BOSTON -- It's not the losing, necessarily. Losing will happen. Everybody loses. The Patriots entered Dallas as six-point underdogs. In that sense, they were supposed to lose.
But the way that Sunday's game played out, the way that everything unraveled so quickly, the way that Bill Belichick's team was outclassed by Mike McCarthy's team ... that is where the alarm bells are sounding for the New England Patriots.
After a promising start -- a red-zone stop, a 69-yard scoring drive that should have ended with a touchdown -- things went south and only got worse. It snowballed, with Dallas taking a 10-3 lead, extending that to an 18-3 lead, stretching it to 28-3 before halftime and ultimately winning 38-3.
It was every bit as brutal to watch as you would imagine.
The issues in this game began with the quarterback, as Mac Jones turned in what should be considered the worst game of his young career. He threw two interceptions (and nearly a third), he lost a fumble while lacking awareness of a closing defender, he delivered two defensive touchdowns for Dallas, he failed to fight for a first down on a fourth-down QB sneak, and he sunk the Patriots' opportunity to really have a chance in the football game.
Mac Jones was bad -- real bad -- in this one. Zero bones can be made out of that reality.
But he was hardly the only problem.
The aforementioned McCarthy along with Dallas special teams coach John Fassel put forth some clownery on a PAT, capitalizing on the Patriots' over-eager rush by converting an easy fake for a two-point conversion. After the Patriots received a week or two of praise for that ingenious Brenden Schooler blocked kick in Week 2, the Cowboys turned the tables on them in a way that played out as ... just embarrassing for New England.
Offensive execution was a problem, too. Putting aside Mike Onwenu's three first-half penalties (two false starts, one hold), the offensive line had another bad game. Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 46 yards on 20 carries. Mike Gesicki didn't catch a catchable ball in the end zone. JuJu Smith-Schuster couldn't tap his toes, catching one pass (a yard shy of the sticks) on five targets.
The defense had some moments -- three sacks, a couple of pass breakups, a fourth-down sack, some third-down stops -- but ultimately, the Cowboys' offense got more than what was needed to win the game. Tony Pollard averaged more than four yards per carry, and Dak Prescott had a 108.5 passer rating. The Cowboys scored on three of their four real drives in the first half and tacked on a field goal in the third quarter to take a 31-3 lead.
Adding injury to insult, budding star cornerback Christian Gonzalez suffered a shoulder injury in the first quarter and didn't return. Matthew Judon, still the Patriots' best player, suffered an injury in the fourth quarter. He also didn't return, and it sounds like he might be out for a while.
Throw in a missed field goal from rookie Chad Ryland, eight penalties (six of which were enforced) and even a bad punt return, and the end result was the ugliest 60 minutes of football we've ever seen from a Bill Belichick-coached football team.
"I think we're a lot better team than what we showed out there tonight. But that's what we showed, and that's what it was," Belichick said.
Football being football, much of the discussion in New England will focus on Mac Jones. The quarterback certainly was dreadful in this game, and discussion of his standing on the team and in the league is fair. But Bailey Zappe's performance -- 4-for-9, 57 yards -- further indicated that any replacement for Jones isn't on the current roster.
Plus, it's not as if Jones was the lone negative for the Patriots in this game.
"I think we all have some confidence issues after a performance like that. It's a team game," captain David Andrews said. "I think it's all of us that gotta look in the mirror, gotta correct everything. It's not just [Jones'] fault. It's a team game. We've gotta do better. Everybody's gotta hold up their end of the bargain. It'll never be one person's fault."
Tight end Hunter Henry, who led the Patriots in receptions (4) and receiving yards (51) spread the blame out, too.
"We didn't play good today at all -- at all levels," Henry said. "And we got exposed and it just wasn't good.
It just. Wasn't. Good.
That much was evident to anyone who tuned in to this game at any point after the Gonzalez injury, and it didn't really need to be said in order for it to be understood. It just ... wasn't good.
The question now will be what it means. If New England rebounds and beats the Saints in Foxboro next weekend before heading to Vegas and beating a bad Raiders team, then the Patriots will sit at 3-3. They'll still have a season.
But if this level of play carries into next week, and if the Patriots don't just lose to the Saints but lose ugly to the Saints, then the entire atmosphere surrounding the team and the head coach and the quarterback will change significantly. That 's how bad Sunday was. If it continues at all, even for another week, we're going to go from discussing a potential fringe playoff team to discussing some major and immediate changes. After a few years of outright mediocrity, a repeated putrid performance like Sunday could and should lead to some uncomfortable football conversations in New England.
for more features.