These big-hype games rarely live up to their billing. And when all the hype surrounds the two head coaches, all the hype ends with the opening kickoff.
With the Patriots receiving corps depleted (Troy Brown out, David Patten on IR) and up against the league's No. 1 defense, most pre-game scouting reports accurately predicted a low-scoring affair. That would describe the 12-0 Patriots win.
What seemed like a defensive struggle in the first half might have been more like sloppy football. Seven penalties by the Cowboys slowed their operations down and New England, without Brown, wasn't exactly sharp on offense (take away Brady's 46 and 57-yard completions and he only had 53 yards passing in the half).
It basically came down to two big plays for the Patriots that separated the scoring in the first 30 minutes.
The first big play of the game came towards the end of the first quarter and went to Deion Branch, a 46-yard completion from Brady that Branch took over the middle and scampered with to the Dallas 11. After a 6-yard pick-up by Smith, Brady threw incomplete on third down and Vinatieri was good on his 23-yard attempt for the early 3-0 Patriot lead.
New England scored its first touchdown with 2:34 left in the half. On third and 6 from his own 38, Brady felt pressure and heaved one downfield that David Givens made a nice adjustment for and then deked Terence Newman for a 57-yard gain. A roughing the passer call on the same play moved the ball to the 2 where Antowain Smith bulled his way in for the score.
Givens left the game and did not return although he stayed on the bench.
Vinatieri's extra point attempt was blocked by Flozell Adams to make the score 9-0, Patriots, breaking a streak of 92 straight extra points made including the postseason.
"It was a seam ball and basically Tom put the ball where the DB wasn't and I made the adjustment and caught it and just tried to score," Givens said after the game. "I made a move on him and the move worked and I just tried to get in the end zone. When you go Cover Zero a lot of times there is a lot of opportunity to gash the defense and we kind of took advantage with a couple of big plays that our receivers had. It was a shot game. Whoever hit the most shots basically won the game and it looked like we hit more shots than the other team."
Dallas looked like it might have a chance in the third quarter when it began a drive on the Patriots side of the field. They did so after a couple of Patriots offensive penalties – one a phantom roughing call on Joe Andruzzi – forced a fourth and 36 punt by Ken Walter.
Continuing his struggles, Walter managed just over 20 yards and Dallas was in good shape. That continued with Adrian Murrell running and Quincy Carter hitting Richie Anderson and Terry Glenn. On first and 10 from the Patriots 19, Carter looked Jason Witten's way but the tight end bobbled the ball just enough for Ty Law to step in and pluck the ball away for the interception and the drive stopper.
Now in the fourth quarter, New England had another big defensive stop on the Cowboys next drive. Facing a fourth and inches from midfield, Bill Parcells elected to go for the first down with a give to Troy Hambrick. Reading the play perfectly, Tedy Bruschi broke in and nailed Hambrick for the loss.
"The fourth down stop is sort of just like a turnover," Bruschi said. "We anticipated a sneak maybe, they had run a sneak a couple of times on a third-and-short, but on fourth-and-one they tried to run a little counter action play which they had run in the first half. I just sort of saw the gap and sniffed it out and hit the gap."
New England did not take advantage of that opportunity but when Tyrone Poole intercepted Carter the next time Dallas had the ball, it did. First, the Cowboys jumped offsides on Vinatieri's 39-yard field goal attempt (which was good), giving New England a first down and another chance to go for six while killing more clock.
The clock killing worked as the drive ended with only 1:56 left in the game, but the net points remained the same with Vinatieri good on a 26-yard field goal to make the score 12-0.
Dallas threatened with seconds left on the clock but Law made his second interception of the night as Carter looked to the end zone. Law's return ran out the clock and that's how it ended.
"We really didn't start talking shutout until the last drive and we were saying, 'Let's get the shutout,'" Bruschi said. "Then all of the sudden they are inside our 20. So Ty made a great play and we were able to keep the goose egg."
Nothing special for either team on the offensive side of the ball stats-wise. Brady was 15 of 34 for 212 yards while Carter was 20 of 36 for 210 yards. Neither team's running game reached the 90-yard mark as defense was the name of this game, although the Patriots were able to put enough yardage together on the ground (Smith had 16 carries for 51 yards) to counterbalance their big plays.
"We didn't establish much," Smith admitted. "That's a credit to their defense. But we had to keep them honest and go in there and try to run the ball a little bit. So we had some creases in there a little bit, but for the most part we went in there and did just enough to get the win."
"He got them when we needed them," Matt Light said of Smith's rushing yards. "It's hard for a running back to ground our a lot of yards and make a lot of plays like that when those guys are blitzing all the time. You don't know where they are coming and he's trying to find those reads and trying to find the cuts and the lanes. He did a heck of a job for what he had to work with because I promise you we didn't block them all.
"Dallas has an unbelievable defense. There are a lot of great players over there. All those guys flew around and made plays all throughout the game. We just had our opportunities to hit some big plays and we kind of hurt them with some of those, but that is a really good team over there."
Both Ted Washington and Ted Johnson returned to action.
New England travels to Houston next week. The Texans knocked off the Bills on Sunday.