Patriots drop 35-29 overtime instant classic to Cowboys, fall to 2-4

FOXBORO — Perhaps in past years the Patriots would have pulled this one out.

Preserved a lead in regulation. Or marched to victory in overtime.

But these are not those Patriots. These Patriots are 2-4, winless at home and spiraling farther into the unknown, dragged down by the same turnovers, penalties, mistakes and conservatism that have dogged them all year long.

Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb waltzed into the end zone with a 35-yard touchdown and clinched a 35-29 win at the end of an instant classic Sunday. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott went 36-of-51 for 445 yards and three touchdowns, while leading drives to tie the game and win over the final nine minutes of play. During that stretch, the Cowboys scored 15 points, while the Patriots threw an interception, scored on a defensive breakdown and punted with 7:53 left in overtime.

Tied at 29, Pats coach Bill Belichick opted to punt on fourth-and-3 at midfield. To that point, Dallas (5-1) had marched to a touchdown or field goal attempt on four straight series — then made it a fifth.

While Lamb’s score knocked the Patriots out for good, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs knocked them down with a pick-six at 2:36 remaining.

Pats quarterback Mac Jones (15-21 for 229 yards, 2 TDs, INT) had fired over the middle intended for Kendrick Bourne, a pass one step too far and beat too fast. Instead it found Diggs, a former college teammate who raced back for a 26-21 lead as silence fell over Gillette Stadium and lasted through a failed two-point conversion.

Though it didn’t last much longer than that.

On the Pats’ next offensive snap, Bourne shook Diggs on an out-and-up and ran free up the left seam. This time, Jones hit him in stride. Seventy-five yards later, Bourne left a burned Cowboys corner and lost safety behind to celebrate a go-ahead touchdown. But not a game-winner.

Taking over with 2:11 left, the Cowboys overcame a penalty-riddled final drive and picked up 24 yards on a third-and-25 strike to Lamb, positioning themselves for a game-tying field goal. Like Jones’ touchdown, Zuerlein’s kick was redemptive, since he’d swung a go-ahead field goal wide left with 2:42 remaining.

Until then, the Pats had survived a statistical butt-whooping. Dallas had produced more than twice the yards, first downs and scoring opportunities through the late fourth quarter, but trailed because Jones had spearheaded a late 70-yard touchdown drive sustained by several clutch plays. Following three third-down conversions, rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson basked in the glory of a 1-yard touchdown for the team’s first score in seven drives.

Nick Folk’s extra point then pushed the Patriots ahead, a place they found themselves in early and often.

The Pats flexed on Dallas early, stopping Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott cold on fourth-and-short to end the game’s first drive. Jones and Co. needed only three plays to score from there, covering 34 yards using multiple tight ends and running backs and even 350-pound Mike Onwenu as an extra offensive lineman. Harris plowed through the middle of the Cowboys defense for a 4-yard touchdown.

Dallas answered immediately, with Prescott firing five completions over a six-play possession finished by Blake Jarwin’s 1-yard touchdown catch behind Dont’a Hightower. Not to be outdone, the Patriots marched right back and scored with a tight end toss of their own. Whipping around after a play-action fake, Jones hit Hunter Henry for a 20-yard strike near the end of the first quarter.

The Pats’ 14 first-quarter points were not only a new season high, but surpassed their first-quarter scoring output for the season. Despite getting shut out over the second quarter, and allowing three more Dallas drives inside the red zone, the Patriots held their lead into halftime.

First, Prescott targeted backup corner Justin Bethel on a third-down throw from the Pats’ 16-yard line. Bethel had replaced injured nickelback Jonathan Jones and was now isolated against Dallas’ No. 3 receiver, Cedrick Wilson. Despite giving up six inches to Wilson, Bethel batted a high, end-zone throw to safety Kyle Dugger, who snatched his first career interception.

Four plays later, Jones was strip-sacked at midfield, where the Cowboys took over again. This time, Jones returned to out-fight Wilson for a third-down pass in the corner of the end zone. As they wrestled to the ground, the ball squirted free for an incompletion, calling Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein on for a 30-yard field goal.

Still spinning its wheels, the Pats offense went three-and-out, and their special teams did one worse, allowing a blocked punt the Cowboys recovered at their 17-yard line. After a 16-yard completion to Wilson — who beat Devin McCourty on a blitz — the Patriots stonewalled Elliott twice at the 1-yard line. Then Prescott took his turn running into the brick wall on a quarterback sneak.

Still undeterred and facing fourth-and-goal at the 1, Prescott called his own number and leapt forward with another sneak, then lost the ball on a play initially ruled a touchdown. However, the score failed to survive a review, and Pats linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was credited with a fumble he forced flying forward at the snap and punched out with his left fist. Having recovered the ball in the end zone, the Patriots were then granted the opportunity to kneel the clock out and obliged.

In the third quarter, Dallas controlled play on both sides of the ball, forcing three punts and booting one of their own before a lengthy touchdown drive. Recognizing it was time for a long possession of his own and trailing 20-14, Jones took over and penned the first line of an unforgettable finish.

Here were the best and worst Patriot performances Sunday:

Best

CB Justin Bethel A special teams ace, Bethel recorded one pass breakup that led to an interception and forced a fumble while being blocked on a punt.

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley Before leaving with a shoulder injury, Bentley amassed 13 tackles and forced a fumble at the goal line to stop a touchdown.

Worst

Punt protection Backup linebacker Jahlani Tavai looked to be at fault for the blocked punt the Pats allowed in the second quarter, their second of the season.

Pass protection After a stable start, Jones was sacked twice in his first 10 dropbacks and hit a third time on his 11th pass attempt.

Pass rush The Pats didn’t sack Prescott once, and hit him just four times over 51 passing attempts.

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