FOXBORO — You might remember it for the moment in which Dion Lewis undressed the Cowboys defense. You might remember it as the beginning of the end for a Patriots offensive line that was slowly torn apart by injury. You might remember it as the game that looked like a Caravaggio painting.
Tom Brady probably remembers it as a game in which he and Josh McDaniels had to throw an entire game plan out the window in order to move the football.
"Yeah, it was a lot of adjustments today," Brady said at the time. "I don't think we practiced much of what they were doing."
The Patriots won the game, 30-6, so safe to assume they figured things out. But in the first half, they scored what was to that point in the season a low of 13 points. Brady was knocked down five times in the first 30 minutes for just the second time in his career — and the first time in 13 seasons. Coming off of a 40-point outing in Buffalo, a 51-point explosion against the Jaguars at home, and a bye week, Brady and his teammates were left searching for answers early on that week against Dallas.
"They played a few different fronts, few different coverages, stuff they hadn't shown," Brady said. "They came in with an approach. I thought we settled in, made some plays there to start the second half. But we gotta play better."
Why bring this up now? Why is this relevant?
Well, that was the last time the Patriots played the Cowboys. Since then a lot has happened, but Brady is still the starting quarterback, McDaniels is still the Patriots offensive coordinator, and Bill Belichick is still the head coach. On the other side, Jason Garrett is still the Cowboys head coach, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli remains the boss on that side of the football.
Part of the reason the Patriots were confounded four years ago in Arlington was because Marinelli is a he-does-what-he-does type of coach. He's been in the NFL since 1996. He loves his zone coverages. Tampa 2 — essentially Cover 2 with two deep safeties, where an athletic linebacker is charged with taking the deep middle of the field -- is his weapon of choice. He likes four-man "over" fronts, where players slice through gaps to get up the field in the hopes of creating play-altering penetration at the line of scrimmage.
Ahead of that 2015 matchup, Belichick was confident that the Patriots wouldn't have the rug pulled out from under them offensively.
"One thing about Rod," Belichick said at the time, "I don’t think you’re going to see much different. I think he’ll be the first to tell you that he believes in what he’s doing, he’s not going to change a lot. He’s had a lot of success — probably no reason to change it. Will there be a couple of game-plan things for us — I’m sure obviously there will — but overall they believe in what they’re doing, they do it well, they’ve had a lot of success with it.
"I mean, I can’t imagine him putting in a new defense this week. That would be so out of character for them. They don’t need to do that. I don’t think they believe in that. But they have a lot of variety in what they do in terms of the front. They don’t run a million different coverages, but they run them well. They’re sound, they make you beat them. They don’t give you a lot of easy plays. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to block them, you’ve got to get open, you’ve got to protect, you’ve got to have enough to beat the scheme, and they play hard and they know what they’re doing. That’s what it’s always been. I can’t imagine it’s going to be much different than that."
Apparently, for the first 30 minutes of that game — seeing more three-man fronts and defensive-back heavy packages — it was. The question now is, do the Cowboys have the ability to do that again?
They're a better defense now than they were then. In 2015, Dallas finished 23rd in yards allowed and 16th in points. This year, they're 15th and seventh in those respective categories. And the Patriots offense might not be as equipped to post 30 points as they were when they had Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, LeGarrette Blount and Lewis.
They were loaded with smart, experienced players that day at Jerry World. Players who'd been through battles with Brady and might be more prepared to toss a game plan out the window after the first half or the first few drives. Edelman remains, and James White can adapt without question. But what about Jakobi Meyers or N'Keal Harry or newly-acquired Mohamed Sanu? Or Isaiah Wynn, for that matter, who's expected to make his return off of injured reserve Sunday?
"You can't practice everything," Brady said after beating the Cowboys, lamenting some of what the Patriots did offensively that day.
The same holds true now. It may be even more so given the experience level of New England's offensive personnel.
Asked about facing the unknown on game day, Belichick acknowledged it's impossible to be ready for everything. But that's not something that will be any different this week against Marinelli because it's true every week.
"I would say when you game plan in this league," Belichick said, "you never really know what the other team is going to do, all right? I know there are a lot of experts out there who have it all figured out. Unfortunately I'm not in that group, all right? The team's played four, five, six other teams and they've done different things against different teams for different reasons. They play you. You haven't played them so you don't really know what they're going to do.
"Are they going to treat you the way they treated somebody else? Are they going to treat you differently than the way they treated somebody else? It's not the same plays. It's not the same players. There's always an element of, 'Here's what they did the last four games.' But that's not against you. Teams will do different things against your team than they've done against other teams. As they should. Might not be a new play. They might just run different percentages of man coverage or zone coverage or split zone versus post-safety zone, or blitz zone versus regular zone, whatever it is. That's the way it is every week.
"This is 45 years. I wish I could tell you a week where it hasn't been that way. But I wouldn't be able to. You take the information that you have. Sometimes the last three or four games may not mean anything. Maybe the only thing that means anything to you is just the last couple times you played a team. If you look at it that way, you might be right. You might be wrong. But you have to figure out what you're going to prepare for. So you're not going to prepare for eight games. There's 500 plays and they're going to run 60. That's just ridic ... You can't do that."
And, again, Belichick said that Marinelli probably won't unleash a bevy of unfamiliar plays against his offense at Gillette Stadium this week. But Belichick is expecting wrinkles.
"I don't think Rod's going to come up with six new blitzes and four new coverages this week," Belichick said. "But is he gonna play us the way he played Detroit? I don't know. Go ask him. Is he gonna play us the way he played Philadelphia and the Jets? I don't know the answer to that question. Not all those games are the same. There's elements that are the same, there's things that carry over, but they don't do the same thing on every play.
"It's the same every week. You prepare for what you prepare for and then you get in the game. It's just like Eisenhower said: Preparation is important for the war and then once the battle starts, you can throw it all out the window. You play the war, fight the battle. That's what we do. Once the game starts, we try to figure out how the game is going, make adjustments, do the best we can at that point in time. The rest of the preparation doesn't really ... might be relevant but it might not."
There's been an unbelievable amount of information laid out by both the Patriots and Cowboys — Belichick and Garrett, McDaniels and Marinelli — since 2015. Trying to trace meaning from a game four years ago to this week's might be a fool's errand.
But the Patriots found out that day that Marinelli wasn't as predictable as they thought. Which may lead them to prepare for more this week, which could be a challenge given the challenges this offense is already facing.
While this week will be about Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and the others that've made this offense one of the most efficient in football in 2019, it's worth remembering what Marinelli and his defensive staff did to open that game four years ago.
You can bet Brady and McDaniels will.
Looking for the best unfiltered Patriots conversation each week and throughout the offseason? Listen and Subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast!
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.