Patriots 'D' makes strides, but not enough

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Patriots 'D' makes strides, but not enough

FOXBORO -- They were so close.

On Sunday night, the Patriots defense was seven minutes away from being the story of the game, specifically, a redemption tale.

Their performance against Pittsburgh just one week earlie looked like rock bottomr. New England let Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers complete 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, convert 10 of 16 third-down plays, and control almost 40 minutes of ball possession. It was an embarrassment.

After the 25-17 loss, pressure for Week 9's match up against the Giants was immediately heaped upon Tom Brady and the offense. With the Patriots' 'D' close to useless and New York's barely better, the game was billed to be a shootout.

Nobody expected what happened.

The Patriots and Giants entered halftime tied at zero. Zero points. Nada. Zilch. What they did have was 10 combined punts, six being New York's. New England's defense finally looked alive, which was impressive in itself, but more so because the offense needed them. Brady went three- or four-and-out on three first-half drives; the defense held the Giants to 1-for-7 on third-down conversions. Brady threw an interception; Eli Manning was held to 8-for-18 passing. The Patriots -- because of consistently terrible field position -- only saw the red zone once; the Giants never did.

Finally, it looked like they stopped 'hoping' for improvement and improved.

So what changed?

"Eli Manning made some pretty good throws," cornerback Kyle Arrington shrugged. "That's all I can say."

Some good throws and some better breaks. Once some New England fumbles and bumbles got the Giants' scoring going, the fault lines started to appear. One major fissure was the pass-interference call on Arrington in the fourth quarter. New York got 35 yards and an automatic first down. The field position was too good to mess up and Manning found Mario Manningham for a third-and-5 touchdown. Arrington's coverage wasn't bad, but the throw was perfect. The Giants, after being limited 1-for-11 by New England's 'D', converted on its final three third-downs.

"It's tough," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "As a defense you hate giving up any touchdowns and toward the end of the game we know there's only a few possessions left and we've just got to get those stops.

"There's nothing we can do about it now, but this'll happen again. Close games like this, once you get toward the end of the season -- it seems like they happen each week. We've got to just learn from this game and be prepared when it happens again."

With the defense's weaknesses being so obvious -- the secondary's painfully so -- opponents know how to game plan against the Patriots. After Pittsburgh's 25-17 win, injured receiver Hines Ward admitted he didn't feel the need to push through his ankle ailment that week.

"I probably could have forced it and played but we have some great wideouts," Ward said. "I wasn't really concerned. And against the Patriots, we felt we could exploit their secondary."

The Giants did when it mattered. Now New England's forced to scrutinize back-to-back losses, the first time that's happened since 2009. With a meeting against the Jets in New York on the horizon, the streak could reach three unless the leaks get plugged.

They keep saying it's possible.

After each loss the Patriots promise to study their flaws, the problem seems to be in applying those lessons to game-day scenarios. No minor thing. For all the early improvement the defense seemed to show Sunday, in the fourth quarter it twice needed to preserve the lead and didn't -- couldn't. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich stood up to answer for the performance.

"We've got to do exactly what we did last week: come in, watch the tape, see the things we didn't do right, and can't dwell on the things in the past. It's in the past now. We've just got to . . . improve and go from there for next week. Next week's a division game and we've got to make sure we go into New York and do a good job on defense."

Another week to work things out. One more week before visiting the AFC East's first place Jets. If they don't stop trying and start doing, the Patriots' 2011 story could end a lot sooner than they want it to.

BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Reaction to weekend protests

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BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Reaction to weekend protests

0:41 - Tom Giles, Tom Curran, Kayce Smith, and Michael Holley discuss the National Anthem protests across the NFL over the weekend and the reactions to players kneeling.

10:07 - Michael Hurley joins the BST crew to talk about the Patriots' thrilling last-minute victory over the Texans and how concerning the Patriots' issues on defense are.

18:13 - Michael Holley and Kayce Smith discuss Kyrie Irving and LeBron James' comments about one another during Media Day, including LeBron referring to Kyrie as "The Kid" instead of his name.

22:30 - Evan Drellich joins BST to talk about Mookie Betts and Eduardo Nunez both leaving with injuries during the Red Sox's Monday night loss to the Blue Jays, and other concerns surrounding the team heading into the postseason.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Prescott, Cowboys pull away to beat Cardinals, 28-17

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MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Prescott, Cowboys pull away to beat Cardinals, 28-17

GLENDALE, Ariz. , Dak Prescott kneeled with his teammates and team owner before the game, flipped head over heels for a touchdown in the first half and capped his night with a 37-yard TD pass that proved to be the game winner.

The Dallas Cowboys erased last week's ugly memory on Monday night, with their young quarterback leading the way.

"He just kept battling," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said.

"He kept making good decisions. Obviously he made some good plays, big-time throws, but as much as anything else he's got an amazing spirit and our players follow him."

The Cowboys (2-1), bouncing back from a 42-17 pummeling in Denver, began the game kneeling at midfield with owner Jerry Jones in a show of unity that followed widespread protests across the NFL of critical comments by President Donald Trump over the weekend.

After they kneeled, they stood and walked to the sideline and stood for the anthem.

"We planned and it was executed that we would go out and kneel," Jones said, "and basically make the statement regarding the need for unity and the need for equality."

Prescott, 13 of 18 for 183 yards, broke a 14-14 tie with a 37-yard scoring pass to Brice Butler with 11:52 to play.

"I immediately scrambled and when I scrambled Brice took the right angle and the right initiative going to the back of the end zone," Prescott said.

Arizona, with a spectacular catch by Larry Fitzgerald for 24 yards on a third-and-18 play, moved downfield but the drive stalled. Phil Dawson's 37-yard field goal cut the lead to 21-17 with 6:35 left.

Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 8 yards on nine carries against Denver and drew criticism for not hustling after a couple of late interceptions, was bottled up much of the game, but still gained 80 yards on 22 attempts, 30 on one play. He ran 8 yards for the final Cowboys touchdown.

The Cardinals (1-2), in their home opener, got a big game from Fitzgerald, who caught 13 passes for 149 yards, in the process moving ahead of Marvin Harrison into eighth in career receiving yards. The 13 receptions tied a career high.

"That's Fitz. It's Monday night," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "He's a money player. It was a great performance by him. It's a shame we couldn't play better around him."

Carson Palmer had a big first half, completed 15 of 18 for 145 yards and finished 29 of 48 for 325 yards and two scores. He was sacked six times, a career-high three by DeMarcus Lawrence.

The Cardinals dominated the first half statistically, but were deadlocked with the Cowboys at 7-7. Arizona had a 152-57 advantage in yards and dominated time of possession 19:34 to 9:41.

Arizona took the opening kickoff and went 82 yards in eight plays. Palmer was 5-for-5 on the drive, capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jaron Brown.

Before Dallas even had a first down, Arizona mounted a nearly nine-minute drive but a touchdown pass to Brown was negated by a holding penalty and Phil Dawson's 36-yard field goal try was wide right. It was the third mid-range miss for the 41-year-old kicker this season.

And the miss left the door open for the Cowboys to get back in it.

Prescott scored on a 10-yard run, flipping head-first over the goal line to tie it at 7-7 with 3:33 left in the half.

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