FOXBORO — In the visiting locker room inside Gillette Stadium, the term “measuring stick” was used by the team’s owner.
In the home team’s locker room, Sunday’s matchup against one of the top offenses in the NFL was viewed as the next game on the schedule – nothing more, nothing less.
You can understand why longtime Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones elected to label his club’s date with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots as a prime chance to make a statement. The Cowboys own a record that’s good enough to sit in first place in the NFC East, yet are they worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as the Patriots, who improved to 10-1 after grinding out a 13-9 victory?
Beating New England in its building would have sent a strong message that Dallas is a team that’s heading in the right direction and should be included on the short-list of contenders to hoist the Lombardi Trophy when all is said and done. Basically, the Cowboys were looking to join the same rarified air that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been orbiting since the New England dynasty was launched in 2001.
It’s clear the Cowboys have the talent to compete deep into January, hence Jones felt it was perfectly acceptable to place a specific label on Sunday’s game.
“When you set it up where you have to come up here and beat these guys, it’s a tough challenge to begin with. They know how to play this game,” said Jones as he held court with reporters while standing just outside the Dallas locker room. “It was a significant setback. We needed to win against an opponent like this and we haven’t had one. Consequently, we’re very aware of that.”
The Cowboys own wins over the Giants (2-9), the Redskins (also 2-9), the Dolphins (you guessed it, 2-9), the Lions (3-7-1), and the Eagles (5-6).
Of course, you can make a strong case that New England’s record is the result of feasting on one Thanksgiving turkey after another. Right now, the Patriots own just two wins against a team with a winning record (Buffalo and Pittsburgh). In the only true test to date, the Patriots were thoroughly grounded by a Baltimore outfit that very much remains a threat to secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots didn’t view the matchup with the Ravens as a prime opportunity to make a statement. They didn’t view their season as a lost cause just because Baltimore won handily, 37-20. Win or lose, every game is its own separate entity. Super Bowl champions aren’t crowned in November, nor do they pass out hardware after 11 games.
On Sunday, the Patriots squared off with a fellow division leader. New England might have been classified as a litmus test by the Cowboys’ camp, yet the Patriots weren’t about to get tangled in a web of making mountains out of molehills.
“I wouldn’t say (Sunday) was a measuring stick. It’s just another game where you have to go out there and play good football,” said New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of the stars of a defensive unit that held the Cowboys to 321 yards of net offense and 2-of-13 on third downs.
“They’ve got a good team, but every team is looking to get better every single week,” Gilmore added. “It was just another game that we had to take care of.”
To Patriots safety Devin McCourty, there are no such thing as gauges.
“It’s not the first time we’ve heard that,” said McCourty, who was made aware of the belief that Sunday was a huge benchmark for Jones and his Cowboys. “At this time of year, every game is a big game. It’s no secret that they’re one of the top teams in the NFC. It was a big game for us, but it doesn’t change the way we prepare or how we have to execute.”
Despite the loss that featured a plethora of mistakes on the part of the Cowboys – from a blocked punt that set up the game’s only touchdown, to a missed field goal, to quarterback Dak Prescott throwing an interception that led to three more points for the Patriots – Dallas still sits in first place.
To Jones, it’s a pretty deflating consolation prize for a team that ended up one drive away from making a big-time statement.
“When you come into New England on a day like today against this team and you need to win this game to establish what you are about for the season, you have dealt yourself a pretty narrow window to come out of here smiling,” said Jones.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03