December 15, 1996.
The Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots locked horns in a Week 15 matchup.
Both offenses struggled mightily as respective quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Drew Bledsoe are each held under 180 yards passing. The two most memorable plays from the game were a Herschel Walker almost-touchdown on a kick return, and an ultra-rare, Deion Sanders hit-stick tackle for loss on Curtis Martin. The only scoring came from the legs of Chris Boniol and Adam Vinatieri as the Cowboys claimed victory in a 12-6 snoozer.
Playing in opposite conferences, the two teams meet just once every 4 years per the NFL’s scheduling rotation. New England has taken all 5 meetings since that 1996 Cowboys win.
- 1999: Aikman and Bledsoe produce next to nothing once again with the only touchdown coming on a Terry Allen run as the Patriots win 13-6, the team’s first-ever win over the Cowboys.
- 2003: The Quincy Carter led, playoff bound Cowboys are shut out 12-0 by the eventual Super Bowl champs on a frigid day in Foxborough.
- 2007: A highly anticipated showdown between 5-0 contenders lives up to it’s billing until the Patriots turn on the afterburners and distance themselves in the 4th quarter 48-27.
- 2011: Cowboys make little hay on 3 uncharacteristic New England turnovers. Tom Brady leads a game-winning drive to take the contest 20-16
- 2015: The Romo-less Cowboys fight hard for a half, but are ultimately smothered 30-6
Let’s revisit that 2011 matchup, as it had some ominous similarities to a recent Cowboys game that still upsets the stomachs of Cowboys fans.
With the score tied 13-13 in the 4th quarter, Sean Lee collects a tipped Tom Brady pass, giving the Cowboys the ball at their own 32-yard line with 9:19 remaining in the game. In just under 3 minutes, the Cowboys had advanced the ball to the New England 10 yard line, 1st & Goal from that mark with 6:25 remaining. This, unfortunately, is where the gut-wrenching portion of this story begins.
Let us note that head coach Jason Garrett is still the Cowboys play-caller at this time.
- 1st & Goal from the New England 10. Romo drops it off over the middle to Martellus Bennett for a gain of 5.
- 2nd & Goal from the New England 5. Romo tries to dump off left to Tashard Choice, incomplete.
- 3rd & Goal from the New England 5. Shovel pass inside to Tashard Choice, loss of 3 yards.
- 4th & Goal from the New England 5. Field Goal attempt good. Cowboys lead 16-13 with 5:16 remaining for the greatest QB of all time to do his thing.
On the ensuing drive, the GOAT did what GOATs do. Tom Brady let the Pats down the field and threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez with :08 remainings, sending Dallas home as losers 20-16.
What. On. Earth. So much to unpack here on this drive that felt so much like the drive that ended the Cowboys chances vs. the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10 of this current season.
No, Jason Garrett didn’t technically take the ball out of his quarterback’s hands, but this was not an earnest effort to score a touchdown by any means. A tie game at your opponent’s 10 with over 6 minutes remaining pretty much dictates what must be done. Your opponent is getting the ball back with plenty of time. Period. Nothing you can do about it. You can’t bleed the clock for 6 minutes with 10 yards of the field in front of you. It is imperative at that point that you at least try to score a touchdown so that a touchdown can only tie you, and not send you home.
Did the Cowboys technically throw the ball 3 times on the final set of downs? Yes. But let’s be mindful of the year. It’s in 2011. Tony Romo is one of the top passers in pro football. Dez Bryant is the best athlete on the field. Miles Austin is a lethal weapon. Jason Witten was at or near his peak. No real attempt to get the ball to any of the difference makers?
It is understood that the Patriots thrive on taking away what you want to do. However, for a coaching staff who has shown the willingness to stubbornly bang running backs into brick walls, maybe it was time to stubbornly throw a jump ball to Dez Bryant no matter what the coverage was because he is your best weapon. Where was Witten’s Y option? Something for Austin. A shovel pass, on a do-or-die play? That’s not an earnest attempt to win the game. That’s a caution-coated play to make sure you don’t lose the game.
Eight years later and Jason Garrett still flinches when it’s time to go for the throat and let his best players decide the outcome of the game in it’s biggest moments. None of that will cut in on this upcoming trip to New England.
Tom Brady is in decline. It’s undeniable at this point. Nonetheless, that old lion still knows how to kill, especially in his jungle. The Patriots have won 20 consecutive home games. Not much else needs to be said.
On Sunday the margin for error will be small for the Cowboys. The Cowboys can ill afford to start slow, to make mistakes, or to make less than the most of a rare New England miscue. In that 2011 matchup, the Cowboys scored just 6 points off of 3 Patriot turnovers. It won’t work Sunday, as it did not work the last time the Cowboys visited Foxboro.
Most importantly, this game will likely be decided in a few key moments, as games between two good teams often are.
When those moments arise, the Cowboys’ coaches are going to have to trust their best players do the heavy lifting if they have any hopes of beheading kings Belichick and Brady within the confines of their own castle.