Tuesday mornings are a time to take a look back at some aspect of the previous weekend's game to highlight an under-the-radar moment that was key to victory. This week we're focusing on two key red-zone stops for the defense.
The Patriots last-second win featured another textbook two-minute drive by Tom Brady and the reigning MVP's late heroics rightly garnered most of the postgame attention. But without a pair of defensive stops in the red zone in the second half, Brady would not have been within striking distance to pull out the victory over Dallas at the end.
The Cowboys scored just one touchdown on three trips inside the Patriots 20, and each of the stops featured standout plays that were largely responsible for the success. The first appeared to be design while the second was a bit fortunate.
Trailing 13-10 early in the third quarter the Cowboys moved to the Patriots 7 and had a first-and-goal. After an incomplete pass, Tony Romo broke the huddle but was forced to burn a timeout as the play clock was winding down. After the break, the Patriots defense made a slight alteration and it worked to perfection.
Andre Carter, who normally lines up at right defensive end (rushing opposite the left tackle to the quarterback's blindside) but Bill Belichick had him switch sides. Carter blew past rookie right tackle Tyron Smith and buried Romo for an 11-yard sack. Dallas only managed 14 yards on the ensuing third-and-goal from the 18 and had to settled for a field goal.
The subtle change to move Carter resulted in perhaps the veteran's best single pass rush of the season, as he quickly shot past Smith and was on top of Romo immediately, offering the quarterback no chance to throw it away.
The second defensive stop came from Brandon Spikes, but Belichick said in the postgame this one wasn't entirely by design. With the Cowboys driving to break the 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter, Dallas faced a third-and-goal from the 5. Spikes shot through an inside gap and blew up a shovel pass to Tashard Choice for a 3-yard loss.
While Spikes ultimately made a key play, with the help of Vince Wilfork, Belichick later explained that is wasn't necessarily drawn up that way.
"He was actually coming on a blitz on the weak side and when they pulled, it looked like he kind of just got in the back pocket of the puller and they weren't able to cut him off so he ran it down from the back side," Belichick said. "They do a good job down there. They have a lot of deceptive plays. They ran the submarine pass for a touchdown. They ran the roll pass out in the flat to the tailback. They do stuff like that that's misdirection or plays that are a little bit different down there that you don't get a chance to work on. Fortunately we were able to make the play on that. Brandon made a good tackle and that was a big stop for us."
Whether the Patriots defense was expecting the shovel pass or anticipating something else is irrelevant. The fact is with it back to the wall the much-maligned unit came up with big plays twice to hold Dallas to three points instead of seven. In a game ultimately decided on a touchdown with less than 30 seconds left, that made all the difference.