FOXBORO -- The Patriots seemed to find something on Sunday afternoon. Felt like something they'd been looking for since they reported for training camp back in July. In fact, it was probably what the team envisioned as its offensive identity soon after signing high-priced free-agent tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
On their first seven plays of the game against Dallas, they picked up 98 yards and scored two touchdowns. Four passes, three runs. One explosive pass. Two explosive runs.
All with two tight ends -- Smith and Henry -- on the field.
Coming into the game, through five weeks, only about a quarter of New England's offensive snaps featured their tight end duo on the field simultaneously.
"I think that's just Josh [McDaniels] doing a great job scheming them up," Mac Jones said after the game. "He's a great play-caller and he puts us in good positions where our numbers are in our favor."
By the early portion of the second quarter, the Patriots had run 10 plays with two tight ends on the field and picked up 104 yards. Deploying big bodies -- two backs and two tight ends were on the field on seven of those 10 plays -- led to one of the most efficient stretches of offensive play the Patriots had put together all season.
But after that tenth snap, when right tackle Yodny Cajuste was beaten for a strip sack, the Patriots changed course. They tried to run twice out of their 22-personnel look at the end of the first half and at the start of the second, picking up just one yard each time. Smith and Henry saw playing time together on just three of the team's next 22 snaps.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that Smith and Henry were back at it. After an incompletion, McDaniels went to his "22" package and freed up Damien Harris for a 21-yard carry. That grouping stayed on the field for a six-yard run on the next play. They went with a 23-personnel package to score from the goal line with Rhamondre Stevenson to take a 21-20 lead.
By game's end, they'd run two-tight-end sets 21 times, picked up 150 yards and scored twice.
The numbers for the tight ends themselves were nothing remarkable. Henry caught two passes on two targets for 25 yards and a touchdown. Smith was targeted twice -- really just once as another was a throwaway -- and caught one for nine yards.
But there seemed to be an identity the Patriots were trying to establish by going big. Not only could they run the football with those personnel groupings, but we saw McDaniels motion Smith into the backfield to form a "Pony" two-back set. We saw McDaniels motion Henry out of the backfield and into the slot to form a four-wide look. They could align inline and on a wing to create a heavy run-at-all-costs look and throw out of it.
There were options there. Variety. But when the Patriots shifted gears to throw more three-receiver looks at the Cowboys, their series ended with four consecutive punts.
There is no consolation in finding an offensive identity in a loss. But they seemed to find something nonetheless. The question moving forward will be this: Do they feel as though they can stick with those heavy personnel groupings to win games?
Their offseason investment would suggest they would.
But the way in which they shifted gears Sunday would suggest there is still room to grow for their confidence level in those looks.
Let's get to the grades ...
The stat line would suggest Mac Jones' grade should be better than this. He went 15-for-21 for 229 yards -- a whopping 10.9 yards per attempt -- with two touchdowns and a pick. His rating was 119.0. He went 7-for-8 on passes that traveled more than 10 yards down the field and his only two throws that traveled over 20 yards in the air went for touchdowns. Not bad for an offense that was the worst deep-ball attack in football headed into the week.
But the pick-six Jones threw could have been a back-breaker, and that's what drops this grade into the "C" range. With an opportunity to bleed the clock and win the game with a well-executed four-minute offense, Jones had Kendrick Bourne open on a slant for a chunk gain. The throw was high and wide, and though Bourne got his hands on it, he barely got his hands on it. Miss.
"I'm sure there's ways I can do something better on a lot of plays," Jones said after. "That play was one of them. You just gotta play the next play. You're only as good as your last play. At the same time, you gotta move on and just execute the play that's called. I can do that better, and I will."
Jones moved on to the next play about as well as anyone could have asked him to. He took advantage of an aggressive play by corner Trevon Diggs, Jones' Alabama teammate who picked him off, to find Bourne deep.
Safety Damontae Kazee took a kamikaze path to the football, missed, and left Bourne nothing but open turf for a go-ahead score. It was a gift from the secondary, but one that Jones was able to take advantage of despite a potential back-breaking error just minutes prior.
"Guts," David Andrews said of his quarterback. "He's got some guts, he's got some gusto. Talk about mental toughness, toughness. You know, how do you respond any better than what he just did? Needed a play and we got one from him."
Jones didn't have many wayward throws. There was more good than bad. His third-and-9 pass that he squeezed into a tight window to Jakobi Meyers in the fourth quarter was the key play in New England's first go-ahead touchdown drive.
He fit another tight pass into Meyers on the two-point play following the second go-ahead touchdown of the quarter. He hit Meyers for one more eye-opener when he was hit in overtime and floated one to his favorite target for 14 yards.
Plenty to like about his evening. But the pick brings this grade to where it ultimately ended up.
Running back: B+
Excellent night for a group that needed one. Damien Harris ran for 101 yards and a score on 18 carries. Rhamondre Stevenson chipped in with five carries for 23 yards and a score of his own.
Stevenson also showed up as a receiver with three catches for 39 yards, including a 22-yarder when he ran a vertical route from the backfield -- a relative rarity for Patriots backs. And though Jones was hit five times, the backs didn't appear to be an issue in pass protection. Most importantly, no fumbles.
That Harris was able to perform the way he did was impressive given that he was dealing with a painful rib injury going into the game. At one point in the fourth quarter, he limped off the field and hit the turf right at the Patriots sideline to be tended to by the team's medical staff. In overtime, he appeared to check himself out of the game on third down, which ended up being a pass play to Nelson Agholor.
Harris met with reporters after the game, a sign that he was feeling well enough. But he clearly wasn't 100 percent and he still gave the Patriots a strong outing.
Wide receiver: C
Could Kendrick Bourne have come down with the football that glanced off his hands and ultimately was taken back for a Cowboys touchdown?
"I was just trying to keep my head in the game and not point fingers. I blame myself [for the interception]. I looked at it as what I could have done better. We still had plenty of time for another chance and I’m just grateful we had another chance."
My guess is Bourne was trying to be a good teammate there. The throw was off the mark. Bourne helped make up for it with his 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown immediately thereafter. But that was his only catch in the game.
Nelson Agholor only had one catch, a nicely-designed over route that was converted into a corner route that went for 27 yards. He also had his facemask touched on the final third-down attempt of the game for the Patriots and never really got turned around for the football on Jones' back-shoulder attempt. Had the two been on the same page and had the football been closer to being completed, maybe Agholor would've gotten a different call at that moment.
Agholor had a drop in overtime as well. Meyers came through with a few critical catches, reeling in five of his six targets, but he also missed a block on third-and-short that helped lead to a punt.
The Patriots went 3-for-9 on third down in part because the passing game wasn't functional for a long stretch, and had Patriots receivers been generating more separation, perhaps they could have extended some of those short-lived drives. They had three consecutive three-and-outs at one point, following up the third with a five-and-out.
Gunner Olszewski picked up a false-start penalty, which didn't help this grade, either.
Tight end: C
As we explained up top, the numbers here simply weren't very good. But it didn't matter when they were on the field together. On those snaps, the Patriots offense was clicking. The issues arose when Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry took the field one at a time in 11-personnel situations. Neither could get much going for Jones.
Smith ran just nine routes on Sunday, according to ESPN. That's only a slight uptick from the six he ran in Houston last week. Even if the Patriots opt to use more 12- and 22-personnel sets moving forward, and even if they're finding creative ways to deploy their tight ends, they're going to need more receiving production from Smith.
It's no coincidence that, in the end, the Patriots weren't able to keep pace with the explosive Cowboys attack when a player who should be among their busiest ends up with one catch for nine yards.
Offensive line: C+
Too high, given that Mac Jones was nearly sawed in half at one point by Randy Gregory? Perhaps. But the Patriots only allowed Jones to be sacked twice and hit five times in total -- an improvement over the 8.5 hits he was averaging through the first four games of the season. Plus, this group helped pave the way for the Patriots to average 4.96 yards per carry.
It was far from perfect, and Bill Belichick had a quick hook when he saw a mistake. Cajuste was pulled following the strip sack he allowed. That got Michael Onwenu over to right tackle and Isaiah Wynn over to left tackle.
But when Wynn gave up a sack later, he was replaced by Justin Herron. James Ferentz was flagged for a hold, but this was a second-consecutive solid performance by the interior of the Patriots.
If Onwenu sticks at tackle with Trent Brown out, the Patriots may have found something along the interior with the trio of Ferentz, David Andrews and Ted Karras.
Special teams: D
Jahlani Tavai, Brandon King and Harvey Langi just had to block the three players in front of them. The Cowboys had overloaded the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, which required a little extra attention. But to Jake Bailey's left? All good.
Should have been, at least.
Personal protector Cody Davis didn't even look to his left at the snap, assuming all was set on that side. But Tavai allowed a free rusher, double-teaming another player with King, and Bailey's punt was blocked. It was the second block of the season for the Patriots after not having a punt blocked in the previous five seasons.
That second-quarter gaffe ended up not costing the Patriots points as Ja'Whaun Bentley punched the football out of Dak Precott's hands on fourth down on the subsequent drive, but it was a gaffe all the same.
Defensive line: C+
This group helped hold a potent Cowboys rushing attack -- one that averages over 30 carries a game because of the balance they try to strike under offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy -- to 3.9 yards per carry on Sunday.
But on a night when the plan was to rush Prescott to keep him in the pocket and collapse his protection around him, the Patriots couldn't do much to disrupt the passing game. Prescott attempted 51 passes and wasn't sacked. The Patriots recorded just four quarterback hits in all.
Ja'Whaun Bentley's forced fumble at the goal line would have been one of the watershed moments in the Patriots' 2021 season had they been able to come away with a win. That they didn't win won't take away from the grade he helped this group put together.
Bentley finished with 13 tackles in all, including one for a loss. Dont'a Hightower was also active on the goal-line stand for the Patriots, as was Matt Judon.
But the grade isn't higher here in part because of the lack of pressure placed on Prescott. And when there was pressure, it at times came at the expense of a solid edge. When that happened, Prescott was able to break free and throw on the run with impunity. He was 9-for-11 for 171 yards and touchdown when on the run.
That this group couldn't generate more pressure off the edge in one-on-one situations meant that the Patriots tried to blitz Prescott in order to bother him. Didn't work. Not consistently.
Against the blitz, Prescott hit Amari Cooper for 14 yards, Ezekiel Elliott for 11, CeeDee Lamb for 33 and Lamb on the 35-yard game-winning touchdown. The Patriots did get Prescott to make a bad throw against the blitz, which was deflected by Justin Bethel and picked by Kyle Dugger. But the need to blitz, in part because the Patriots couldn't pressure with just four, ended up hurting this defense... and dropping this group's grade.
This group was faced with some challenging circumstances and couldn't rise to the occasion often enough in the end. Not only were they going up against one of the best passing offenses in football, they were short handed at the corner spot.
Joejuan Williams was a healthy scratch and practice-squad defensive back Myles Bryant -- who was called up as a COVID replacement in Week 5 -- was not in uniform for the game. That left Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills and J.C. Jackson to handle most of the coverage duties.
When Jones suffered an injury, he gave way to Bethel. Against one of the top passing offenses in the league, it's tough to hold up with only so much depth -- in terms of talent as well as available bodies -- at your disposal.
Plus, New England's inability to pressure Prescott left Patriots defensive backs with long periods of time to cover. Add in the fact that the Patriots offense couldn't rattle off extended drives on a consistent basis through the middle of the game, and fatigue became a factor for all levels of the Patriots defense. They ended up being on the field for over 39 minutes.
The Cowboys picked up 24 yards on a third-and-25 snap at the end of regulation, just before kicking a field goal to tie the game.
"We're banged up," Devin McCourty said when asked about the play. "It's tough. You would want more DBs in there. [Jones] was in and out. [Adrian Phillips] went down for a second. [Bethel] went down for a second. It was just tough. It was a play we practiced, just didn't execute well enough...
"We were out there a lot. Forty minutes? I'm not gonna... But we condition a lot. We run a lot at practice. I think when we watch the film, we'll see if [fatigue] was a factor. That's what's tough. We don't know how these games are going to go on Sunday. That's why we train the way we train to be able to be in these games and finish them."
The Patriots were credited with eight passes defensed on Sunday. Four by Jackson. One from Bethel led to the Dugger pick. Jones had one -- a third-down play in the end zone that held Dallas to a field goal -- as did McCourty. But Prescott finished with 445 yards through the air to go along with three touchdowns.