Patriots defense holds the line against Dallas

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Patriots defense holds the line against Dallas

FOXBORO -- Come clean: You didn't think they could do it.

You never thought that if Tom Brady and the Patriots offense was taken out of a game, the defense could hold the line.

But New England beat the Cowboys Sunday, 20-16 -- because of the defense, not in spite of it.

A win within the win.

"We wanted to stick together," said Kyle Arrington. " It's, 'We all we got,' that's what we always say defensively. I think we just all banded together and left it all out on the field."

Of all the statistics being fired at football fans this season, New England's 32nd-ranked defense always gets radio play. Largely because the flaw adds insecurity to long-term postseason plans. (It also makes lovers of The Other 31 giddy.) Average yards surrendered per game: 433.0. Total receptions surrendered: 154.

The numbers are those that teams like Dallas feed on.

Despite a 2-3 record, there are certain offensive dangers the Cowboys pose. Tony Romo's a gunslinger, and he's got some good targets in Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten. The trio of receivers had caught all of Romo's seven touchdowns going into Week 6. And, believe it or not, Romo's reputation as a self-saboteur isn't something you rest a game plan on.

The same way the Patriots can't plan to rest on Brady.

On Sunday, they couldn't. Brady was sacked three times and threw two picks on the night. DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and the rest of the Cowboys 'D' loomed large on every play. First-quarter drives: field goal, interception, fumble. First-quarter time possession: four minutes, 38 seconds.

New England's defense was forced to mature.

It did.

The Patriots held Dallas to 33-percent efficiency both on third down and in the Red Zone. Contributions came from all over, whether in Gerard Warren drawing a hold and recovering a Vince Wilfork-forced fumble, Kyle Arrington picking off a pass, or Andre Carter putting Romo on the ground -- twice.

"You know what it does?" Arrington quipped. "It sets the standard, especially with an explosive team like the Cowboys . . . a very talented offense. That's a great outfit over there. For us to play 'D' like that, it just sets the standard. There's no reason why we can't do that week-in and week-out."

Andre Carter was more cautious in his postgame assessment.

"Lord willing, we're coming along," he said. "We still have a long way to go, especially on those long drives in the second quarter and a little bit in the third. So if we can eliminate those and be consistent then we're headed in the right direction."

They need to eliminate missed tackles, too. There were plenty, and some were costly. Like on Romo's final drive of the first half, when Bryant got the better of Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton and safety Patrick Chung for 33 yards up the sideline. The play grew into one of those long drives Carter bemoaned in the postgame: 11 plays, 93 yards, zero third downs and six points.

The missed and broken coverage, you'd better believe that will be a focus of this upcoming bye week. But for one night, the defensive corps could take pride in securing the win.

They earned it; there's been no bigger test in 2011 Dallas' third drive of the fourth quarter.

Romo got the ball with a 16-13 lead and three-and-a-half minutes on the clock. New England squashed the first two plays with tackles for a loss of three total yards. The Cowboys shot themselves in the foot with a five-yard false start penalty to wind up at third-and-18. Dallas then picked up just eight on the run and chose to punt.

They won the ball back for Brady. The offense returned the favor with a touchdown.

"As a defense, that's what you want: you want to have the confidence of the offense," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "If they go out there and have a bad play, have a turnover, they know they're going to get the ball back."

That's exactly what happened Sunday against Dallas. And that's exactly why the Patriots won.

Curran: Ravens are the Patriots' most bitter rival

Curran: Ravens are the Patriots' most bitter rival

Who has been the Patriots' greatest rival of the Belichick-Brady Era?

There are a few candidates: There's no franchise the team hates more thoroughly than the Jets. The Steelers, just because of franchise tradition, are in the mix but the Patriots have had their way in most of the big games with Pittsburgh. The Colts? It's kind of a big brother-little brother thing. The Broncos? Definitely. But no opponent has provided the gripping games and the mix of animosity and respect that the Ravens have over the past decade. 

The first truly memorable Ravens-Patriots game came in 2007. Brian Billick was in his final season as Ravens head coach and Baltimore -- with Kyle Boller at quarterback -- was on its way to a 5-11 season. But that Monday night epic against the unbeaten Patriots was one of the most gripping games of the Belichick era with the Patriots erasing a 24-17 deficit in the final eight minutes thanks to a Ravens meltdown that included defensive coordinator Rex Ryan calling costly timeouts and Ravens players throwing penalty flags. The Patriots won, 27-24, on a touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left. It was probably the hardest the Patriots were pushed en route to 16-0.

Since then, there was the never-to-be-forgotten 33-14 2009 playoff rout at Gillette, which was probably the low point of the Belichick Era. That was followed by a pair of 23-20 Patriots wins before -- the second of those being a stirring AFC Championship win in the 2011 playoffs when Sterling Moore’s pass breakup and a hooked field goal attempt sent the Ravens home whining. But the Ravens broke Gronk in that game and -- with him hobbling around in the Super Bowl against the Giants -- they came up short, 21-17.

Early in 2012, again in prime time, the Patriots let leads of 13-0 and 30-21 slip away as the Ravens won 31-30 on a 27-yard Justin Tucker field goal at the buzzer. It was the Replacement Ref Game, the nadir of the horrific stretch of time in which we got an eyeful of how bad officiating can really be (thanks, Rog!).

The two teams saw each other again in the 2012 AFC Championship and the Patriots saw a 13-7 halftime lead evaporate in a hail of Joe Flacco throws to Anquan Boldin as the Patriots got out-toughed in a 28-13 loss. Late in 2013, the Patriots gave the Ravens a tremendous 41-7 beating in Baltimore to usher the Ravens out of playoff contention. It was the best win of the year for New England.

And the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff win for New England was one of the best playoff wins of Belichick Era. The Patriots twice erased 14-point deficits to win 35-31 at Gillette. The Ravens made a public show of complaining about the Patriots formation trickery and saying they’d take it up with the league. Tom Brady chastised the Ravens for not knowing the rules and Ravens coach John Harbaugh -- who’s got a haughty streak in him to say the least -- made sure the rule got changed then spent 2015 running trick formation plays recreationally.

More damaging was the private maneuvering of the Ravens.

Their coaching staff -- specifically special teams coach Jerry Rosburg -- was dropping dimes to the Indianapolis Colts, encouraging Indy to be on alert for football shenanigans, alleging the Patriots monkeyed with the K-ball usage. Harbaugh initially denied any involvement in the mess that ensued after the Colts alerted the league to that concern and the purported deflating of footballs which was “well known around the league.” After it was demonstrated that the Ravens had communicated with the Colts, Harbaugh and the Ravens released a statement trying to establish distance. 

As much as Baltimore wants to maintain its distance, the communication with Indy and the fact that “independent investigator” Ted Wells interviewed both Rosburg and Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees during the DeflateGate investigation shows that the Ravens weren’t just minding their own business in this whole thing.

This will be the first time the teams meet since all that went down and it will be interesting to hear this week if there’s any latent bitterness on the part of the Patriots who -- despite the on-field rivalry -- had a strong relationship with Baltimore at the ownership level with Steve Bisciotti, at the personnel level with Ozzie Newsome and George Kokinis and with the coaching staff. Bill Belichick recommended Harbaugh to Bisciotti for the Ravens head job in 2008.

The surging Ravens have won four of five. They’re 7-5 and leading the AFC North. And -- unlike other teams that traditionally melt under the lights in New England -- the Ravens relish the chance to play the Patriots.

"We have to go up into a hostile place in New England that we really enjoy playing [at]," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's going to be another important game in December up there on a Monday night, and it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it, big time."

“Now we’ve got our toughest challenge and we’ll need to play our best football up in New England to win that football game,” said Harbaugh. “We believe we’ll have a chance to do that based on where we are right now. … They’ve got great players, a great organization and they’re always at the top and they’ve earned it. We’ve been honored to be in some big games with them over the years and that’s a place we want to be.”