The Cowboys offense looked sharp enough, but it was the defense and special teams - two areas that had been so strong while the offense tried to find its groove midseason - that provided the biggest letdown. Both phases of the game gave up backbreaking big plays. After the offense scored in the third quarter, the defense gave up a 74-yard pass to Brandon Jacobs, the longest play of his career by 30 yards. Later in the game, when Dallas so desperately needed a stop for a chance to overcome a 7-point deficit, Domenik Hixon daggered the Cowboys with a 79-yard punt return for the game-icing score.
Dallas won the turnover battle (2 to 1), won the time of possession (38:50 to 21:10), won the yardage battle (424 to 337), won 3rd down conversions (9/17, 53% to 4/10, 40%), got more first downs (27 to 15), and ran more than 30 more plays than the Giants (80 to 49). And none of it mattered.
Dallas had a fourth down on its last real chance to keep the game close when there was still ample time on the clock, and where was Jason Witten? The man who already had 13 catches on the day was in the backfield blocking instead of running a route. The result: Romo throws a checkdown to Barber that wasn't long enough, turning the ball over on downs and clinching the win for New York. Romo and Witten connected 14 times on the day, with another catch tacked on late in the game, but not having him available on 4th down seemed more than curious.
The Cowboys were able to tack on a touchdown inside of one minute left in the game, a Romo pass to Miles Austin who played possum on a stop-and-go route to the end zone. With :58 seconds left, the Cowboys onside kick attempt hit Sam Hurd within 10 yards, giving the ball to the Giants. And while the ref who threw the flag on Hurd was in no position to actually see who it touched first, being that the ball hit on the other side of their bodies, the play would have been reviewed anyway, and it was clearly touched first by Hurd, but not by much.
Both teams had 10 days off, as they each played on Thanksgiving. But New York seemed to respond after a thumping in Denver. The Cowboys had strung together a streak of nine games without allowing more than 21 points, a streak dating back to the home-opening 33-31 loss to the Giants. The defense had given up just 14.2 points per game, including seven games where the opponents were held under 20 points. In fact, only the Giants have been able to put up more than 21 points on Dallas this season. Too bad they play twice a year.
What the Giants lacked in quantity, they made up for with quality in terms of offense, with 7.0 yards per play compared to the Cowboys' 5.3 ypp. Steve Smith made several big catches to go along with Jacobs' homerun. On the ground, Ahmad Bradshaw was able to add important rushing yards when needed, including a 29-yarder to get into the red zone.
On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys defense looked good on paper, and even a few times in real life, but when it mattered most, the defense couldn't hold the fort. And it looked like there were plenty of signs that things could be shaky down the stretch after the defense crumbled late in the first half. Dallas had just gone up 10-0 when the Giants needed just five plays (one of them an incomplete pass) to respond with a TD of their own. New York moved 74 yards in five plays (albeit better than when they went 74 yards in one play). The Giants took advantage of a Marion Barber fumble for a short field, leading to another TD, giving New York a 14-10 halftime lead.
(Special Teams) And in the third phase of football, the Cowboys special teams were a little bit too "special" in this one. It's never good to give up a punt return TD, but the Cowboys allowed Hixen to spoil any realistic hopes of a comeback win with his score. At some point, the special teams unit will need to make a legitimate tackle instead of just bouncing off a guy just because he's holding a football. Nick Folk continued to struggle, missing yet another field goal from that 40-49yd range. Missing the 57-yarder is forgivable, but he is now 4-10 on field goals between 40-49 yards and has missed eight field goals this year after missing seven in his first two seasons in the NFL. It's fair to say that while none of his kicks have clearly decided games, he's beginning to cross the line from asset to liability.
It's been easy to take shots at the Dallas offense over the last few weeks -- they don't run enough, too many consecutive fades to the corner, no big plays. There's been a long list of complaints about the offense, but on defense things seemed to be okay. Yeah, there weren't too many takeaways, but opposing teams weren't putting up points. Today, the defense forced a pair of turnovers, the fifth multi-takeaway game for the Cowboys in 2009 (2-PHI, 2-SEA, 3-ATL, 3-CAR). It was a lot better than the -4 turnover battle from the first Cowboys/Giants game.
Early in the game, things looked promising. Gerald Sensabaugh tipped away a pass to the outside. Terence Newman showed great closing speed to break up some passes, including a deep ball over the middle that would have easily put New York in scoring range. Jay Ratliff was able to break into the backfield and force a fumble of Bradshaw to set up the Cowboys first touchdown drive.
While this loss certainly is primarily on the defense and special teams, the Cowboys offense had a chance to pick up some of the slack throughout the game. On the first scoring drive, the Cowboys couldn't capitalize on 1st and Goal from the Giants' 9 yard line. Instead, they settled for a Folk field goal (don't worry, it was from inside 40 yards, where Folk is 10 of 11 this year).
On the Cowboys next drive, they nearly gave the ball up inside the five the ball squirted away from Tashard Choice on a run up the middle. Replay overturned the initial fumble ruling, and Romo found Roy Williams for a touchdown.
In fact, Roy Williams' first TD was helpful in making us forget his throw-his-hands-over-his-head-and-hope-the-ball-lands-in-them attempt. Williams fought through press coverage within the first five yards, getting past the defender for the score. Williams actually posted his first two-touchdown game since November 11, 2007 with the Lions. He finished the game with 6 catches for 60 yards, including a 25-yarder where he caught a ball thrown slightly behind him on his hip, taking the ball away from the reach of a nearby defender before breaking into the open field for extra yards.
Romo was able to work the ball to plenty of targets early, completing passes to eight different Cowboys in the first half. Jason Witten had his biggest game of the year, catching 14 passes for 156 yards. It might have been better if he'd been in the pattern on the Cowboys 4th down attempt late in the game while trying to mount a comeback. Instead he was in the backfield blocking as Romo hit Marion Barber shy of the first down. Witten did a great job of catching pretty much everything that was thrown to him, including a deflection off a tipped pass. Miles Austin continued his Pro Bowl caliber year, catching 10 passes for 104 yards and a late touchdown that pulled Dallas within 7 points.
A few other thoughts from a loss I still don't understand:
Now the Cowboys find themselves without their lead in the NFC East, tied with the Eagles at 8-4 and currently holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, and only a game ahead of the Giants who swept the season series. The NFC playoff picture just got plenty murkier for the Cowboys, who began the month of December by rekindling doubts of seasons past.
+ Officiating Head-scratcher
Here's a head-scratcher for anyone who understands NFL officiating. Late in the 2nd quarter, the Giants caught the Cowboys in position where several Cowboys were offsides, however before the ball was snapped, the Giants right tackle jumped as well. That ruling should be a neutral zone infraction on the defense and a five-yard penalty. Instead, the Giants were allowed to continue playing, gaining 11 yards for a first down. That's a play that should have been blown dead. The Giants proceeded to score a touchdown on the drive. Not sure if the extra 6 yards would have made a difference or not, but it certainly doesn't help the Cowboys' cause.
+ Blame Leonard Davis for fumble
As the Cowboys were trying to answer the Giants in the 2-minute drill, on 1st and 5 on a screen pass to Marion Barber, Barber got behind right tackle Leonard Davis out in space. Davis seemed to brush aside Mathias Kiwanuka, not really putting a true block on him, and the Giants defensive end knocked the ball from Barber's arms. Barber must not have had a great grip on the ball because the ball-jarring hit didn't pack too strong of a punch. The Giants get the ball on the Dallas 28 and go in for the go-ahead touchdown before the half.
+ Flozell Adams
As the teams went to the half, Flozell Adams cheap shotted one of the Giants, erupting a fight in front of the Giants sideline. A flag was thrown, and the Cowboys began the second half 15-yards in debt. This was an ugly and stupid move by Adams, who seemingly personified the lack of composure the Cowboys demonstrated as the Giants awoke to strike for 14 points in the final two minutes of the first half. Even though this penalty was after the half had expired, it's eerily similar to the dumb 15-yard penalty that Kevin Burnett made two years ago against the Giants just before the half (and of course, the subsequent Jimmy Johnson blow up on the FOX halftime show).
+ End of first half drive
After the Giants scored it's second touchdown in the final two minutes of the first half, I fully expected to take a knee or run a few dive plays to get to the locker room. Instead, the Cowboys launched into a drive to setup a field goal attempt. And while the Cowboys were unable to convert on a 57-yard field goal attempt, it did demonstrate some sort of resolve that most didn't know Dallas had that in it's make in 2009. It's a moral victory, which doesn't really count for much. At some point, Dallas will have to use the talents it demonstrated on that fruitless drive for something more meaningful, such as eeking out a win in the final seconds.
+ Good, bad, ugly coverage
As the Giants made their way down the field to begin the 3rd quarter, the Dallas secondary left Steve Smith, who is quickly becoming one of the more reliable receivers in the game, too open. Alan ball failed to close the gap on Smith, who slipped past a driving Ball and raced 36 yards to the Dallas 25. On the next play, however, Mike Jenkins leapt in front of Mario Manningham for drive-stopping interception, his fourth of the year.
+ Offense, Romo firing on all cylinders
On 3rd and 9, Romo lasers the ball to Miles Austin for a first down. Two plays later on 2nd and 6, Romo again rocketed a ball to Witten just beyond a defender for first down on 9yd line. Then Jason Garrett dialed up a great play: Romo faked handoff to the up-back, faked a toss to Miles Austin heading toward the outside, and hit Roy Williams a step ahead of a DB for the score, 17-14 Dallas. Having Austin in the backfield maked the defense pay extra attention that something "different" may happen. When Romo faked the pitch to Austin, two linebackers headed to the side to cut off Austin, leaving a clear throwing lane for Romo to find Williams for his second TD of the game. FYI: Nov 11, 2007: last time Roy Williams had two TDs in the same game. Romo was 4-for-5 for 48 yards on the drive.
NFC East Standings
|New York Giants||7-5|
Dallas still has games remaining against the Eagles and Redskins in the division as well as a home game against the Chargers and a terrifying trip to New Orleans. Some would say Dallas needs three wins in December to clinch the division. Two wins in the final four games should at least mean a playoff berth. But for the next week, the Cowboys must answer questions about their past while trying not start asking the same questions themselves.