New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 17: CeeDee Lamb #88 of the Dallas Cowboys is tackled by Jalen Mills #2 of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Patriots and Cowboys played a spectacular game on Sunday. From start to finish, both teams made big plays on both sides of the ball. It’ll be hard for any NFL game to finish in more thrilling fashion in 2021.

But even in a game like this, filled with game-changing moments, you can still boil it down to a single play. On Sunday, it was a 24-yard catch by CeeDee Lamb that came on third-and-25, which helped set up Greg Zuerlein’s game-tying field goal with just 20 seconds left in regulation.

If the Patriots break up that pass, they can basically play “Prevent” defense in a desperation, fourth-and-25 spot for Dallas. Instead, they had a defensive breakdown at the worst possible moment of the game. It’s become a theme of their four losses: a defense that can play well enough for 50-plus minutes, but can’t close you out.

Who’s to blame for this latest one?

No one gets 100 percent of the pie for Lamb’s pivotal catch. But the players and coaches get to share their slices. As for the players on the field, Jalen Mills simply couldn’t keep up with Lamb in the game’s most striking talent mismatch. Lamb finished with nine catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime, mostly with Mills in coverage. Asked about the third-and-25 play, head coach Bill Belichick sounded like he still hadn’t seen the film.

“It was a good throw and a good catch,” Belichick said. “Coverage was pretty good, but [Dak] Prescott made a good throw. [Ceedee] Lamb made a good catch.”

Watch the play below, via Next Gen Stats analyst Taylor Kyles on Twitter. It’s certainly a good decision and throw by Dak Prescott, and Lamb showed repeatedly why he’s one of the most dynamic young receivers in the league. But it’s hard to say the Patriots had “pretty good” coverage on this play.

In addition to Mills chasing Lamb the whole way, J.C. Jackson appeared to have a miscommunication with safety Adrian Phillips and ended up covering no one. Devin McCourty looked to be having a word with Jackson after the play, indicating that Jackson had possibly blown an opportunity to cover Lamb over the middle.

Despite the blown coverage by the Patriots’ secondary, and the clear talent disadvantage that played out over the course of the game, the coaching staff can’t be let off the hook. The Patriots played a “Dime” defense on the third-and-25 play (six defensive backs), when seven or even eight might have made sense. But Belichick said Monday that he was satisfied with the play-call.

Part of the reason the Patriots didn’t field more than six DBs on the play was a shortage on the roster. Joejuan Williams (healthy scratch) and Shaun Wade (concussion) were inactive. Myles Bryant was not elevated from the practice squad. That left the Pats with only Justin Bethel, who did check in for four defensive snaps while Jonathan Jones was out due to injury, and special teamer Cody Davis as their plausible options for the secondary.

“We’ll watch it, but we’re banged up, it’s tough,” McCourty said after the game when asked about the play. “You would want more DBs in but you guys could see, it was tough. [Jonathan] Jones was in and out, [Adrian Phillips] went down for a second, [Justin Bethel] went down for a second, it was just tough. A play we try to practice just wasn’t executed well enough. That play was tough though.”

Especially tough considering the number of big plays the Patriots had made earlier in the game. They broke up three potential touchdowns in the red zone, including a tip by Bethel that led to Kyle Dugger’s first career interception, a breakup by Jonathan Jones against slot receiver Cedrick Wilson, and a forced fumble by linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley to stop Prescott from leaping with the ball over the goal line.

But the game ultimately came down to a gotta-have-it situation for the Cowboys offense, which had shot itself in the foot in the plays leading up to it. And Dallas still made the play. The Patriots didn’t.

Blame whoever you want on the defense. But it’s fair to blame everyone. That’s what happens when you find a way to lose.

MORE: Patriots-Cowboys Personnel Report

Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.