FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The Dallas Cowboys turned the game over to their defense in the final minutes, trusting Rob Ryan’s game plan to shut down the Patriots one more time.
Against Tom Brady, that’s a risky strategy.
The Cowboys went conservative on their final possession, running the ball three straight times to wind down the clock before punting the ball back to New England. Brady got the ball with 80 yards to go and 2:31 left, and he swiftly moved the Patriots down the field for the game-winning touchdown and a 20-16 victory.
“Whenever you get the ball into the hands of a player like Brady at home, you’ve got problems,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in the locker room. “We are up here on their field and we knew what the odds were, so we flipped a coin and it came up against us. We know what they are about and what our challenge was there.”
Dan Bailey kicked a 26-yard field goal to break a 13-13 tie with 5:13 left to play, then Dallas forced New England to go three-and-out. Getting the ball back at their own 28 with 3:36 left, the Cowboys had three rushing plays and a false start before punting the ball back to the Patriots.
That gave Brady one more chance. And he delivered, hitting Aaron Hernandez in the middle of the end zone from 8 yards out for the winning score.
“Tom obviously has a good track record. He’s a great quarterback. He’s won Super Bowls here for a reason,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. “At the same time, I believe in our defense. I’ll take our defense any day of the week going forward.”
He had good reason for confidence, because the defense had already slowed down a Patriots team that had scored 30 or more points in 13 consecutive games.
The last team to hold New England under 30: the Cleveland Browns, last Nov. 7. The defensive coordinator of that team: Rob Ryan, who now leads the defense on the Cowboys.
“You have to run the ball in that situation because of the time situation, and I thought our defense had done a good job,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s an outstanding offense; it’s one of the best offenses in the league. You’re challenging your defense, no doubt about it.
“When you’re playing against a quarterback like Tom Brady — he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats, so you have to try to make it hard on him.”
New England (5-1) won despite its first two lost fumbles of the season and Brady’s two interceptions. He finished the game 27 of 41 for 289 yards with two touchdowns.
It was the 32nd successful comeback of Brady’s career in games the Patriots trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. And it came against a solid defense — ranked fourth in the NFL — that had allowed just one touchdown on the Patriots first nine possessions.
Dallas, coming off a bye week, did that for most of the day, sacking him three times and intercepting two passes. But on the final 80-yard drive that started with 2:31 left, Brady completed eight of nine passes for 78 yards.
“We prepare hard for that situation every week and when it came up this week, it’s good to get the ball in the end zone,” Brady said. “I’d prefer to be up four touchdowns with two minutes left, but it just wasn’t the case.”
Dallas (2-3) ended a five-game road winning streak after a bye despite coming back from a 13-3 deficit midway through the second quarter. Romo was 27 of 41 for 317 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his first game since a 34-30 loss to the Detroit Lions in which the Cowboys squandered a 24-point, third-quarter lead and Romo threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
The Cowboys have lost two games by four points and one by three.
Wes Welker, who entered the game as the NFL leader with 45 catches and 740 yards receiving, was held to six for 45, but three of those catches, covering 21 yards, came in the go-ahead drive. The last one covered six yards over the middle, putting the ball at the 8.
Then Brady found Hernandez in one-on-one coverage.
“This is probably, as a whole, one of our worst performances as an offense,” Patriots receiver Deion Branch said. “It’s times like this when we show what we’re made of — that last drive.”
The regular-season win was the Patriots’ 20th straight at home and Brady’s 31st in a row at Gillette Stadium.
“When it comes to crunch time, he is at his best,” Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)