FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When it comes to special teams, there really is no one in the NFL more special than Matthew Slater.
And Sunday, it was Slater’s special play that helped the Patriots to a 13-9 over the Dallas Cowboys in the wind, cold and rain at Gillette Stadium.
The special teams star blocked a Chris Jones first-quarter punt leading to the only touchdown of the game. Slater later punctuated his day by downing a Jake Bailey punt at the Dallas 8 with 2:38 left.
“Probably the difference in the game, really what it comes down to it,” Bill Belichick said after the latest win, which came under tough game conditions.
Tom Brady, playing without injured wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu, hit rookie N’Keal Harry with a touchdown pass – the first TD catch of Harry’s career – after the Slater block, and Nick Folk kicked two field goals as the Patriots (10-1) reached the 10-win mark for a record 17th straight season.
The vaunted Patriots defense limited the Cowboys, who came in leading the NFL in passing, to three field goals. Dallas’ last gasp came when Amari Cooper appeared to haul in a diving 20-yard fourth-down catch at his 45-yard line with 1:44 left. However, the play was overturned on review.
“As a defense, you gotta defend every yard on that field,” said defensive captain Devin McCourty, who pointed out the key is limiting teams to field goals when it looks like they’re about to score.
Cooper, Dallas’ main threat, didn’t have a catch – his earlier grab nullified by a penalty – under the watchful coverage of Stephon Gilmore as Dallas fell to 6-5.
In fact, Gilmore had one more catch than Cooper.
“Ultimately, it still comes down to team defense,” McCourty said. “… It’s no secret it starts with Steph.”
Brady suffered through his and the offense’s second straight sub-par game, finishing 17-for-36 (including some drops) for 190 yards – making him 43-for-83 with one TD (no picks) and 406 yards in the last two games – two wins separated by the bye. Julian Edelman caught eight passes for 93 yards and rookie Jakobi Meyers had four grabs for 73 yards.
After the game, Meyers said earning Brady’s trust has been the toughest part of his rookie adjustment.
Offensively, this game belonged to Sony Michel, who ran for 85 yards on 20 carries.
Dak Prescott finished 18-for-32 for 199 yards and an interception while Ezekiel Elliott ran for 86 yards on 21 carries.
Brett Maher’s 46-yard field goal through the rain struck the left upright and ended the first scoring chance of the game. The Patriots punted for a second straight time (this one after Brady fumbled but the ball bounced right back up to him) before Slater blocked Jones’ punt and Nate Ebner recovered on the Dallas 12.
Michel’s seventh run of the first quarter got the ball to the 10 and Brady hit Harry in the end zone.
“He made a great catch. That was a great play. That was awesome,” Brady said.
The Cowboys fumbled the ensuing kickoff and tight end Blake Jarwin fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, but Dallas kept both. Two plays later, Gilmore, covering Cooper, picked off a Prescott pass at the Cowboys’ 29.
The Patriots got only three yards closer before Nick Folk kicked a 42-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
A heavy Elliott workload helped the Cowboys get all the way to the New England 28, but Prescott missed an open Randall Cobb on third-and-3 and the Cowboys settled for another field goal. This time, Maher was good from 46 with 8:36 left in the half.
A nifty 32-yard catch-and-run by Meyers and a 20-yard Brady-to-Edelman hookup got the ball to the Dallas 23 before three straight Brady incompletions. Folk lined up for a 41-yarder but a false start pushed it back to 46 and he missed wide right.
A 21-yard completion from Prescott to Michael Gallup and a roughing the passer penalty on Dietrich Wise got the Cowboys to the New England 14, but after advancing it just five yards, Dallas settled for Maher’s 27-yarder with 2:28 left in the half.
Folk missed a 48-yarder on the final play of the half but that was also wide right.
Gronk not changing mind ... yet
Another Rob Gronkowski update: No. 87 announced on FOX he will not return to football this season. THIS season. … The Patriots visit the Houston Texans next Sunday night before hosting Kansas City. … Harry became the 75th touchdown target for Brady, extending Brady’s NFL record. … Brady is now 5-0 as a starter against Dallas, one of five teams that have never beaten him. He is also 5-0 against Chicago, Atlanta and Minnesota, and 4-0 against Tampa Bay. … The win secured the Pats’ 17th straight season of at least 10 wins, snapping a tie with the 49ers (1983-98) for the NFL record. … In addition to missing the wide receivers, the Patriots were also without DB Jason McCourty (groin), but OT Marcus Cannon played despite being sick during the week.