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Surprise, surprise: Dallas strategy plays right into Brady's hands

Just as he'd done 31 other times in his career, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was in the process of creating another fourth-quarter comeback Sunday, completing one pass after another as the clock wound down inside a minute.

Did anyone really need to see the rest of the game to know what happened next? Of course, Brady would finish the drive. Of course, he'd march his team to a touchdown.

"We've seen it a million times," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said.

"Everybody knows how good this guy is," Dallas linebacker Bradie James said. "If you keep giving guys like that opportunities, they'll find a way to make plays."

Naturally, nobody was surprised in the wake of Brady's late-game heroics, making it reasonable to assume everyone could have seen this coming. And that's exactly what makes the Cowboys' approach to their two previous possessions so alarming.

They had to see this coming. Yet they gave Brady the chance to do it anyway.

"Whenever you get the ball into the hands of a player like Brady at home, you've got problems," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We were up here, on their field, and knew what the odds are. We decided to flip a coin, and it came up against us."

Except this wasn't a 50-50 deal. It wasn't heads or tails. Even if Rob Ryan's defense created four turnovers and limited New England to 13 points through 3 ½ quarters, everyone knows this situation favors Brady inside 2 minutes.

But this isn't about Jones, of course. It isn't about the Cowboys' defense, either. Instead, it's about a coach, Jason Garrett, and his current level of trust in his quarterback, Tony Romo.

After four previous games of sporadic fourth-quarter performances from Romo, Garrett's play-calling late in Sunday's 20-16 loss to the Patriots created a quiet sense of wonder about whether the quarterback's shaky play this year had crept into the coach's mind.

With 3:36 left, Garrett called three consecutive running plays to make New England burn two of its timeouts. Rather than put the ball in Romo's hands to have him shoot for a first down, the coach instead decided he'd put the ball in Brady's hands with 2:31 left.

"You want to make them use the timeouts, so we ran the ball and we had a minus-run on the first play," Garrett said. "Then, we had a false start. So we got into some bad down-and-distance situations. Having said that, one of the big things you want to do there is, you want to keep that clock moving."

It wasn't just that possession, though. On Dallas' previous series, inside the 20-yard line, the Cowboys took a conservative approach, never throwing a single pass into the end zone and instead settling for a field goal to take a three-point lead.

Witten defended Garrett's plan on that series, noting it wouldn't have been an issue if the offense had executed better (the Cowboys gained 5 yards then had two incomplete passes before kicking a 26-yard field goal).

But the conservative approach -- coupled with the run-only mentality on the following series rather than an attacking push that could have kept the ball out of Brady's hands -- most certainly raised some eyebrows within the locker room.

"Well, we're going to always second guess whether we should have tried a little offense down there," Jones said.

Jones said he didn't feel like the outcome was an indication of a lack of trust in the quarterback created by Romo's struggles in the second half of previous losses to the Lions and the Jets. Garrett also praised Romo's play Sunday, and there isn't a sense of any rift between Romo and Garrett.

But Jones most certainly still believes in Romo. He invested heavily in the quarterback, and he expects to see Romo utilized in late-game situations like the one that went down Sunday.

The decision to put the ball in Brady's hands seemed far less about confidence in the Cowboys' defense and far more about a level of wonder about Romo's late-game ability.

Romo performed soundly, completing exactly the same number of passes (27) on exactly the same number of attempts (41) for more yards (317) than Brady. He also threw one fewer interception than Brady.

Based on the performance alone, Romo deserved the opportunity to close out the game for the Cowboys on either of those two previous series. But instead, while allowing Romo's recent history to potentially influence his play-calling, Garrett might have forgotten to keep in mind Brady's history as well.

Nobody was surprised that Brady was able to orchestrate a game-winning drive with less than three minutes remaining. Not after the future Hall of Famer managed to orchestrate similar comebacks on 31 other occasions.

The bigger surprise was that he was even given the chance.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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