Lest anyone think the Patriots were going through the motions early Sunday, or that they do not have enough motivation to turn every game into a personal vendetta, Tom Brady's second-quarter touchdown celebration provided ample evidence to the contrary.
Brady broke a 3-3 tie with a short QB sneak into the end zone, then let loose a primal scream and spiked the ball emphatically. His team never looked back, cruising to a 30-6 win over the undermanned Cowboys.
Next up for the Patriots is the game they likely have had circled on their calendars for months: a rematch with the Colts, who played a central role in the so-dubbed Deflategate incident. If they were looking ahead to that game, it didn't show Sunday.
Three thoughts on New England's fourth straight win:
1. It was only a matter of time ...: The Cowboys managed to escape the first quarter tied at three, but they needed two sacks of Tom Brady and a seven-plus minute field goal drive to do so. The brief success never really felt sustainable.
The defense did keep coming—Dallas sacked Brady five times before halftime, the most the Patriots' QB ever had been dropped in one half. Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli deserves credit for that performance. Hardy's presence beefed up the pass rush, as the Cowboys assumed it would; Marinelli supported the push up front by sliding rookie Byron Jones out on Rob Gronkowski, an unexpected plan that worked for two quarters.
When an offense can muster only 134 yards in 45 minutes of game action, though, as the Cowboys did, the strain on a defense becomes brutal. When Brady is on the other sideline, the other shoe has to drop eventually.
New England finally started to take control in the second quarter, with Brady scoring on a QB sneak. Just before the half, he dodged a possible sixth Dallas sack, then found Julian Edelman to set up a field goal.
The Patriots' 13-3 lead at that point was near insurmountable. When Dion Lewis upped it to 20-3 in the third quarter, the Cowboys were buried.
2. Is a change at QB in order for the Cowboys?: Now would be the time, if it is going to happen. Dallas is heading into a bye week and hopes to have Dez Bryant back in the lineup by the time they visit the Giants on Oct. 25.
Of course, the real question is: Will it matter? Is Matt Cassel an upgrade on Brandon Weeden? Maybe not, but the Cowboys have little reason to stay the course in Tony Romo's absence. Since Weeden's 7-for-7 relief performance in Philadelphia and a hot first half vs. Atlanta, the wheels have come off.
It's not necessarily all his fault. Even with Romo, the Cowboys were scuffling in the run game. And with Bryant out, there is not anyone else that opposing defenses really have to worry about as a big-time playmaker. (Granted, both of those elements could point back to Weeden—defenses can load up on the run and he's not hitting any shots downfield to loosen them up.)
Cassel at least brings more NFL success and experience to the table, unimpressive as his recent history is.
The earliest Romo can return is Week 11 at Miami. Dallas has four more games before that date (at the Giants, Seattle, Philadelphia, at Tampa Bay). The NFC East may be very much there for the taking in late November, but the Cowboys absolutely have to find a way to win a couple of those matchups. Otherwise, they'll be sitting at 2-7 or 3-6 when Romo hopes to rejoin the lineup, and even in a struggling division would be facing a deficit of several games.
The Weeden era brought an 0-3 record. A switch to Cassel is worthwhile if only to throw up some resistance for the Cowboys' slide.
3. Dion Lewis is a game-changer:The Patriots' change-of-pace back last season, Shane Vereen, finished the year with 52 catches, 838 total yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. Lewis in those categories through four games, respectively: 23, 418, and three.
He has surpassed any expectations the Patriots could have had for him this early in the season, even though they believed he could help them.
Lewis is not just racking up random touches, either. New England is getting him the ball in all situations, at key moments. The elusive running back set up Brady's 1-yard TD plunge with an outstanding effort on third down—he dodged Jack Crawford's tackle in the backfield, then outrun multiple defenders to the edge.
Lewis's own touchdown later was even better. Brady swung a pass out to him in the right flat, and Lewis proceeded to duck past two Cowboys, break a third tackle and power across the goal line.Combine that open-field creativity with what Julian Edelman can do and with the matchup nightmares that Gronkowski can create, and the Patriots continue to prove why they're so tough to prep for each week.
Vereen was effective in a role similar to Lewis's for multiple seasons. So far, Lewis has been even better.
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