FOXBOROUGH – From an offensive standpoint, this game wasn't pretty for 57-and-a-half minutes.
Both the Dallas and New England offenses seemed content to self-destruct each time their defenses came up with crucial turnovers or third-down stops.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw a pair of interceptions and was sacked three times. Tight end Aaron Hernandez lost a fumble – the first by the Patriots offense in 389 plays – and co-captain Matthew Slater lost another on a kickoff return. What's more, New England was flagged for a half-dozen penalties and managed its lowest scoring output of the season.
But in the final two-and-a-half minutes, the Patriots offense turned this ugly duckling of a performance into the most graceful and elegant of swans.
From the shotgun and going no-huddle, Brady hit Hernandez with a 16-yard pass to start the decisive drive. Fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski picked up 11 more on the next play. Wes Welker added another five to get to the 2-minute warning.
Right afterward, he gained 10 before running back Danny Woodhead caught a 9-yard pass from Brady. Dallas cornerback Orlando Scandrick made a great reach-around effort to knock down Brady's next pass, intended for Welker, but that was the best the Dallas D could manage.
Brady picked up the first down himself by QB-sneaking on 3rd-and-1 from the Cowboys' 29. He then found Woodhead for 13 yards and Welker for six, setting up New England with a 1st-and-goal from the Dallas 8.
Trailing 16-13 with 27 seconds left, the Patriots took a quick timeout to strategize.
Set up for the easy, chip-shot field goal and take your chances in overtime?
Not Brady's bunch.
They came out, guns blazing from the shotgun. They liked their chances taking three shots at the end zone before booting the game-tier.
But they wouldn't need it.
On the first play after the timeout, Brady engineered the 32nd fourth-quarter comeback of his career when he hit Hernandez with the game-winning touchdown with 22 ticks left on the clock.
"We just knew it was time to step up," Hernandez told reporters. "When you've got a quarterback like Tom, anything can happen as long as there's time on the clock. He had enough time to get it done."
"We did a lot of things very poorly," left tackle Matt Light remarked. "Whether it was those guys [on Dallas] making great plays or us just totally being asleep in certain situations, we have to play better than that. We understand that. We can't turn the ball over like that. Those things happened, we overcame them, and we got a win out of it. Everybody battled back and played hard. These are the kind of wins you want, but you don't necessarily want to be in those situations."
"It's an ugly win. Yeah, you can't get a better example than today," added wide receiver Deion Branch. "I mean, it started out looking OK, then the momentum switched, we got the ball back, couldn't do anything with it, defense got another turnover, we go three-and-out, defense stops them again, we turn the ball over. It doesn't get any uglier than this."
The Patriots defense had to be feeling sorry for themselves a bit. After all, they did their part, making life difficult for Dallas signal caller Tony Romo as best they could. Cornerback Kyle Arrington picked off Romo on the game's opening drive. Defensive end Andre Carter was credited with both sacks of Romo on the evening. And on critical 3rd downs, the Patriots were stingy, allowing Romo to convert on a third of the time.
They held the explosive Cowboys offense to just 16 points, and yet, it looked like it might not be enough to win.
Until Brady made magic.
"I knew we were going to score," Arrington maintained. "I knew – whether it was going to be a field goal or a touchdown – I knew we were going to get some points. I was hoping it was definitely seven."
And that's what the Patriots got – seven. Even with that, New England finished with just 20 points, the lowest regular-season total since last November in Cleveland – a Patriots loss. The defensive coordinator for the Browns back then was the same guy in the same role on the Cowboys sideline Sunday in Foxborough: Rob Ryan, who also just happens to be a former Patriots assistant who won two Super Bowl rings with Bill Belichick.
He knows a thing or two about how to slow Brady down, but when it counted most, Ryan's defense couldn't stop the inevitable victory march of the Patriots.
It wasn't pretty, but New England will take it.
"We didn't make as many mistakes last year. We made way more mistakes this year. That was the whole game. All the bad football that we displayed on the football field – that was the difference between this year and last year," Branch recalled, then added with a laugh, "Yeah, we lost last year. Somehow, we dug deeper and got a victory today."
"I'm all about the W," linebacker Brandon Spikes declared, "so, call it what you want – we're winning. I'm happy. We're going to enjoy it tonight and just try to get better during the bye week."
"Great feeling, especially with the bye coming up," echoed Arrington. "We can nurse the bumps and bruises and rest up a bit."
"Huge win," Hernandez concluded, "because with a loss, you're thinking about it for a long time. Now we can enjoy this off week, get healthy, then come back strong."
Isn't that a beautiful thing?