Hunter Henry makes a great grab for 1st quarter touchdown (Photo by David Silverman)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
FOXBORO – So is that it for this New England Patriots season?
Is the script already written, six weeks in, for this team that is just good enough to lose to the NFL’s Big Boys?
Or is the growing promise of Mac Jones just a precursor for what is to come, a tease that will morph into wins. Soon, as in next week against the lowly New York Jets?
Those were the frustrating questions to ponder as the Patriots packed their bags and left Gillette Stadium Sunday evening still wondering how they came out 35-29 losers to the Dallas Cowboys in an overtime thriller of first order. The Pats led 21-20 with just over six minutes to play and then 29-26 with just over two minutes left and could not shut the door.
The Patriots (2-4) have now let wins slip through their fingers against the Dolphins, Buccaneers and Cowboys. They are 0-4 at home for the first time since 1993, without a victory over a team with an NFL pulse.
“That’s football. It sucks. It sucks,” center David Andrews said of the latest loss. “I thought we battled and did some things really well, showed some mental toughness. And then a few plays here or there. That’s how it goes in this league. There is not a very big room for error.”
Asked about the 0-4 record at The Razor, Andrews said “it does not feel good to not have a win at home. It doesn’t feel good to lose anywhere though.”
The overwhelming refrain coming from the Patriots after this latest loss was split. The uninitiated insisted that “the season is still young” while the veterans, the ones who know, owned a defeated look that was hard to hide.
“It is what it is. I say it all the time, everything in the past has nothing to do with this year,” said captain Devin McCourty. “I don’t think anybody here thinks about the `04 team….We’re the 2021 Patriots who haven’t won at home. The past doesn’t matter. What those guys did in the past won’t help us.”
McCourty was positioned on the fateful, final play. After the Pats squandered their possession to open overtime, the Cowboys took over at their own 20-yard line. That was the spot a veteran quarterback like Dak Prescott craves and with a myriad of spectacular skill position weapons at his disposal, Dallas’ leader went to work.
Four straight completions, plus two strong runs, zipped the Cowboys into field goal range at the New England 35. The Pats came up and jammed the line of scrimmage, no doubt looking for a run by All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott (69 yards). That left 22-year old CeeDee Lamb one-on-one with Jalen Mills. Lamb took Mills off the line of scrimmage 10 yards, then noticed that the only Patriot left in the secondary across the field was McCourty. Lamb turned on his jets, putting Mills on his hip. When McCourty bit towards the line for a second or three, Lamb burst wide open and Prescott hit him in stride for one of his easiest completions (36-of-51, 445 yards, 3 TD’s) of the night.
“Credit to CeeDee and the play call right there,” Prescott said. “Today just showed our resiliency. We’re not going to give up. All we need is a chance and we showed that tonight.”
That play was the final body blow in a game where it seemed like one gigantic, gut-wrenching punch might sew things up for one team, only for something crazy to happen the other way and throw things in doubt once again. Back and forth, forth and back.
About this turn of events in a fourth quarter for the ages, one packed with 27 eventful points and three flips of the score.
Ahead 21-20 after a Greg Zuerlein missed field goal and just 2:42 on the clock, the Patriots simply needed a first down (or maybe two) to shut the door. After a run for no gain and a five-yard penalty, Josh McDaniels chose to put the ball in the air. Mac Jones’ pass over the middle for Kendrick Bourne was read like a book by star cornerback Trevon Diggs who cut in front of the pass and breezed 42 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Down 26-21 with 2:21 left, Jones faced a major two-minute challenge. That ended in seconds, one miraculous play where he found Bourne slicing through two defenders for a 75-yard breakout TD and 29-26 lead.
Of course 2:05 was much too much time to give Prescott and the Cowboys. They response stalled at the New England 31 but a 49-yard field goal try by Zuerlein was good.
That meant overtime, and heart-break, for the Patriots.
“We just have to make a few plays at the end,” McCourty said. “It’s not like we’re coming in here at home and have no shot to win. All of these games, even the Saints game, come down to a couple plays that we’re not finishing.”
Things have to be difficult for Belichick. He no doubt feels his team is getting better and playing up to its best opponents, yet still losing. This is a story that never ended like this for the last 20 years. Gillette was always a House of Horrors for opponents. Now they dance out onto Route One with smiles on their faces.
“We just came up a little bit short,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We went toe to toe with them for 60 minutes but they just made a few more plays than we did. Give them credit for that.”