The New England Patriots were supposed to be the team without its quarterback entering Sunday’s showdown with the Dallas Cowboys.
Tom Brady is indeed playing, however, and doing so at a level exceeding his own usually high standards.
Fresh off a bye week, the healthy and unbeaten Patriots make their first visit to AT&T Stadium to take on a hurting Cowboys team attempting to avoid a third straight loss without Tony Romo.
The reversal of Brady’s four-game suspension over January’s Deflategate incident has hit the Patriots’ first three opponents hard, with New England (3-0) averaging a league-leading 39.7 points in wins over Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Jacksonville. Brady has been the driving force in each, joining Peyton Manning in 2013 as the only players in NFL history with 1,100 passing yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions through the opening three games.
Brady now faces a struggling Cowboys secondary that allowed Drew Brees to complete 33-of-41 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yarder to C.J. Spiller on the second play in overtime that gave New Orleans a 26-20 victory last week.
Dallas’ defensive problems have been compounded by the lack of a consistent pass rush, an area they hope standout end Greg Hardy can help address Sunday as he returns from his own abbreviated suspension.
Hardy had a 10-game ban for a domestic abuse arrest reduced to four in July, less than three months after signing a one-year, $13.1 million contract with Dallas (2-2). He finished third in the NFL with 15 sacks with Carolina in 2013, but spent all but one game on the exempt list last season as his trial on charges of assaulting a former girlfriend played out.
Hardy wasted no time creating a stir prior to his first NFL game in 13 months, referencing Brady’s wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, while speaking to reporters Tuesday.
”I love seeing Tom Brady.” Hardy said. ”Have you seen his wife?’ ‘I hope she comes to the game. I hope her sister comes to the game, all her friends come to the game. One of my favorite games of the year, guys.”
Brady dismissed Hardy’s comments, saying his focus towards Hardy is strictly game-related.
”I’m just getting ready to play, man,” he said. ”They count on getting pressure from their front four getting to the quarterback, so I don’t really care about his personal feelings.”
Rolando McClain also was reinstated this week from a four-game suspension for a substance-abuse violation, more good news for a Dallas defense that may be without fellow linebacker Sean Lee due a concussion sustained against New Orleans.
”Timing’s great,” Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford said. ”We would have loved to have had them Week 1 but it’s definitely good to have them back.”
While the defense gets some reinforcements, Romo remains on injured reserve/designated to return with a fractured clavicle suffered in Week 2 and All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant (foot surgery) will miss a fourth straight week. Running back Lance Dunbar, second on the team in catches (21) and receiving yards (215), is done for the season after tearing his ACL last week.
Dunbar had served as a dependable outlet for Brandon Weeden (551 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), who’s performed capably despite losing both starts in Romo’s place. The former Cleveland first-round pick engineered a 91-yard drive he capped with a touchdown pass to Terrance Williams with 1:51 remaining to force overtime against New Orleans.
Weeden has completed 76.5 percent of his throws and posted a 108.8 passer rating this season but owns an 11-20 record as a starter.
He’ll try to prevent Dallas’ first three-game losing streak since a five-game skid in 2010 and help the Cowboys to their first win over New England since 1996. The Patriots have won four straight in the series, including a 20-16 victory in Foxborough in 2011 in which Brady led a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minute.
The Patriots are 11-4 following their bye week under Bill Belichick, though two of those defeats have come on the road in the last four seasons.
New England’s Rob Gronkowski aims for a third consecutive 100-yard game and has four touchdown catches through three weeks. He’s two TDs from joining Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Shannon Sharpe and Jerry Smith as the only tight ends in NFL history with 60, a number Dallas’ Jason Witten is one shy of reaching.