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Tom Brady, Patriots outclass Cowboys in Greg Hardy's return

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For a few minutes Sunday afternoon, when the New England Patriots' offense was sputtering and Jerry Jones' vision was flickering to fruition, Greg Hardy was threatening to upend the established NFL order.

It has taken Hardy's return from suspension following a domestic violence-related conviction and a subsequent dismissal of charges and settlement to make the Patriots and Tom Brady the national sympathetic figures they have been to New England fans all along. But it is difficult even for those who suspect something must have happened to those underinflated footballs to sustain much hand-wringing over PSIs and needles and guys nicknamed "The Deflator" when presented this week with Hardy, whose transgressions -- and apparent complete lack of remorse as he returned to the field for the first time in more than a year -- are far more problematic to the NFL and society at large than the Patriots and the still-unresolved questions about equipment handling.

Hardy was flying around early Sunday, sacking Brady, grabbing his hand as he was about to throw, demonstrating for all, unequivocally, why the Cowboys were willing to sign him and why Jones was willing to offer support last week that was ill-considered at best and enabling at worst.

Hardy finished with two sacks of Brady and a handful more hits, including one stinging one in the back late in the game that had Brady wincing. So the Cowboys got what they bargained for from Hardy: He's a potentially game-changing player who might embarrass the franchise -- or worse. His behavior in his first week back with the team should have been unacceptable, but only Jason Garrett seemed to realize that.

As for Hardy's play, well, his play was, according to Jones, "a part of the best part of our day, the defense. He made a difference out there." There are undoubtedly at least a few owners of other teams today who are wondering if they should have calculated the risk/reward equation regarding Hardy differently, especially since the public-relations message had been received by Hardy after the game, when he said he was grateful for the opportunity. And most critically for the Cowboys, Hardy's arrival will allow Garrett and Jones to spend the team's bye week not thinking so much about the pass rush anymore, but worrying about whether to bench Brandon Weeden for Matt Cassel.

The season rolls on, after all, and the Cowboys' most pressing crisis isn't one of conscience but one of completions: Weeden simply has not made enough of them since replacing the injured Tony Romo. On Sunday, the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2011. They put up season lows in yards and first downs, and while it's hard to imagine that Roger Staubach himself would have had markedly better results with the players Weeden had beside him, the quarterback inevitably shoulders most of the blame when the offense screeches to a halt.

Jones said a lot of things this week you could argue with, but what he said after the game was inarguable: the Cowboys are not a very good team right now. But he thinks they can be good. With the Cowboys 0-3 since Romo got hurt, and with the quarterback out at least another month, Garrett said he will contemplate a quarterback switch before the Cowboys play the NFC East-leading Giants in two weeks. That, apparently, will have to pass for an important statement from the Cowboys this season.

Every game, all season

That leaves all the statement-making to the Patriots, who have plenty of experience with it. It is no coincidence that this season is starting to resemble 2007, the last time someone questioned whether the Patriots got a little extra help on the way to the trophy case. The Patriots have set a new team record for points scored through the first four games of a season with 149. Yes, that is one more than they had at the same point in 2007, when they went 16-0. Draw your own conclusions.

Had Brady's four-game suspension stood up, he would only now be getting ready to return to the field, and the Patriots probably would not have been in a position to punish every opponent, to keep throwing late in a game that is already decided, to remind everyone that they remain the NFL's dominant team. Instead, Brady and the Patriots pull into Indianapolis next Sunday -- where all of this started when the Colts tipped off the league to the inflation levels of the footballs, bringing the revenge tour to its birthplace -- looking as complete as ever. The 30-6 victory over the Cowboys wasn't only about Romo's absence. It was also indicative of something that has to chill the Patriots' future opponents: No matter how much you hit Brady -- and he was hit plenty, sacked five times in the first half, the first time he'd been sacked that many times in a half since 2001 -- it is exceedingly difficult to slow him over the long haul.

The Patriots adjusted, as they almost always do, to an unfamiliar defensive look the Cowboys showed them early. Brady is being buoyed by a strong running game powered by Dion Lewis, one of those Patriots finds that has the rest of the league shaking its head. And New England's defense looks better each week. This time, the Patriots forced six three-and-outs in the first half. Weeden and company were not the offense to make anyone miss Darrelle Revis in the secondary, anyway -- but the way the Indianapolis Colts have struggled through the first part of the season, even before Andrew Luck injured his shoulder, suggests they can't do it, either.

Playoff aspirations revolve always around the Patriots -- directly or indirectly, for themselves and their opponents. They are the NFL's measuring-stick opponent. The Cowboys didn't measure up in a lot of ways, on and off the field, and the Patriots have sent them back to their drawing board. The Colts didn't measure up in January and will not be favored this week, either. But the Patriots roll on, with the playoffs next January -- and, perhaps, an appeal hearing in February the week before Super Bowl 50 -- awaiting them.

You can choose your sides when considering the relative seriousness of the NFL's villains, but it's best not to choose against the Patriots once the scoreboard is keeping track.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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