FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Football folks tend to refer to it as "the hidden yardage," but it was right there in plain sight on Sunday.
On a rainy, windy day that limited both the Cowboys' and Patriots' offenses, the difference came down to special teams. And in that particular matchup, New England's advantage was decided.
"When you've got the ability to get in here and kind of understand that when it's a sloppy day, special teams can rule the day," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "And they've got a coach that knows how to play this game, they did a good job of that."
Jones was quick to praise Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who clearly game planned to take advantage of Cowboys special teams units that have lagged toward the bottom of the league all season.
There's no bigger example of that than the Cowboys' punt on 4th-and-13 with 1:28 to play in the first quarter, when Patriots receiver Matthew Slater split two blockers and got a hand Chris Jones' punt, where it was eventually downed at the Dallas 12-yard line.
Two plays later, Tom Brady found N'Keal Harry for a 10-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. It was the only touchdown of the game, thanks in large part to the block that Belichick referred to as the "difference in the game." He credited that to the aggressive efforts of New England special teams coordinator Joe Judge and assistant special teams coordinator Cam Achord.
"We were trying to challenge the ball handling and I thought we did a good job of that," Belichick said. "Forced some tough catches with their specialists, and the blocked punt obviously was a huge field-position play. Enabled us to play from ahead, and that was a good thing."
The blocked punt is the headliner, and it's worth mentioning that Brett Maher missed a 46-yard field goal in the first quarter.
It would be a disservice to single that out, though. As Belichick mentioned, the Patriots challenged the Cowboys' special teams throughout the rain-soaked afternoon – and repeatedly won.
There were the deliberately short kicks, two of which were mishandled by Tony Pollard to ensure poor field position. There were the punt coverage units, which allowed for no return yardage despite six Patriot punts on the day.
But there might not have been a more glaring example of the Patriots' dominance in this area than a sequence late in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys were lined up to punt from their own 40-yard line, trailing 10-6, when they noticed the Patriots did not have a return man. The scramble to account for the change in formation prompted a delay of game.
From there, Jones boomed a 47-yard punt to the New England 18 – only for the Cowboys to be flagged for illegal formation. By the time they finally managed a legal kick, Jones' punt dribbled to the New England 38 – a 20-yard difference in field position.
"We just wanted to make sure we were squared away against their rush," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "And then the one after that, we brought the outside guy in, the flyer in. And we snapped the ball quickly to combat it. So obviously want to handle those situations better."
Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but the Patriots used the favorable field position to march themselves to a 42-yard field goal, providing them the cushion they'd need to grind out a win.
Again, it might be considered a hidden aspect of the game, but it did not go unnoticed by Jones, who minced no words about the performance of the special teams.
"I think that every aspect of special teams, when you really look at it, have been problematic for us. There's no question about that," he said.
A hot talking point this entire season has been the difference between coaching and execution. He didn't need to say their names, but in this instance Jones made it clear he places the burden on both Garrett and special teams coordinator Keith O'Quinn.
"To me, special teams is 100% coaching. It's 100% coaching. It's strategy, it's having players ready," Jones said. "That's why, today, Belichick -- give him credit. They did a great job on special teams, and that was really, probably the determining difference. But special teams is nothing but coaching."
If that's the opinion of the owner and general manager, then no one else's thoughts really matter. And while Jones didn't want to talk about coaching changes, he made it crystal clear: improvements need to be made.
"I don't want to get into anything about coaching relative to changes or anything like that," he said. "But I will tell you that special teams is a total reflection of coaching."