On Pro Football: Beware N.F.L. Fans: The Patriots and Cowboys Are Alive and Well Express News
The New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys, two of the most popular, and unpopular, teams in the N.F.L., rescued their seasons for at least another week on Sunday. Their legions of fans, whether largely confined to six New England states, or strangely confined by no coherent boundaries of any kind, breathed sighs of relief.
The rest of the planet’s N.F.L. fans probably felt cheated. Lost was the chance to wake up to Monday’s N.F.L. standings and find both the Patriots and the Cowboys in last place with dismal 1-3 records.
Instead, New England and Dallas will look optimistically toward the league’s fifth week of play at 2-2. Keep in mind that five of the 12 teams that advanced to the playoffs last season had 2-2 records after four games a year ago.
So, at roughly the one-quarter mark of a new N.F.L. season, it’s clear that some prominent, established teams that seemed in disarray are not fading away just yet. And New England and Dallas have another abstract connection (more on that later).
First, in Foxboro, Mass., there was Tom Brady smiling and slapping backs on the sideline all day, basking in the glow of bright New England sunshine and a 38-7 rout of the Miami Dolphins. It was just like old times.
About 1,700 miles away and later in the afternoon, Dallas owner Jerry Jones, after grasping his chest as if feigning a heart attack, happily cracked a toothy grin in the shadowy, unnatural light of his private football palace. His Cowboys had rallied to defeat the Detroit Lions, 26-24, on a last-second field goal. The party was on.
Then, in the aftermath of each game, both the New England and the Dallas locker rooms echoed similar refrains.
“It’s a long season,” said Brady, who threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns. “Hopefully, we’re a lot better in October than we were in September.”
After their collapse in Detroit last weekend, which was New England’s second successive loss, Bill Belichick did what any son of a football coach raised in the culture of 1960s football would do: He put his charges through a long, hellish week of practice.
And it worked. There is a reason the Patriots have played more than 250 games without a three-game losing streak.
Said Belichick late Sunday afternoon: “Look, every team is going to face adversity over the course of the season. It’s going to be more than one time, too. We’ll all get challenged on this. We’ll get challenged again. I’m sure it’ll probably be many times.”
It’s hard to compare anyone to the stubbornly atypical Belichick, but Dallas Coach Jason Garrett, who, like Belichick, is the son of a longtime football coach, also has a way of keeping his players focused in a turbulent environment. And every day around the stormy Cowboys can sometimes seem turbulent.
Maybe it’s because Belichick and Garrett have coaching roots that stretch into the previous generation, but on Sunday they each returned to some basics that would have been familiar to the N.F.L. more than three decades ago.
New England made its chief ambition for Sunday’s game obvious when Patriots running backs carried the football on eight of the team’s first 12 plays. By the game’s conclusion, New England backs had rushed for 175 yards. That ground-and-pound attack also forced Miami’s fierce pass rush to back off to guard against the run.
And who benefited from that?
A certain 41-year-old quarterback, who like most quarterbacks, doesn’t like getting knocked around in the passing pocket, and who on Sunday — with more adequate time — looked more like the Tom Brady of old by completing 23 of 35 passes.
That’s good coaching.
In much the same way, Garrett knew exactly where his Cowboys had been drifting from their most effective offensive game plan.
In Dallas’s first three games, running back Ezekiel Elliott had rushed for 274 yards, but most glaring, had caught just 11 passes for 37 yards. People were busy talking about whether quarterback Dak Prescott was holding back the Cowboys, and Prescott had indeed muddled through three games before Sunday. But the real problem was getting Elliott more involved in the offense.
That changed Sunday against the Lions when Elliott ran for 152 yards on 25 carries and had four receptions for 88 yards, including a sparkling grab of a long pass down the right sideline for 34 yards that set up the game-winning field goal on the contest’s final play.
Afterward, Garrett agreed it was essential Elliott touch the football more often. But more telling was a comment when Garrett was asked how he got his players prepared as they faced the prospect of a 1-3 record.
Tell me if Garrett’s response sounds like something said by another coach whose team was 1-2 coming into Sunday.
“It starts with really grinding hard Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Garrett said. “So when they come out of the tunnel, there’s a freedom because they know they’re prepared and they just go play. And today they handled the success and adversity of the game very well. We’ll have to do that again, I’m sure.”
The Patriots and the Cowboys will march on, still in the thick of the playoff chase. And they were not the only 1-2 teams who seemingly righted the ship for at least another week. Seattle and San Diego got to .500 after four games as well.
It’s just a little more noticeable when it’s done by the Patriots and Cowboys. It will only make them more popular, and unpopular.