
Winning early downs
One reason the Cowboys were able to move the ball so well was because of their success on first down. First down is generally where you get more predictable looks and can more easily put the defense on its heels.
Dallas did just that, amassing 262 yards on 39 first-down plays (6.72 yards per play). They also struck a near-perfect balance with 20 passes and 19 runs.
Kellen Moore didn’t give Belichick the opportunity to focus on taking away one element of the offense. The great run-pass mix on first down was often combined with play-action to keep the Patriots guessing. This led to some big plays for the Cowboys, including the game-winner in overtime:
You don’t want to find yourself in too many third-down situations against Belichick’s defense. That’s where he presents more difficult fronts and coverages designed to take advantage of an offense forced into being one-dimensional. That’s certainly how it played out on Sunday with the Cowboys unable to have much success on third down (3-for-13).
Yet, that didn’t end up mattering since Dallas was able to move the ball so well on the early downs. In fact, 9 of their 10 biggest plays came on first and second down, where Dak Prescott completed 30 of 41 passes for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns. That’s a passer rating of 125.6. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Dak continues to amaze
Prescott epitomizes what has been so good about this Cowboys team through six weeks. He’s succeeding in multiple ways, and Sunday against New England was no exception.
Prescott was good in the quick game. He was good late in the down. He made big plays. He did the little things right. Prescott has been doing everything you could ask for out of a quarterback, and has shown that he can lead Dallas to wins whether they ask him to manage the game or lean on him to throw it 50-plus times.
The offensive line also deserves a shoutout for not allowing a sack in 51 pass attempts. A part of that was due to their execution. A part of it was Moore’s play-calling. But a significant portion of the great protection was due to Dak’s ability to either get the ball out quickly or avoid the rush and keep plays alive with his legs. In fact, several of the Cowboys’ biggest plays against the Patriots came from Prescott executing late in the down:
I love seeing the consistent downfield focus. Dak is always looking to throw, even late in the play. That makes him substantially more difficult to defend.
Several of Prescott’s other high-level traits were also on display throughout Sunday’s game. He showed great touch:
He showed great awareness and understanding of the defense. Below, you can see him him subtly inch back in the pocket against 0-blitz to give himself just enough time and space to throw with a free-rusher bearing down on him:
Prescott knew exactly what the protection could and couldn’t account for here. He didn’t rush his motion. He didn’t panic. Instead, he calmly hit his receiver in stride for the first down.
He also showed great accuracy in some big moments, including this fourth-down completion on the Cowboys’ game-tying field goal drive at the end of regulation.
That ball was put in the only place his receiver could get it based on the leverage of the defender trying to undercut the throw.
When you combine doing the little things right with the highlight plays, you get the performance we’ve seen out of Prescott this season. He’s playing at as high of a level as any quarterback in the league.
Defense made enough dynamic plays
The Dallas defense didn’t play its best game of the season, although it wasn’t helped by having to deal with a short field on New England’s first drive. Still, Dallas made some game-changing plays, with Randy Gregory leading the way once again:
This sack-fumble seemed to shake up the Patriots offense. To that point in the game, they had been moving the ball easily. But that turnover put them on the defensive.
Gregory’s sack-fumble not only halted one possession, but it indirectly thwarted another. Don’t think for a second that the mismatch of Gregory vs. Patriots tackles (put in the spotlight on that play) didn’t factor into New England’s decision to sit on the ball with 1:30 remaining in the first half. The Patriots were happy to go to the locker room leading 14-10 against a much more talented team. They weren’t about to risk another turnover with a rookie quarterback and a banged up offensive line that could be exposed.
That’s what explosiveness on defense will do for you.
Gregory confirmed that the Patriots’ fears were well founded when he tossed aside left tackle Isaiah Wynn on New England’s first third down of the second half:
The Patriots offense stalled with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter and didn’t kick back into gear until there were 13 minutes left in the fourth. During that two-quarter span, they ran 17 plays for just 41 yards and one first down.
The ability to generate turnovers is so critical in today’s NFL. The Cowboys defense has been great in this area all season. Their success comes from putting pressure on opposing offenses and not allowing any margin for error.
Trevon Diggs’ pick-6 was a great example. This turnover was more a product of a poor throw by Mac Jones than a great play by Diggs. However, you can see that Diggs was all over Kendrick Bourne’s route and was ready to make the immediate tackle if the throw was completed:
A bad throw turned into a disaster because Dallas wasn’t giving New England much room to breathe. The Cowboys currently rank second in the NFL in takeaways, which is not a surprise when you watch the way they play on a weekly basis.
With the first third of the regular season completed, it’s become clear that the Cowboys have the talent and scheme to match any team in the NFL on both sides of the ball.