Judgements XII: Dallas kept an eye on Tom Brady but lost sight of Matthew Slater
The Dallas Cowboys brought the best offense in the NFL to Foxboro. The New England Patriots showed up with the league’s best defense.
But it was special teams that was the difference Sunday in the game between the two division leaders.
Special-teamer extraordinaire Matthew Slater blocked a Chris Jones punt in the first quarter, setting up Tom Brady and the New England offense for the game’s only touchdown in a 13-9 victory over the Cowboys. Dallas was punting from its own 30 but by the time Slater’s block stopped bouncing, the Patriots found themselves in possession at the 12-yard line.
Without perennial Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski this season, the Patriots lack deep-strike capability on offense. Brady is averaging only 6.6 yards per pass attempt, well off his 7.5-yard career average. And the Patriots lack a running game, ranking 24th in the NFL heading into Sunday.
So it’s been defense and special teams that have carried the Patriots to their 10-1 start. The defense has done a marvelous job of keeping teams out of the end zone, not just the Cowboys. They have allowed only 117 points in those 11 games and lead the NFL with 29 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. The Patriots picked off pass No. 20 against Dak Prescott Sunday.
Bill Belichick broke into the NFL as a special-teams coach and has always placed a premium on the kicking game. He has four players on his roster that qualify as special-teams aces. They aren’t there for offense and defense – they are there for the kicking game. And those four – Slater, Nate Ebner, Justin Bethel and Brandon Bolden – prove their worth every week.
Slater’s block set up the 10-yard touchdown pass from Brady to rookie N’Keal Harry that was the difference in the game. It was the third blocked punt of the season for the Patriots but the first New England did not return for a touchdown.
J.C. Jackson and Bolden blocked the first two punts against the Bills and Giants respectively. Slater returned Jackson’s block for a touchdown and rookie Chase Winovich returned the Bolden block for a score. Slater and Bethel have also recovered fumbled kicks for the Patriots this season.
When coaches say special teams are a third of the game – an equal partner with offense and defense -- few mean it. Belichick does. And he has a victory over the Cowboys now to show for it.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
The Cowboys play a better brand of football in the indoor comfort of Arlington, Texas than they do up north in any kind of weather conditions.
Just when you think the Oakland Raiders are once again a factor in the NFL, they wheel out an absolute stinker against the lowly Jets, losing 34-3. So it’s back to the drawing board for Jon Gruden…
Chris Godwin is the best No. 2 receiver in the NFL. Playing opposite Pro Bowler Mike Evans in Tampa, Godwin had a seven-catch, 184-yard, two-TD performance Sunday against Jacksonville. He’s also had a 12-catch, 172-yard, two-TD game against the Rams and a 10-catch, 151-yard game against Carolina this season.
Cleveland is not a team anyone will want to play down the stretch. The Browns have won three in a row and are playing the type of football now that we all expected them to play in September. With Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry in the offense, the Browns have become quite the entertaining team. But that 2-6 start will keep them home this post-season.
The Green Bay Packers can't play in California. They are 0-2 there and 8-1 everywhere else this season. They have been outscored a combined 63-19 in loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.
THIRD AND 15
The Miami Dolphins have only eight defensive takeaways this season. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has seven takeaways himself in the seven games since the Dolphins traded him to the Steelers in September. Fitzpatrick has five interceptions and two fumble recoveries for Pittsburgh, including one this weekend in the victory over the Bengals. He also had a fumble recovery at Miami, giving him eight for the year.
Odell Beckham caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield against the Dolphins, snapping an eight-game scoring drought for the three-time Pro Bowl receiver. In his five seasons with the New York Giants, Beckham never went longer than four games without a touchdown. Beckham now has two TD catches to show for his first season in Cleveland.
When slot receiver Cole Beasley left the Cowboys for the Buffalo Bills in free agency this season, who would have guessed that by Thanksgiving Beasley would be playing for the better team? Beasley caught his fourth touchdown pass of the season to help the Bills run their record to 8-3 with a 20-3 victory over the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys lost to the Patriots Sunday to fall to 6-5. By the way, Beasley and the Bills will play the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
The state of Michigan brings out the best in Dwayne Haskins. He picked up his first NFL victory as starting quarterback against the Detroit Lions Sunday. The last time he saw a Michigan team was last November when he was at Ohio State and passed for 396 yards and six touchdowns in a 62-39 romp over the Big Ten Wolverines. Haskins was the first-round pick of the Redskins who was making his third NFL start against Detroit. He passed for 156 yards in that 19-16 victory over the Lions.
Speaking of the Lions, they have held the lead in all 11 of their games this season. But they have hung on to win only three of them.
Tampa Bay’s defensive tackles outscored Atlanta’s explosive wide-receiving tandem of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in the Atlanta-Tampa game Sunday. Vita Vea (347 pounds) caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston and Ndamukong Suh (313 pounds) picked up a Matt Ryan fumble and returned it six yards for another score. Ridley scored the only receiving TD of the game for the Falcons.
The Pittsburgh Steelers became the last NFL defense to allow a 100-yard receiver this season in the 11th week against the Bengals. Tyler Boyd nicked them for 101 yards on five catches. There’s no shame there. Boyd also has one of only two 100-yard games allowed by San Francisco and the NFL’s top pass defense this season.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is where ailing pass rushes come to get well. The Buccaneers collected a season-high six sacks in their annual visit to Atlanta Sunday. The Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans also posted their season-highs in sacks this season with five apiece in their trips to Atlanta. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has now been sacked 17 times in four home games. He’s been sacked only 12 times in his six road games.
Rookie Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had ball security problems in college at Duke, losing 13 career fumbles. He brought that issue to the NFL with him. Jones lost a fumble in a fifth consecutive game Sunday in a 19-13 loss to the Bears. He has lost seven fumbles in the last five games and an NFL-high nine on the season.
Drew Brees missed five starts this season with a thumb injury. Since his return in the eighth week against Arizona, his Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas has been on fire. Thomas has strung together four consecutive 100-yard games with three touchdown receptions. He has caught 42 passes in those four games for 479 yards.
Tom Brady was sacked only once in his first four home games this season. The Cowboys sacked him twice Sunday in home game No. 5 against the Cowboys.
Matt Gay has already kicked a 58-yard field goal for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. But it’s the shorter kicks he needs to work on. He was wide left on two extra-point attempts against Atlanta and had a third conversion kick blocked by the Falcons Sunday. But he wasn’t alone in the NFC South. Carolina’s Joey Slye also missed an extra-point attempt, then was wide right with a potential game-winning 28-yard field goal in the closing minutes against the Saints.
Tennessee’s Derrick Henry ought to provide transportation for the Jaguars when they visit Nashville just to make sure they get to the game on time. Last season, he rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns against Jacksonville at home and this weekend he slapped the Jaguars around for 159 yards and two scores.
Henry and Mark Ingram are former Heisman Trophy winners at Alabama who are the lead ball carriers on their NFL teams. So is Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runner Josh Jacobs with the Raiders. The Crimson Tide may have produced another good one in Bo Scarborough, who carried 18 times for 98 yards in his first NFL start Sunday against the Washington Redskins. His Detroit Lions have been looking for a running game ever since Barry Sanders retired. Maybe Scarborough can be their answer.
There were four quarterbacks selected in the Top 10 of the 2018 NFL draft – Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. Allen was the pick most criticized because he was coming from a non-Power 5 school (Wyoming) and it would take him time to acclimate himself to the step up in competition on Sundays. Don’t look now, Allen has a team in playoff contention with an 8-3 record. He has twice as many wins as any of the other three quarterbacks taken in the Top 10 of his draft.
MY TOP FIVE
1. New England Patriots. That’s 21 consecutive home wins by the Patriots and eight consecutive wins against NFC teams.
2. San Francisco 49ers. The two best defensive teams in the NFL are the Patriots and 49ers. Defense still wins championships.
3. Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson is magic. He shook off five sacks against the 49ers two weeks ago and six sacks against the Eagles Sunday, beating both teams to give the Seahawks a 9-2 start on the season.
4. Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were off Sunday so quarterback Lamar Jackson had a chance to catch his breath. His arms and legs have the Ravens pointed toward another playoff engagement with the Patriots.
5. New Orleans Saints. A healthy Drew Brees and a healthy Michael Thomas are tough to beat. If the Saints can get Alvin Kamara going, the Saints can make another deep playoff run.
MY BOTTOM FIVE
1. Cincinnati Bengals. Eleven down, five to go for a perfect, albeit winless, season.
2. New York Giants. The Giants beat themselves on a weekly basis with turnovers – that’s 25 now and counting.
3. Denver Broncos. No Joe Flacco, no chance.
4. Washington Redskins. Dwayne Haskins is finding out his time at Ohio State really were the good old days.
5. Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins aren’t winning but Ryan Fitzpatrick sure keeps them entertaining.
STAT THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME
West Coast teams are at a disadvantage when they travel to the East Coast for “breakfast” football. Those 1 p.m. starts are actually 10 a.m. starts body time for the West Coast teams. But Pete Carroll has his Seattle Seahawks oblivious to clocks. The Seahawks have played four 1 p.m. starts on the East Coast this season and are 4-0, beating Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta and, on Sunday, Philadelphia. The Seahawks have one more 1 p.m. game on the East Coast in December at Carolina.
ONE THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
Frank Gore rushed for 66 yards in Buffalo’s victory over Miami to pass Barry Sanders and move into third place on the all-time rushing list with 15,290 yards. Only Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton are now ahead of Gore. Immediately behind Gore are Hall of Famers Sanders and Curtis Martin. This is Gore’s 15th season and the Bills are his fourth team. Gore’s should be one of the most interesting Hall of Fame debates five or six years down the road.
AND ONE THAT MAY INTEREST BOTH OF US
There were two defensive touchdowns scored this weekend on an interception return by Jets cornerback Brian Poole and a fumble return by Tampa Bay defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. That brings the number of defensive touchdowns league-wide this season to 45. Teams that have scored those defensive TDs are 38-7 in those games. You score on defense in the NFL, you win.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET
Stephone Gilmore is generally regarded as the best cornerback in the NFL. He showed why Sunday. Playing against the NFL’s most explosive offense with the league’s top passer, Gilmore took away Dak Prescott’s favorite target from the Dallas offense. Gilmore held Amari Cooper without a catch and the Patriots kept the Cowboys out of the end zone in a 13-9 victory. Cooper had a 200-yard game against the Packers this season and 100-yard games against the Giants, Eagles and Vikings. He also scored seven touchdowns. But there was a big zero on his scorecard Sunday. In fact, Gilmore caught more Prescott passes (one) than Cooper did on this day.
GOLD JACKET QUOTE
“This was a significant setback for our team,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during his post-game press conference. “We needed to win. We needed to win against an opponent like this. I’m just really frustrated. I thought we could come up here and put together a better effort in all three phases. We can’t come here and play like that and expect to win.”