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Patriots-Cowboys Analysis: Walking the walk

ARLINGTON, Tex.- Much of the talk this past week was about who wasn't going to play for Dallas - QB Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Perhaps there should have been more talk about two players who were playing for Dallas for the first time this year.

But Greg Hardy, making his Cowboys debut, made sure the rest of the talk was about him and, well, his talking. On Sunday, early on, he and linebacker Rolando McClain, the other Cowboys returning defender, were able to walk the walk to back it up.

Hardy was unashamed to make inflammatory comments, some of them directed at QB Tom Brady, during the week leading up to this game, which led many observers to assume that would only incite the anger of the Patriots.

The New England Patriots take on the Dallas Cowboys during a regular season game at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, October 11, 2015.

And it may have. Except, what many folks may have failed to grasp was that Hardy and McClain are significant additions to the Dallas D. And they made their presence known early.

Both registered sacks of Tom Brady in the first quarter. Hardy was later flagged for illegal use of hands to the face, but also stripped Brady of the ball on the next series. Julian Edelman recovered for New England. Then there were the Crawfords - d-tackles Jack and Tyrone - who also took Brady down in the first half. New England's offensive line had trouble containing Dallas' up-front pressure.

Entering the Dallas game, Brady had been sacked six times - twice in each of the first three games. In the first half alone, he was taken down five times.

On the other side of the ball, though, New England's defense did a decent job countering the strength of the Cowboys' offense - their o-line. Dallas rushers managed just 40 yards combined in the first two quarters. They also applied a fair amount of pressure on replacement QB Brandon Weeden. The loss of linebacker Dont'a Hightower to a rib injury in the first quarter was a significant loss for the Patriots, but the Patriots were able to continue stuffing the run and making life difficult for Weeden. Despite being out-possessed of the ball by a 2-to-1 margin, New England held a 10-point advantage at halftime.

"We know if we can just keep giving them the ball back, eventually, points are going to go on the board and we'll be able to make a run," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty remarked afterward.

Brady was clearly fired up when he scored on a go-ahead QB sneak near the end of the second quarter, and he came out firing in the third quarter.

"It amps you up a lot," wide receiver Julian Edelman said of Brady's on-field passion. "He's a fiery guy and he's our leader. When we see him fired up, it fires you up."

Despite the loss of left tackle Nate Solder to a right elbow injury at the end of the first half, the o-line held together better in the second half, giving Brady time enough to find open receivers and methodically take control of the game.

"There were some adjustments made and we just started playing better. We had to," Solder observed. "We couldn't play the way we started the game. They're good players and they have a good scheme and play hard. They did some different stuff we hadn't seen. We had to manipulate things we were doing."

Touchdown passes to Edelman and RB Dion Lewis were masterful individual efforts by those two players to elude numerous Dallas defenders after making their receptions.

The Cowboys best offensive player, meantime, was a non-factor. Tight end Jason Witten was called for a couple of penalties and committed a costly fumble in the fourth quarter.

"That's our job, not to allow points," added McCourty. "When you're able to do that, hold a team to six points, our offense will pull out games."

"Did they score [any touchdowns]?" a smiling and obviously pleased defensive end Jabaal Sheard asked rhetorically. He was credited with a pair of sacks of backup Brandon Weeden.  

"Obviously, that's something we want to do, try to hold offenses to no touchdowns."

As for Hardy, after his initial bluster, he quieted down significantly as the game wore on.

But Patriots fans, in attendance in considerable numbers, making themselves heard unequivocally with chants of "Brady! Brady! Brady!" after their quarterback ran a QB-sneak into the end zone to break a 3-3 tie near the end of the first half, and whenever the defense came up with a sack or an interception or a big play on offense.

"It was awesome to see all the Patriots fans out there. It seemed pretty equal, didn't it [between Cowboys and Patriots fans]?" Edelman asked reporters. "It was loud. It doesn't surprise me. Anytime I go anywhere in the offseason, I see Patriots fans. I'm glad to have them."

Backed by a supportive road crowd, the Patriots, in the end, and after a difficult start, wound up having as easy a win as many thought they would because they let their actions - not their mouths - do the talking.

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