December is here. The undercard has been fought, and now it is time for the main event. Imagine, that for this team, everything they have done since walking off the field in Philadelphia last December was about this. Showing that you would not succumb to the pressure and tap out. Showing you won't quit when the going gets tough. Proving that adversity does not scare you into a early vacation. Proving time.
8-3 as they enter December is very nice. 3 wins in your next 5 will win the division (I assume). 2 wins in your next 5 gets you a trip to the playoffs. 1 win or less, and you have no business in the NFL Playoffs.
For Tony Romo, Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett, and anyone else in the organization, this is what they have prepared for. To make it right.
And it starts at Giants Stadium. Rate the 16 games on your schedule every season, and I will guarantee you that this road date at the Meadowlands is one of the toughest 2 or 3 on the minds of everyone. But, wait. It gets worse this year. This year, you play the Giants in an extremely wounded and desperate state. This is not that different from your visit to Green Bay 3 games ago, and we all saw how tough it is playing a wounded animal in their stadium when they feel like their season is on the line. Bad things. Ambush conditions. Bring your armor.
Not only that, but we must consider the damage of a loss. A loss that would give the Giants a season sweep - and therefore the tie breaker - and likely vault the Eagles into a tie for the division lead.
A win, and you likely eliminate the Giants for good in 2009. You also quiet the December murmurs. Who knows how far you can go if you win this game.
ON OFFENSE: In Week 2, these two teams opened up the New Cowboys stadium with a game that was very, very close. And yet, the Cowboys ran for 248 yards and did not allow a single sack. You should never lose a game in which your offensive line plays that well. It is truly a shame. The reason they lost, as I am sure you will recall, is that Tony Romo played one of his worst games ever. He threw 3 Interceptions and was flustered the whole night despite not being sacked once. It was his only multiple interception game of 2009, and that march continues as he has but 7 the entire season. So, 3 picks in 29 throws that night. 4 picks in the other 330 passes the rest of the year. That is right. 4 Interceptions in 10 games.
Here is the bottom line in 2009 for the Cowboys offense. When they turn the ball over 2 times or less this year they have lost 1 time (8-1). When they turn the ball over more than 2 times, they are 0-2. Pretty simple, right? Do what you do, and hold on to the ball - and you win.
The other item about this team that can really help Tony Romo raise his game in December is obviously the ability to run the ball. Remember, last December, the complete an utter disaster that it was, turned on two items. One, that everyone remembers, was the internal discord between Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, Jason Garrett, and whoever else was involved. The other, a quiet problem, but perhaps a bigger problem in the whole scheme of things was the fact that Felix Jones and Marion Barber were hurt. Jones was long gone, and Barber tried to play in December, but was obviously ineffective, totalling 15 yards rushing in the final 4 games combined.
So, with only rookie Tashard Choice available, a player with only 25 career carries to his name before last December, you can somewhat understand any reluctance by the Cowboys to run the ball consistently. He performed admirably, but in several of the games, the Cowboys spent December in the shotgun, and slung the ball around the yard - without much effectiveness - and Romo's rating and sack total hit the floor.
This December, health is presently not a big issue in the RB stable, and it shows by the big plays they generated last week, as all the RBs popped big plays against the Raiders. This, is my key to December. Achieve balance, and use your team's greatest resource; the ability to have several quality RBs at your disposal to run through December opponents.
1) - Best Players Must Be Best Players - Again, this was covered at length in yesterday's essay, but I would suggest that with Romo leading the way, it is clear that there can be no passengers on board this bus. Tony Romo must lead the way with play that would have any neutral observer admitting even in defeat that it was not the QB's fault the Cowboys lost. Too often in the month of December, he has been fingered as the culprit, and to lose the label of choker, one must put together a near-flawless run with the chips on the table. There is no Terrell Owens in his ear, and he is now clearly the leader of his own huddle - so show us what you have learned in the last 11 months. Beyond Tony, I need Flozell to step it up, Roy Williams to emerge, Leonard Davis to bulldoze, and on and on. Many big money pro-bowl types on this offense who need to look adversity in the face.
2) - Power Run, Power Run, Power Run - Since the Cowboys have run for 350 yards in their last 2 games since the debacle at Lambeau, I believe everyone is on the same page at the necessity and quality of the run game. Twice this season, the Cowboys have called 10 run plays or more from "22" personnel. Last week against Oakland, they ran out of that set 13 times for 114 yards, and in Week 2, against the New York Giants, they ran 10 run plays for 121 yards. We have established that when the Cowboys declare run, the defense knows it - but can do nothing to stop it. Running the ball may not win the game by itself, but it frustrates a home crowd, it dials back the blitz, it wears on guys who do not handle the run well - Osi Umenyiora comes to mind - And it keeps the clock moving, thus shortening the game. There is no reason why this team shouldn't pound the rock on Sunday. Let's hope the discussion is not even in issue in post game.
3) - Protect Tony Romo; Help Doug Free - OK, this is Doug Free's first test. But, you are saying, Bob, it is his 3rd start! I know. But, here, is his 1st start in hostile territory. Where you cannot hear the snap count, where the Giants are whipped into a frenzy by the crowd, and where he will be facing either Justin Tuck or Umenyiora. Either way, it is clear that now we will see if Free is the real deal or not, as he attempts to replace Marc Colombo. The Giants have 23 sacks as a team, but they had 14 in the first 5 weeks. In the last 6 week, a time that has been categorized as their collapse, the Giants pass rush has betrayed them with only 9 sacks in 6 games. Tuck, who has 22 sacks in the last 32 games entering the year, is stuck at 4.5 sacks. And, Osi, who is coming of the knee surgery, has 5 sacks after 33.5 sacks from '05-'07 before his injury. Their production is down, but they know they can still save the season with a big performance against Romo and the Cowboys OL. Expect plenty of Tight End help for Free, but Romo still has to diagnose problems and get the ball out.
4) - Who Can Make a Play? - "Who can make a play! I can!" - Terrell Owens via NFL Films. But, last December, there were almost no plays of substance made by Owens or any of the other play makers on the offense. So, here we go: The Wide-Outs and TE's need to demonstrate they can make a play to win a game and make a difference. Miles Austin has done it all year. Jason Witten has done it. But, Roy? Crayton? Martellus? Felix? They need play-makers in waves. They need someone to allow them to get yards in chunks. Who can make a play?
5) - Jason Garrett must get it right - I won't elaborate too much, since I do every Tuesday, but he must be the winner in the battle of coaches. I believe he is plotting a Pearl Harbor moment or two for Sunday, so let's see what it is. Coaching can win or lose in these situations, and his performance last December was as questionable as anyone's in my estimation.
While I often focus on the defense's inability to create takeaways as a key attribute of the Wade Phillips defense, we should also recognize that he produces sacks. There is no debating that Wade, often with very little help from exotic blitz packages can generate sacks in big numbers.
Last season, I wrote the following after the Cowboys league-leading 59 sack performance :
If there is anything that Wade Phillips can say that did not exist before he arrived it is that ability to sack the QB. The last time the team broke the 40 sacks barrier before Wade arrived was 1994. Now they have done it both years Wade has been here. The last time they had done it in back to back seasons is 1987-1988.
In 2009, the Cowboys rank #7 in the NFL in sacks after 11 games with 28 sacks. I would suggest to you that this number is actually far more impressive when you consider they had 0 sacks at Tampa in week 1, and 0 sacks against the Giants in week 2. So, based on the idea that all 28 sacks of the Cowboys come from Week 3 on, you can surmise that the Cowboys rank #2 in the NFC, and #4 in the NFL with sacks since week 3 behind only the Minnesota Vikings (33) in the conference. In fact, the Cowboys have 3 or more sacks in 8 of the last 9 games. The only time they did not get to 3 in their pass rush is the Washington game a few weeks back when they got to Jason Campbell just once.
So, with 5 games to play if they can bag 12 more sacks, they will hit the 40 sacks barrier for the 3rd consecutive season. Something that goes back to Ronald Reagan in the White House.
DeMarcus Ware, who dominated 2008 like nobody in the league did with 20 sacks, has just 8 sacks this season, but given the fact that he did not break the seal until Kansas City in Week 5, 8 sacks in 7 games is a more than reasonable pace.
Which brings us to the first defensive objective...
1) - Bring the Noise with that Pass Rush - The Giants offense has hit the wall after the 5-0 start. Of the 5 biggest yardage games this season, they hit in weeks 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10. One interesting correlation is the sacks allowed by the Giants Offensive Line, a unit generally that is recognized as one of the finest in the business. The Giants OL has allwoed 19 sacks this season. 3 in the first 5 weeks, and 16 sacks in the last 6 games. Eli Manning against a pass rush is a very ordinary passer. If the Cowboys can get their 3 to 4 times, I don't see the Giants offense having a huge effect on the game.
2) - Keep The Game Alive - This is a pretty simple idea. Keep the Cowboys in the game by limiting the damage as the Giants put all of their energy into blowing the Cowboys out of the Meadowlands before halftime. There is a greater than zero chance that there will be a few key moments where the Giants can grab the game by the scruff of the neck, and it will be up to the Cowboys defense to limit the damage. Stay in the game and stay alive. Survive the initial surge. One stat to consider is the fact that the Cowboys are 27th in Opponent Red Zone TD Pct. Basically, that means that only 5 teams allow more TD's per trip inside the Red Zone than the Cowboys. The good news is that the Cowboys allow the least trips into the Red Zone of any team in the NFL. Did you know that? Only 22 trips all season by the opponent inside the Red Zone.
3) - Frustrate the Run Game - The Cowboys RBs average 5.3 yards per carry for the entire season. The Giants running game has eclipsed 4.7 yards per carry one time in 11 games (the Oakland game). In the last 6 games, the Giants have had 4.4, 4.1, 4.4, 4.0, 3.4, and 3.6 yards per carry. Ahmad Bradshaw is a game-time decision, and Danny Ware is out altogether. So, this is about Brandon Jacobs getting loose, and he has not done so at all. If you can plug them up with Brooking and James in the middle, the stadium may turn on the Giants offense quickly. This would be a pivotal portion of the game - If the Giants cannot run, they generally cannot win. Unless you consider Week 2 when they didn't run at all, but I don't think they can do it again.
4) - Jenkins and Newman Must Avenge Week 2 - In the first meeting between the teams, the Cowboys secondary was sliced and diced by Eli and his band of targets. Mario Manningham and Steve Smith BOTH had 10 catches, and Jenkins, Newman, and Orlando Scandrick had a most disappointing showing. Tony Romo is blamed for the Week 2 debacle quite a bit (and he did have a 29 rating), but the way the secondary could not cover anyone is just as clear to those who broke down the game. Jenkins gave up inside leverage on a slant on a huge 3rd down on the game's final drive, causing me to wonder if he will ever "get it". To his credit, he has played very, very well since then. In his last trip to Giants stadium, Jenkins jumped a route for a interception for a touchdown. This is a huge test for the secondary. Then again, we say that every week - they all are.
It is the final meeting at Giants Stadium, and it is a game where the Giants are playing with their entire season on the line. I think the Cowboys can win this game, but the entire football world needs to see it. The Cowboys must prove they can win a game in December, in hostile territory, and against a desperate opponent.
A true testing ground game, and a game I eagerly anticipate. This should be wonderful football. I make this pick with great reservations, so allow me to blindly put faith and assume this team has grown up in the last 11 months. I must be nuts to pick the Cowboys...
Cowboys 24, Giants 20
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