FOXBOROUGH -- Before the game, no matter how hard Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells fought to escape the spotlight, it really was all about them. Do the two of you speak? Will you speak? How do you feel about Bill? And how do you feel about Bill? What did you learn from Bill? Are you still angry at Bill?
After the game, it was still all about them. Look, they hugged each other. What did he say? What did he say? What does this win mean to you, Bill? What does this loss mean to you, Bill?
In between, though, it really was all about the players. Just like the coaches said. And right now, Belichick has a better collection of them.
His Patriots improved to 8-2 for the second time in franchise history (1978) last night and maintained their two-game lead in the AFC East with a 12-0 victory over the Cowboys before a national television audience and 68,436 at Gillette Stadium. The shutout was New England's first since the third game of the 1996 season, when Parcells coached the Patriots and Belichick was his assistant, and the second time Dallas has been held scoreless in its last four games.
The Cowboys amassed more total yards and held a slight edge in time of possession, but they turned the ball over three times, once inside the Patriots 20. Tom Brady completed just 15 of 34 passes, but completions of 57 yards to David Givens and 46 yards to Deion Branch led to 9 points. His counterpart, Quincy Carter, threw three interceptions, including one in the third quarter to Ty Law with Dallas 19 yards away from making it a 2-point game.
And yes, they did embrace. "Bill congratulated me on the win," Belichick said. "I told him I thought he had a good football team and I wished him well, and I do."
And as far as Belichick was concerned, thus ended the Battle of the Bills. "Coach Belichick told us to enjoy this win," said Ty Law, who had two interceptions, "but he reminded us that Houston [Sunday's opponent, at Reliant Stadium] is a tough team. They went up there to Buffalo [yesterday] and did something we didn't do, and that's beat those guys [12-10]."
"All the players knew this was big for him," guard Damien Woody said. "We're happy for him. It's one more step in the right direction for the organization."
"It's good to beat the teacher," said defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, also a former Parcells employee. "We feel good about that. But our main focus is that we have to go to Houston next week."
The Cowboys offense had its share of problems last night. Dallas managed a mere 3 yards per carry and Carter struggled to a 38.0 quarterback rating. New England's defense did a lot less bending than usual.
"They played a lot better than we did," Parcells said. "We just didn't give ourselves a chance to win the game. I thought maybe there in the third quarter, where we had that one decent drive in there, if we could have got on the board there, we might have made it close. As it happened all night, we just kind of self-destructed."
The Patriots anticipated that the Cowboys would. Sparked by the return of nose tackle Ted Washington from a broken leg suffered against the Jets in Week 3, New England came in wanting to stuff the run and force Carter to beat them from the pocket on third and long. Dallas's top rusher, Troy Hambrick, gained just 41 yards on 16 carries, while its leading receiver, Terry Glenn, caught one pass for 8 yards. Antonio Bryant was slightly noisier (three for 35), while Joey Galloway could only watch and listen (inactive, quadriceps). So much for Dallas's three-headed receiving monster.
The Patriots disrupted the timing of the Dallas offense by dropping linebackers into coverage and having them knock Glenn and company off their routes.
"We just tried to play physical, tried to get up in [Glenn's] face and attack him at the line of scrimmage," Law said, applying New England's general game plan specifically to his former teammate and friend. "You don't want to let him find soft spots in the zone. Because once he gets running, it's probably going to be hard to catch him. Granted, he's probably faster than the majority of us out there; we have to stop him any way we can. The only way you can beat speed is with strength, and that's the way you hold the guy down."
The Cowboys have held opponents in check all season; they came in with the league's top-ranked defense. With Troy Brown (ankle) on the sideline and knowing they wouldn't be able to move the ball consistently, Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis (yet another former Parcells employee) came in looking for the big one. Brady attempted several deep passes against Dallas's speedy cornerbacks and hit one of them -- an underthrown heave in the second quarter to Givens, who made the adjustment, made a move on Terence Newman, and took it down to the Cowboys 5 for a 57-yard gain. After a penalty put the ball on the 2, Antowain Smith (16 carries, 51 yards) plowed in on the next play for a 9-0 lead.
"It was a shot game," said Givens, who missed most of the second half with a right leg injury. "Whoever hit the most shots would win the game, and we hit the most shots."
Brady hit one in the first quarter to Branch, who came free (thanks to a pick by Givens) across the middle for a 46-yard catch-and-run. Four plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 23-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Vinatieri kicked a 26-yarder just after the second-half 2-minute warning for the game's final points.
Law intercepted Carter in the end zone on the game's final play, Carter's second pick of the fourth quarter (Tyrone Poole).
Said Belichick, "We just find a way to win."