Spagnola: Imperfections Bogging Down Progress

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. –The Cowboys had to be perfect.

They knew that. They knew they were playing a team that had won 20 consecutive games here at Gillette Stadium. They knew they were playing a 9-1 team. They knew they were playing the defending Super Bowl champs. They knew they were playing Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and them.

Knew that margin for error would be slim.

Darn it, the Cowboys totaled more yards on offense (321) than the Patriots (282).

They ran for more yards (109) than the Patriots did (101).

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott completed more passes (19) and threw for more yards (212) than the GOAT, Brady himself, did (17 totaling 190).

Why, the Cowboys even finished with 44 seconds more time of possession.

And when it came to first downs, the Patriots had 17 and the Cowboys 16, while Dallas converted two of 13 on third down and New England three of 14.

Yet on a chilly, wildly gusting, windy Sunday, with the rain blowing down sideways the entire four quarters – weather more fitting for a bunch of seals than the 65,878 huddled up out here – with opportunity equally pelting the Cowboys in the face, it was …

Patriots 13, Cowboys 9.

Yep, in a game you absolutely, positively could not turn the ball over, here were the charitable Cowboys handing out pre-Red Kettle Campaign donations that they could not afford to the far-from-needy Patriots, turning the ball over twice.

Now, you can second-guess calls. You can credit the Patriots for shutting out Amari Cooper. Or insist Belichick simply out-coached the Cowboys all by his lonesome.

But if you are being honest, this game came down to this:

  • In a scoreless game late in the first quarter, punting from their own 30-yard line on fourth-and-12, mostly thanks to some b.s. 10-yard tripping call on Tyron Smith, the Cowboys allowed Patriots special teams ace Mathew Slater to knife through for a one-handed block of Chris Jones’ punt that set up the Patriots with first-and-10 at the Cowboys 12-yard line. Two plays later, Brady hits rookie K’Neal Harry for the wide receiver’s first NFL touchdown – uh, what turned out to be the game’s only touchdown. Seven points. Cowboys lost by four.* Next possession, third-and-2 from the Cowboys’ 26, after Prescott’s one-hand save of a quite-high snap, the timing of the play thrown off, Dak tries to rescue the possession by sliding to his right and throwing a sidearm pass to Cooper, a hard throw to execute since the sidearm motion will carry the ball to the left. Too far to the left, allowing cornerback Stephon Gilmore to make a diving interception. Four plays later, former Cowboys kicker Nick Folk hits a 44-yard field goal. That’s 10 Patriots points in a mere 2 minutes, 59 seconds. Again the Cowboys lost by four.
  • And if all that were not enough benevolence, trailing but 10-6 in the final minute of the third quarter, again special teams became the culprit when punting on fourth-and-13 at the Cowboys’ 40-yard line, mostly thanks to an iffy holding call on Smith. The Cowboys, somewhat confused by the Patriots lining up without a return man, all 11 on a punt block, causing the Cowboys to absorb a 5-yard delay of game instead of wasting a timeout. And if that were not enough, on the ensuing punt, Jones’ beauty was downed at the Patriots’ 18-yard line. But rookie receiver Ventell Bryant, who was one of the gunners on the outside, was called for illegal motion, costing the Cowboys another 5 yards. And this time, with Jones punting into the wind, a high snap hurrying him, this punt from now the 35, was fair caught at New England’s 38-yard line – a 20-yard difference. From there, the Patriots drove close enough for a 42-yard field goal and a 13-6 lead. Three more gifted points thanks to those hidden 20 yards.

As Prescott said after the game, “They made fewer mistakes than we did, and they made a little bit more plays than we did, and that was the difference in the game.”

Huge difference. Like the Cowboys wasted a fine defensive performance against Brady & Co., their costly mistakes having a huge hand in every one of those 13 points the suddenly offensively-challenged Patriots scored.

Leaving Cowboys owner Jerry Jones somewhat seething over the special teams play, then saying of the loss leaving the Cowboys a smidge over mediocre at 6-5, “This was a significant setback for our team. We needed this win, needed this win against this team.”

And here we go again, the Cowboys still not good enough to win these close games, with four of the five losses now by a grand total of 12 points – two two-pointers and now two four-pointers, with two of the losses giving up no more than New England’s 13 points.

Also, of course, with a couple of real weird calls.

Tripping, two in one game when a stat floated out that tripping in this league after the 12th week had only been accepted five previous times this season. Now twice in one game, on Gillette’s slip-and-slide field.

The first we discussed, on Tyron. The second late in the fourth quarter when it appeared Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett might win his hunch, deciding on fourth-and-7 from the Patriots’ 11-yard line to eschew a fourth-down gamble for a Brett Maher chip-shot 29-yard field goal with 6:09 left to pull within 13-9.

Certainly everyone watching on TV heard Fox analyst Troy Aikman say he would have gone for the first down instead of kicking the field goal. As for Garrett, “You know, make it a four-point game. They go ahead and kick a field goal coming back, you still have a chance to be in the game. We would get it back with just under three (minutes), with a chance to go win it. So just felt good about that decision, at that time.”

If there is a second guess here, on second-and-7, the way the Cowboys were running with Elliott, the Cowboys might have just run the ball twice, or thrice, instead of throwing back-to-back passes that fell incomplete.

Just the same, Garrett’s strategy to kick the field goal seemed on its way to working after the Dallas defense forced a New England punt. Now the Cowboys needed to drive 92 yards for a touchdown within 2:38. First play, with the wind at his back, Dak to Randall Cobb for 18 yards. Then to Gallup for 9 yards. And on third-and-1, Dak to Ezekiel Elliott for 3 yards and a first down.

They thought.

Flag.

Of all the darn things, _tripping_, this time on Travis Frederick, minus-10, basically ballgame since Dak’s third-down pass fell incomplete in the face of a Patriots blitz.

Pretty flimsy call, Frederick merely stepping in place to cut off a pass rusher, who got blocked from the side and went to the ground.

“Call I haven’t heard of a lot,” Frederick said, trying to be careful to avoid any sort of fine.

And when asked to define what he thinks tripping is, Frederick said, “I imagine sticking your left leg out and tripping someone.”

As Aikman pointed out on the broadcast, there has to be obvious intent, Frederick conceding, “There’re a lot of moving parts out there.”

Said Garrett afterward of two tripping calls in one game, “I’ve never seen that before.”

And Dak, two in one game, ever seen that?

“No, I have not.”

So when the Cowboys could have continued driving for the win, they now were on their way to another close-call loss. A hard loss, considering how well the defense played and the fact a win would have put them up two games in the NFC East over the Eagles, 17-9 losers to Seattle and already having lost to the Cowboys with five games remaining.

But leave it to Dak, with that stiff chin to point out, “Fortunately, in some way, we still control our destiny.”

That they do, but at some point the Cowboys have to close out one of these close ones, one of these games against good teams, leaving Sean Lee to say, “Time for us to take that next step.”

A clean, finely executed step at that.

And stop tripping over themselves.

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