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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Cowboys learn playing not to lose won't work against Brady

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Jason Garrett and the Cowboys go conservative late and it costs them. (US Presswire)  
Jason Garrett and the Cowboys go conservative late and it costs them. (US Presswire)  

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Hey, Dallas Cowboys. You do know that the guy in the No. 12 jersey playing for the New England Patriots goes by the name of Tom Brady. You might have heard of him since he's won three Super Bowls and he's arguably one of the top quarterbacks of all time.

So why in the hell did the Cowboys do the unthinkable against Brady and play not to lose, rather than to win?

If it's another quarterback on the opposing sideline, maybe the Cowboys' decision to run three consecutive times when they got the ball back with 3:38 left at their own 28 and a 3-point lead might make some sense.

Not with Brady. The Cowboys did a great job on him for most of the game, but giving him another chance backfired. Brady drove the Patriots 80 yards in 10 plays in 2:09 for the game-winning score, that coming on an 8-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez with 22 seconds left to give New England a 20-16 victory.

It was vintage Brady. Even though the Cowboys bottled him up for much of the day with some exotic looks from their Rob Ryan-led defense, even forcing him into two picks and the team into four turnovers total, you almost had the feeling that if he got the ball back he was at least getting New England a tying field goal.

Brady was 9 of 10 on the drive, hit four different receivers and never once seemed like the panicked player he looked like for much of the game.

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That, folks, is why the Cowboys should have thrown it at least once when they got the ball back, even if the play before the punt on that drive was third-and-13.

"Who's got a good play-call for that?" Cowboys tight end Jason Witten asked.

Who's got a play-call for this: Punting to one of the all-time clutch quarterbacks with a 3-point lead? Why not at least take a shot? So what if the Patriots would have been forced to burn a timeout? The rewards for a first down were worth that trade off.

If you punt to Rex Grossman, that's one thing. But to Brady?

"At some point, you knew he would rise to the occasion," Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said. "If you give guys like that opportunities, he will find a way to make plays."

That led to this exchange I had with James:

Me: "That last three-and-out, you didn't throw the ball."

James: "Yeah, man, like I said it takes everybody."

Me: "So is that playing to win or is that playing cautious?"

James: "We have to play to win. And we have to win them. It's up to you guys to write about that. I don't know. My job is to go out there and play."

Me: "What are your thoughts on it?"

James: "Play -- to win."

"Me: "Did you play to win?"

James: "Yeah, I guess. We didn't win."

As I made my way around the Cowboys locker room, you could tell nobody wanted to publicly question the play calling. But there were some players who wondered privately about the calls. The Cowboys also ran an inside shovel pass on third-and-goal from the 5 on their previous possession when they settled for the go-ahead field goal.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo took a lot of heat two weeks ago for throwing with a big lead against the Lions with two picks returned for touchdowns as Detroit rallied from down 27-3 to beat Dallas. This was different. This was with the knowledge that if you gave the ball back to Brady you might pay in a big way, rendering meaningless what had been a special performance by the defense.

"We obviously want to run the ball there," Garrett said. "We want to make them use their timeouts."

If that isn't a definition of conservative, I don't know what is.

"In a four-minute situation, you're not going to line up and throw it three times," Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said. "Our defense was playing lights out all day. You make them earn that victory if they're going to get it. You don't want to give it to them."

Until the final drive Ryan's unit had held Brady to 209 yards and the two interceptions. They used a variety of looks up front and coverage in the back end to make him more hesitant than I've seen him in a long time.

"We had him pulling it down when he tried to go to his first option," Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh said.

Said Brady: "They make you earn every yard."

If the Cowboys got a first down, at the end, Ryan's defense would have held Brady to his two-lowest passing totals in losses in the past two seasons. Ryan was the defensive coordinator in Cleveland last year when the Browns upset the Patriots and held Brady to 224 yards.

The Patriots came in averaging 33 points a game and Brady had thrown for 300 or more in four of the five games and over 400 in one and over 500 in another.

"That's why he won three Super Bowls," Brooking said. "Obviously, when it comes to crunch time, he is at his best."

So don't give him the ball. This was the Cowboys third brutal loss, dropping to 2-3. They blew a lead against the Jets in the opener and then blew the big lead to the Lions.

This one stung because they played toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in football.

"There's no quarterback I'd rather have," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.

For the exact reason we saw and the Cowboys lived on Sunday. Brady is his best at the end, even if he struggled most of the day. This was his 32nd fourth-quarter comeback.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the team's general manager, was asked if the Cowboys were too conservative.

"Whenever you get the ball into the hands of a player like Brady at home you've got problems," Jones said.

Big ones. As the Cowboys left their quiet locker room to go to the team buses, they had to do so wondering what if. What if they had tried to get a first down? What if they hadn't been so cautious?

What if they had truly played to win?


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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