Monday, November 25, 2013
Victories like that don't come around very often. And the rarity of this particular afternoon is why what you saw on Sunday was so sweet.
As I said on Twitter Sunday Night, "That is a meaningful, cold-weather, clutch, road, nationally-televised, divisional win."
You are quite familiar with my stance on winning in the NFL and the difficulty that goes with it, so you can likely imagine my stance when you beat a divisional foe at their place that you certainly have not handled really well in this current era of Cowboys football.
And the New York Giants have dealt with the Cowboys quite well over the last 15 years or so, but not in 2013. This year, they suffer the fact that Dallas shoved the dagger into their chest right in front of their loyalists on a cold day at the new Giants Stadium with a gutsy 24-21 win that required all 60 minutes to sort out.
It was the kind of win that you realize can and will be picked apart from many perspectives, and that the victor had anything but perfect grades all around. However, with the game on the line and the team needing to put together a drive, they looked once again to their franchise QB to carry them home. And while the overall performance of the entire afternoon left plenty of room for improvement, the job that the offense and Tony Romo, in particular, put together with all of the chips down was something to behold.
To review the circumstances, we must back up to a 1st half where there was little accomplished offensively by either team. For the Cowboys, it was 6 drives with 4 punts and an interception surrounding one particular effort where a touchdown was scored on a beautiful play action pass to Jason Witten following a successful screen pass to Lance Dunbar and a huge run from DeMarco Murray that had many wondering if the bye week and play-calling adjustments had actually stumbled upon something big.
Beyond that, the Cowboys were ahead because the defense scored again. Say what you want about this defense - and you can say some seriously negative things that will be founded in truth - but that is their 5th defensive touchdown of the season when Jeff Heath scooped up a Orlando Scandrick strip of Victor Cruz and ran it back to the end zone for the Touchdown to give the Cowboys a lead they would only lose for a few minutes when the Giants tied late in the 4th Quarter. 5 defensive Touchdowns so far in 2013 (Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Sean Lee, Nick Hayden, and Heath) is more by any Cowboys defense going back to at least 2000. They are scoring points and that doesn't even include the times their takeaways set up a short field. This is just actual TDs scored by the defense, and they have 5 now. It is remarkable, to say the least, and consistent with their +11 turnover margin, one which puts them tied for 2nd in the NFL with Seattle, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs at +15.
So, after the 14-6 halftime margin, Dallas comes out of the locker-room to find that the temperature had dropped again and the wind was picking up. In fact, there were times in this game where both Quarterbacks looked like completing passes was going to be a major chore and any afternoon-long throwing exhibitions were not going to be realistic. This was a game that appeared to be destined for the more physical of the two teams.
And, between the running of Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs and the pass rush that was able to snuff out a fair number of Cowboys drives, the physicality of the Giants was beginning to take the game over as the afternoon went along.
Dallas stopped the Giants on a 4th Down to start the 3rd Quarter, and then the physical play of the Giants got them in trouble when they basically assisted Dallas in taking a 21-6 lead on a drive where a roughing the passer penalty on a 3rd Down from Mathias Kiwanuka gave the Cowboys a fresh set of downs and then Antrel Rolle took a head shot at Murray as the runner was heading out of bounds for 2 costly personal fouls in Giants territory that set the Cowboys up for a composed pitch and catch between Romo and Witten again and Dallas appeared to have a big enough margin to start considering a masterful victory.
But, we all knew it was never going to be easy, right? And when the Giants had to attempt yet another 4th Down in Cowboys territory, they crawled back into the game on a bizarre turn of events as Eli Manning hit his 2013 tight end, Brandon Myers on a wheel route designed to expose Bruce Carter in coverage (this week's version of that concept that is becoming common place) which it certainly did for what appeared to be a 1st and goal inside the 10. Instead, Carter, who at times seems to give up in situations where adversity is hitting him between the eyes, walked like a zombie past Myers without touching him to end the play. Myers, as shocked as anyone that Carter and Jeff Heath didn't seem to know the most basic of NFL rules, just stood up and ran into the end zone for a free touchdown. Carter was challenged by the coaches in San Diego for losing his spirit against Danny Woodhead and certainly did not seem full of resolve in New Orleans late in the game, so, unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of defeat causing him to stop his maximum effort.
Now, 21-13, this is where the stadium starts coming alive, the opponent starts believing, and the Cowboys normally begin to panic. They have a 2nd half lead in a key game, but closing the deal has never been listed under the expertise of this current Dallas group, it seems. In fact, the cold weather - which was 25 degrees at kickoff and fell throughout the afternoon - only heightens the difficulty level, as Tony Romo has only won just a single game before yesterday (now 2-4) in cold weather situations (kickoff temperature below 40 degrees) and that was against a 4-12 Washington team in 2009.
The next 3 Dallas drives were just as we have seen normally in these spots. Chances to regain control of the game on a deep shot that could have been pass interference to Terrance Williams, a crossing pattern to Dez that ended up a 20-yard loss on a fumble, and a few throws that were caught up in the wind. Then, pass protection was beginning to cave in and even shotgun snaps looked like a chore. The offensive line was starting to break down in the interior and Romo was starting to get hit more and more. They were losing the physical edge to the game and in 3 drives after the Witten TD midway through the 3rd Quarter until midway through the 4th, they had run 14 plays for 13 yards. It was a rather familiar script.
And then there were 3rd Downs. 3rd Downs have been an amazing achilles heel for the Cowboys offense all season long, ranking them 30th in the league overall and 32nd in the league on the road. They simply have not been money on the money down. They have had miscues and frustration and their inability to not extend drives have clearly been an issue that has not been fixed. 14 for 58 in road games this season before Sunday and then working on another brutal 1 for 8 with the only conversion being the 3rd Quarter Witten Touchdown, things looked the same. And now, with 4:45 to go in the game after Eli and the Giants and scored and converted a 2-point conversion to level the game at 21-21, the Cowboys had to go get points or suffer another destructive defeat.
On Friday, I wrote about Tony Romo's worst decisions in a piece that certainly was difficult for many people to enjoy. The overall premise is that in these particular situations with high stakes, the Cowboys often have the game in their control - the ball and a chance to win - and fail too often. In 3 of those 5 examples, they were tied - just like they were tied on Sunday. This means that they have a chance to win, but also, if they do something too risky (interception) or too conservative (punt), they are going to give the opponent a chance to finish the game with their own dramatic win.
So, they need to put a drive together. And on this day, they did a fantastic job, with Romo doing his best work of the day. They converted 3 different 3rd Downs that were all mandatory to the victory, with a beautiful read on a 3rd and 7 which turned into finding Dez down the sideline on a fade when the safety took away Austin on the slant. Then, on another 3rd Down and 5, it was Dez again on a tricky slant himself. A beautiful pass inside to Austin on a 2nd and 10 put the Cowboys into long field goal range, but the final 3rd Down conversion was the best of the bunch.
It was only 3rd and 10 from the Giants 28 because of the very difficult official ruling on a beautiful post route from Bryant that Romo hit down to the Giants 5. By just about any perspective aside from the officials, this looked like a catch and then the impact of the ground jarred the ball loose, but only after Dez had completed the catch. However, in this age of the hazy definition of how rules are interpreted, there is no cut and dried way to understand what is a catch and what isn't. In this case, it seemed clear that the Cowboys deserved a review, but even after calling a timeout, had no such luck.
But, the fact that they even threw the pass into a tight space like that speaks to the idea that Jason Garrett and Romo both realize their risk aversion in these situations is no way to realize their fullest potential given the circumstances. Other situations like these (at Baltimore in 2012 comes to mind) involve going very conservative the second they believe they are in Dan Bailey's range. Get to the 30 yard line and then hand the ball off a few times is usually the order of the day. In fact, we can only wonder what might have happened if the Giants did not convert their 2-point conversion and they kicked to the Cowboys with a 21-19 lead. Would the Cowboys have reeled in their adventure and handed the ball off 3 times and punted back, only to lose 22-21? In a odd way, were the Cowboys aided by being tied?
Maybe not, but either way, it seemed out of character for the Cowboys to put the game to the sword by throwing downfield even after the ball might have been in Field Goal range. And after losing out on the long completion to Dez down to the 5, on 3rd and 10, they resisted the urge to run the draw and instead had Romo look to convert it. If they did run it, the Giants use their final timeout and get the ball back with over a minute to go - down 3. But, instead, Romo finds Cole Beasley on a fantastic route and they convert the 3rd Down and get Bailey even closer down to the 15-yard line. From there, because of their aggressive posture, the game was over if their kicker could put it through. And of course, with Dan Bailey, that is as automatic as almost any kicker in the business.
What a drive and what a time to start converting 3rd Downs in succession. They went 4-11 on the money down which will not set any records, but those 4 were the 4 most vital of the game. Beautiful job demonstrating the clutch characteristic that these late-game drives require to defeat your opponent.
The win gives the Cowboys a 4-0 start in the NFC East and with the other 2 games in the division reserved for the final 2 weekends of the season, they have set themselves up to have every opportunity to win the division title. They also have a chance to get to 7-5 in a few days if they can take down Oakland and then put a 10-win season back in play.
Great resolve against an opponent that talked all week long and has humiliated the Cowboys on many occasions. But, this day, all that talking wasn't worth much. Only the ability to make the plays when it mattered most was going to get the win.
That is a fantastic response to the humiliating day in New Orleans.
That is a meaningful, cold-weather, clutch, road, nationally-televised, divisional win.
Now, let's see how they deal with success.