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Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy (76) sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the first half of Sunday's game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Brad Loper/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Adjustment bureau to the rescue

When Tom Brady stood behind center for the first time Sunday afternoon, and surveyed the Dallas defense, he didn’t see what he and the Patriots had been preparing for over the better part of two weeks.

He saw Greg Hardy on the edge to his left, which was expected after the pass-rusher’s four-game suspension expired. But elsewhere on the defensive line, there were only two others. And behind them there were only two more at the linebacker level. To much acclaim, since Rod Marinelli took over before last season, the Cowboys’ base front has been a 4-3, with four up front and three behind, but the look Dallas showed Brady was two men lighter.

“They did some different stuff,” New England tackle Nate Solder told the Providence Journal afterward, “and stuff we haven’t seen.”

It resulted in some issues, early. After an initial hookup with Julian Edelman, Brady threw a couple of incompletions and took a nine-yard sack to kill the Pats’ first series. Excellent field position left New England needing just 14 yards to get a field goal out of their next drive, but that was followed by a couple more punts from an attack that didn’t punt at all in its previous tilt.

Through 24 minutes, a team averaging nearly 40 points a game had been held to three. It had 56 yards of offense. It hadn’t converted a third-down attempt. And its quarterback had been sacked on four of the 11 times he dropped back to pass.

The Cowboys’ surprise scheme was working.

“We just thought it was a good thing to do against these guys,” said Dallas coach Jason Garrett. “We thought it would create some good matchups for us and get the right guys out on the field against all their different personnel groups and looks. For us to play the right coverage behind it and create some one-on-one’s up front ... I think it was effective for us.”

Indeed it was. But what happened once the Patriots wrapped their heads around the challenge is a testament to their intelligence on the field and on the sideline, vouches for their versatile ability to adjust across the board and ultimately may illustrate why it’ll be so hard for opponents to shut them down.

There was no radical shift. Nor was the playbook set aflame. But the Patriots collectively found a way to tweak their approach, and so after punting on three of their first four possessions, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ unit punted just once the rest of the day.

They capitalized on the field position afforded them by their defense and special teams to squeeze out 10 points before intermission, and enter the break with a 13-3 lead. Then after the half, they kept the momentum. They scored on each of their next two possessions, the first going 85 yards on nine plays, and the second gaining 90 yards on five plays, spectacular catch-and-runs by Dion Lewis and Edelman capping each, and leaving the eventual 30-6 outcome all but official.

“Defensively, they gave us a look that we really hadn’t seen them do before. They played a lot of the game in a dime defense,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Kind of a 3-2 look with (Rolando) McClain and (Sean) Lee in the middle. I thought Josh and the offensive staff did a good job, and the players, making some in-game adjustments to deal with the look they gave us there.”

Getting pressure on Brady has long been considered the primary key to beating the Patriots. Teams that can get to the quarterback without needing to rush more than four defenders have an even better chance. Especially when it has decent defensive backs who are willing to be physical with New England’s receivers. So, even adding the element of surprise into the equation, the Cowboys had the proper blueprint.

But a response like Sunday’s suggests the blueprint might need to change (particularly for a team like the Broncos, the AFC unbeaten with the pieces to pull it off). Brady, McDaniels and the cadre of weapons have reached a point where they’re so comfortable within the system that while they might not be able to do anything they want, they are almost always able to do whatever they need to do.

The second half of their fourth win of the season was another example of that, with the Patriots correcting things to the point they totaled 224 yards on 24 plays — good for an average of 9.3 yards per snap that was up from 4.3 prior to the break. They passed for 165 of that, with Brady going 10-for-11 post-intermission. And the quarterback wasn’t sacked at all.

“I think they gave us a few different fronts, a few different coverages,” said Brady, who completed his 59-yard touchdown pass to Edelman the only time Hardy hit him in the second half. “They came in with an approach and I thought we settled in, made some plays to start the second half. We did play better.”

“Their defense came out and changed up what they usually do,” Edelman added. “We had to adjust. We put ourselves in terrible situations with stupid penalties on myself a couple of times. When you put yourself in hole, it’s hard to get out of it — we were able to do it with adjustments and we did better in the second half.”

And so now it’s on to Indianapolis for a Patriots team that is one of six surviving unbeatens across the NFL, has the AFC’s best point differential (plus-73), leads the conference in points scored despite having played one fewer game than all but three of the other teams (149) — and sent a message Sunday:

If you try to trick the Pats, but go away from your own strength to do so, it’s a decision probably made at your own peril.

“It was definitely a different look and they obviously were going to come up and get on us and match it up,” Belichick said. “That caused us some problems — but we scored 30 points. I think that caused them some problems, too.”

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is

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