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.
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.