ARLINGTON, Texas -- After New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lowered his head and barreled ahead for a 1-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter, he sprang to his feet and, in Rob Gronkowski fashion, spiked the football passionately into the turf at AT&T Stadium.
A more emotional Brady than the norm?
Perhaps, and one could understand why he might have been after watching the pounding he had taken to that point. The Cowboys sacked him five times in the first half, which marked only the second time in Brady's 16-year career that he'd been sacked five times in a half. The most recent time it happened was in 2001 against the Bills (Week 14).
Until the Patriots solved their protection problems, Sunday's game against the Cowboys was going to be a struggle (they led 13-3 at the half). Credit to the Cowboys as well, as they played inspired defense in the opening 30 minutes.
Ultimately, the Patriots came up with the answers, as they often do. Bill Belichick said after the game that the Cowboys employed a different personnel grouping that the Patriots hadn’t seen, a dime defense that was a “3-2 look” with linebackers Rolando McClain and Sean Lee in the middle. Belichick credited offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for making the adjustment and the players for executing it.
Meanwhile, the defense did its part against a short-handed Cowboys offense to help in the 30-6 win.
What it means: Bring on the Colts. The Patriots improved to 4-0 and became the sixth team in the NFL to hit the mark this season (a record for a single season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau). Now their focus quickly shifts to Sunday night's road game at the Colts. The recent history between the teams, including Deflategate, should spark a week of intense media coverage.
Ouch: Starting linebacker Dont'a Hightower left Sunday's win over the Cowboys in the first quarter with a rib injury and did not return. In Hightower's absence, Jerod Mayo and Jonathan Freeny saw their repetitions increase. Meanwhile, starting left tackle Nate Solder left the game in the second quarter with a right elbow injury and did not return. Marcus Cannon took his place.
One reason to get excited: Running back Dion Lewis looks like the real deal. He was charted on the field for 43 snaps, compared to 17 for LeGarrette Blount, and his 10-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter is a strong candidate for one of the NFL's plays of the week. A jitterbug whose ability to cut sharply makes him an elusive threat, Lewis finalized a two-year contract extension with the team this past Thursday, and it's easy to see why. He looks like a perfect fit in the team's offense, much like former New England backs Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.
One reason to be concerned: If injuries to Hightower and Solder are long-term situations, those would be challenging for the team to absorb. The Patriots bolstered their linebacker depth two weeks ago by trading for Chicago's Jon Bostic, which could help soften the potential blow of losing Hightower for any extended period. The Patriots don't have as much depth at offensive tackle on their 53-man roster, which could mean they look to the practice squad -- where Blaine Clausell and Cameron Fleming are working behind the scenes -- if they need to replace Solder's spot for an extended period of time.
What were they thinking? Nothing to truly nitpick with this game, other than possibly leaving Lewis in the game midway through the fourth quarter while holding a 27-6 lead. He has become that important a cog in the offense.
Fantasy watch: It's been two games since Gronkowski has scored a touchdown, which is disappointing for fantasy owners, as he finished with a quieter than normal four catches for 67 yards. Gronkowski had two of his catches -- for 33 and 18 yards -- on the Patriots' opening drive of the second half, when they went ahead 20-3. They were never truly threatened the rest of the way.
NFL Nation's kicker survey holds true to form: ESPN.com's NFL Nation polled kickers across the league about the best players at the position last week, and the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski received the most votes as the game's top kicker. He had three field goals Sunday, two of which came from 49 and 57 yards.
Felt like a Patriots home game: The Cowboys announced an official crowd of 93,054, and a good portion of that was Patriots fans. There were times when the Patriots made a big play that cheers could be easily heard. After Brady scored on his 1-yard sneak in the second quarter, for example, a cheer of "Brady! Brady! Brady!" broke out. In that sense, this game had a little bit of a similar feel to the 2014 contest in San Diego (Dec. 7) when it felt like a Patriots fans takeover.