FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If there was one defining theme that resonated throughout the New England Patriots' locker room after the team's 20-16 win over the Dallas Cowboys, it was that the collective confidence of the defense is rising.
The much-maligned unit, referred to by some as the worst in the NFL just a few weeks ago, came through in the clutch on a day when the normally potent offense struggled for long stretches.
"Games like that bring the best out of you as an individual and the best out of you as a defensive unit," said veteran end Andre Carter, one of the stars with five tackles and two sacks. "You remember these over your career. It's definitely another stepping stone, another level of development of how we can be. We just have to take that mentality, learn, and grow from it."
Growth seems like the perfect word to describe what we've seen from the defense over the past two weeks.
What stood out Sunday was how the D delivered in critical situations, holding the Cowboys to 4-of-12 on third down and 1-of-3 in the red zone. Those are usually winning numbers, but even those don't tell the whole story.
Faced with a late-game situation in which they needed to get the ball back to their offense for a game-winning drive, they produced a three-and-out by stopping the Cowboys for losses of 2 and 1 yards on first and second down. After a false-start penalty set up a third-and-18 situation, the Cowboys ran again and the job was complete.
In Dallas, they'll surely be roasting head coach Jason Garrett for conservative play-calling. The view is different in New England as that is the type of stop that galvanized defenders. Just last week, in a similar situation, a Jets defense that needed a similar stop couldn't come up with it against the Patriots.
"They were awesome," quarterback Tom Brady said of the defense, lamenting the team's four turnovers (one on special teams) that put the D in some tough spots. "They really stepped it up when they needed to, tightened up in the red area and limited them to field goals. That's really what kept us in the game."
Defenders pointed to two defining plays that sparked the clutch defensive effort.
The Patriots led 13-10 midway through the third quarter when the Cowboys were threatening to take their first lead. The defense, which had started fast, was suddenly on its heels and having trouble tackling.
The situation called for a defensive playmaker to rise up and Carter, the 11-year veteran, did so by beating rookie right tackle Tyron Smith to sack quarterback Tony Romo. It was a huge play, the type of pass rush explosion not seen very often around these parts. The Cowboys ultimately settled for a field goal, tying the game at 13.
Then midway through the fourth quarter, with the game still knotted at 13, it was linebacker Brandon Spikes' turn to put his personal stamp on the effort.
On third-and-goal from the 5, Spikes was blitzing off the weak side and masterfully played a shovel pass to Tashard Choice and dropped him for a 3-yard loss. Again the Cowboys settled for a field goal.
Spikes explained that he had watched the Cowboys on film and sensed what was coming. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork also called an alert to his fellow defenders before the play to be aware for something different, which he colorfully described as "kind of smelling some boo-boo."
When things like that happen, it can't help but produce confidence among defenders. What they are studying is producing results on the field, and it's especially rewarding when they can pick up the Brady-led offense which is usually picking them up.
"We didn't start off the season the way we wanted to, and we want to make it so that our offense has confidence in us," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who was a big part of the plan with his strong jams on Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (four catches, 48 yards, TD). "With all the weapons the Cowboys have, and to have our offense have some miscues and be able to keep the points down, this was real big for us."
"We wanted to stick together. The ups, the downs, it's a long year," added cornerback Kyle Arrington, whose four interceptions lead the team. "One of the things we always say defensively is 'We're all we got.' I think we just all banded together."
What Carter liked most was how all defenders were rallying to the ball, which contributed to a style of play in which defenders were feeding off each other.
"It's 11 guys running right to the football, 11 guys swarming to the ball, especially in the run game. There were a lot of guys coming and we call it a cavalry. We want a cavalry coming through to make a play," he said.
"I think guys flew around. The whole thing was about energy," added Spikes, who played in both base and sub defenses and was a top performer with eight tackles and one quarterback hit. "It was kind of exciting. One person gets going and it drives through everybody. It was a wonderful feeling seeing all 11 guys going, trying to get to the ball."
That momentum carried right into the locker room, where defenders talked about the importance of a victory heading into the bye week, and their belief that even better things are ahead as long as they keep working.
In just six weeks since the season began, they see progress.
"We're getting better, we're definitely getting better," said Wilfork, one of the defensive captains. "Each week we go in and we improve and that's one thing you want to do. We're definitely moving forward."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.