Coming out of the bye week, and given the undermanned nature of the Cowboys offensive attack, many expected the Patriots trip to Dallas to be a blowout victory similar to the one the team had over Jacksonville leading into last week's bye.
That storyline got off to a slow start in Big D as the Cowboys D made life tough on Tom Brady early, especially Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy. Returning from a four-game suspension, the controversial Cowboy backed up his words from earlier in the week by getting after the New England quarterback early and often.
The Patriots punted on three of their first four possessions – having not punted once in the Week 3 blowout of the Jaguars – and settled for a field goal on the fourth possession thanks to a Hardy sack that stagnated the New England offense.
As such the Patriots found themselves with only a 13-3 lead at the half with Brady having been banged around mightily in the early-game struggles.
But things got a little more comfortable for the visitors in the second half as New England marched to touchdowns on its first two drives after the break, including an 85-yard drive to open the third quarter that ended in a dynamic Dion Lewis 10-yard catch-and-run score.
That helped the Patriots pull away to the seemingly-easy 30-6 win that didn't exactly tell the story of the early struggles and the pounding that Brady took at times from Hardy and the rest of an aggressive, talented Dallas front.
The two games surrounding the bye ended the same way – with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo taking a kneel-down to close out a victory.
But with Hardy notching a pair of Dallas' five sacks and Brady getting hit far more often than that, the 38-year-old quarterback's body likely feels like it was in more of a battle than a blowout.
The Patriots improved to 4-0, one of the six remaining undefeated teams in the NFL through five weeks, but as always Bill Belichick will have plenty to harp on as the team prepares for next Sunday night's much-hyped trip to Indy to take on the lackluster Colts. The offensive line needs to be better. The pass coverage remains a work in progress, even if Dallas was ill-equipped to challenge it.
In most NFL cities Sunday afternoon's trip to Dallas would be reason for celebration. But the defending champs have much grander goals and are building toward greater things.
"I'm really proud of our team today," Belichick said. "I thought we got good complementary football in all three phases.
"Overall, good to come down here and win. I thought we got good contributions from everybody."
It wasn't as easy as fans and media may have expected. But it was more than enough to beat the 'Boys. The Patriots got punched in the mouth early and responded in fashion. There is certainly something to be said for that as a team builds toward the postseason, builds toward its best and proves its mettle in a long NFL season.
That in mind, here are a look at some of the personnel highs and lows from the afternoon affair at Jerry Jones' NFL palace in Dallas:
Stephen Gostkowski – Another week and another impressive effort for the best kicker in the game. Gostkowski closed out the first half with a career-long 57-yard field goal that tied Adam Vinatieri's franchise record. It was one of his three field goals on the day as he remained perfect on all of his scoring attempts this season. Mr. Perfect also put all seven of his kickoffs into the end zone, six for touchbacks.
Dion Lewis – Though some of his chip blocking in the first half left something to be desired, Lewis continued to make key plays with the ball in his hands in Dallas. That included a highlight-reel touchdown catch-and-run 10-yard score in the third quarter when he made at least five Cowboys defenders look silly. Lewis finished with a team-high eight catches for 59 yards and the one score. He also chipped in with 34 yards rushing on his six attempts to put him near 100 yards from scrimmage yet again. Lewis is now entrenched with Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman as a core member of the Patriots offense.
Jabaal Sheard – While Lewis has been the star of New England's new players, Sheard has done his job more often than not on the other side of the ball. He had a breakout effort in Dallas with a pair of sacks, matching his 16-game total a year ago in Cleveland. Sheard continues to fit in nicely on the New England defense as a versatile edge option.
Jamie Collins – With Dont'a Hightower leaving the game early with a rib injury, his partner in defensive crime did his part to pick up the slack. Collins led New England with 10 tackles -- Belichick said his linebacker seemed like he had 20 tackles and was everywhere on the field -- while also notching a forced fumble for the third straight game. Collins is now clearly very comfortable running the show in the middle of the Patriots defense. The unit doesn't seem lacking in any way – leadership or playmaking – with Hightower or captain Jerod Mayo missing from the mix.
Nate Solder – From nearly the first snap of the day, New England's left tackle struggled with controversial Cowboys pass rusher Greg Hardy. Hardy's crazy comments early in the week revolved around wanting to sack Tom Brady and he achieved that goal on the second play of the game by easily beating Solder. Solder then left the game with an arm injury and did not return. Tough day all around for the left tackle. Solder wasn't the only guy to struggle on the line, as it was a tough day for the group that had been praised often to open the season.
*Dont'a Hightower – *The inside linebacker got off to a great start with a sack in the first quarter. Unfortunately for him, and the New England defense, Hightower left the game with a rib injury, went to the locker room early and never returned. Hightower has already dealt with a shoulder injury this season. He's evolved into one of the most important players on the New England defense and his healthy status is important for a Patriots unit still trying to find its identity working with one of the best offenses in the game.
Chandler Jones – Jones had a quiet day, with just single tackle but that's not his reason for his tongue-in-cheek inclusion here. He also had a pass defense, although that's putting a positive spin on a play that could have been much more than that. Jones showed nice athleticism dropping into coverage, something he doesn't do all that frequently. But the zone blitz drop clearly caught Brandon Weeden off guard and the backup hit Jones right between the 9 and the 5 as they say. But the pass rusher dropped the ball. It's not his forte, but Jones will probably get some good ribbing from his coaches and teammates when the dropped pick is shown on tape. Guess that's why he's not a tight end.
Aaron Dobson – The third-year receiver was a healthy scratch. That came on a day when Keshawn Martin caught two passes for 23 yards as he continues to take advantage of his opportunities in his early time in New England. Dobson is in danger of Martin passing him up on the depth chart and his role in Foxborough continuing to fall from where it was expected to be a former second-round pick.
What do you think of our lists from the big road win in Dallas? Let us know with a comment below!