Monday, November 24, 2014

Morning After: Cowboys 31, Giants 28 (8-3)

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates his game winning touchdown in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Sunday, November 23, 2014. The Cowboys won 31-28. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Last night demonstrated a certain character and determination level that many who follow this team have been seeking from their heroes for years.  The Cowboys won a key game late in the season against a divisional rival on the road to alert any who were wondering that the team from Dallas does not anticipate going quietly into the night.  Not this year.
They are now 8-3 and a perfect 5-0 on the road after winning a game that will not pass the aesthetics test when it comes to looking at the stat sheet.
- The Cowboys lost the time of possession battle by a 35:00/25:00 margin and were spending a large majority of the game with their defense on the field.
- That, of course, means that they were outsnapped by a similar 74-53 margin.
- Also, out gained by the Giants, 417-385 - something the Giants are not in the habit of doing very often.
- And most angering to Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys surrendered 11 3rd Down conversions last night.  Only twice in the NFL this year (San Diego vs Jets, Tampa Bay vs Atlanta) has a team converted 12 3rd Downs, and both times, it was a lower percentage of conversions that the 73.3% that the Cowboys allowed to Eli Manning and friends last night.
The last number, in particular, is a statistic that normally doesn't accompany a victory.
And yet, the Cowboys won coming out of the bye in New Jersey for the 2nd season in a row and flew back to Dallas last night with a win total that equals the win totals of 2011, 2012, and 2013's full seasons with 5 games to play in 2014.  The prospects of finishing 8-8 are now incredibly unlikely.  In fact, in just a few days, the Cowboys have a chance to cement their first winning season under Jason Garrett with yet another divisional test against the reigning NFC East champ.  But, more on that later.
This win over the Giants was impressive in many regards.  It starts with the fact that the Cowboys were behind on two occasions by eleven points.  14-3 and 21-10 were both margins were the game was hanging by a mere thread.  For Dallas to take those punches to the midsection and to continue to chip away offensively while figuring some things out defensively speak, again, to the overall resolve and character of this football team.  It has been said that "last' years team doesn't win this game" a few times so far this year.  Well, add this one to that pile.
This year's team has an offense that they can count on to take over a game and with three touchdowns in the 2nd half, they did just that.  Again, it was the powerful running of DeMarco Murray complimenting Quarterback play that was nothing short of flawless (yet again).  Tony Romo is having the best season of his career to this point, and I am not even sure it is close.  His QB rating, his TD percentages, and his yards per attempt are those of a NFL MVP-candidate, and if he can maintain this for a few more weeks, that is exactly what he will be.  For Romo to do this with the physical condition that he continues to deal with is nothing short of fantastic.  He is having a simply amazing season and, of course, picked a rather unlikely time to do it in his career arc.
But, from a common sense standpoint, the arrival of this running game and the amazing pass protection to trigger Romo's year fits perfectly together.  Whether you believe this was the intentional plan all along when the Cowboys started down a path that began in spring of 2011 is up to each observer.  I happen to believe it was more of experimenting several times until they got it right, but the end result is the same.  They have built a special offensive line.
When Andre Gurode was cut in August '11 (after Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo went away earlier that offseason) and the Cowboys purposely began the 2011 season with Bill Nagy and Phil Costa as starters alongside fellow rookie Tyron Smith, they started a process that was on full display last night.  That 4 season evolution has introduced us to a number of players during the run like Nagy, Costa, David Arkin, Ryan Cook, Nate Livings, and even attempts to get guys like Brian Waters and Brandon Moore out of retirement to help fix this thing.
But to the front office's credit, they continued the process and spent the resources to get it right.  Now, as you look at the line of Smith-Ron Leary-Travis Frederick-Zack Martin-Doug Free, you see a line that is as good as anything the league has.  It was the dream in the summer that spending 3 1st round picks would give the Cowboys a "Top of the NFL" offensive line, but you have to see it prove it on the field before we give any such proclamations out.
Well, the returns have been considered, and in 2014, I challenge anyone to find another offensive line that can stand up to this group.  They are fantastic in just about every way.  And that is what allows DeMarco Murray the room to get going on run plays where he is just fine finishing the job.  The zone stretches and man-blocking plays have been run dozens of times each and now are complimented with fake end arounds and fullback dives that show the coordination of the offense to be in very capable hands as well.  Scott Linehan does not get every call right and still can aggravate fans in tight contests like this one, but in the end, if someone is not satisfied with the tactics and strategy of the play-calling then I don't know what to tell them anymore.  Linehan is painting a masterpiece this season with his vision and while it might be getting lost in the story for many, it won't in this space.  Oh, and by the way, only one member of that offensive line is older than 25 (Doug Free, 30, who is on an expiring deal).
The final drive for the offense is what this whole thing has been built for.  When you spend those 1st round picks (4 of the last 5 have been given to the offense) and you pay the going rate for an "elite QB", then you imagine a scenario where your squad gets the ball with the entire field to travel and only a touchdown will get you a victory.  You envision a time where you are playing a prime time game and you must leave Gotham with a win.  You take the ball and travel 80 yards and by the end your team is celebrating wildly while the opponent hangs their head in yet another disappointment.
And they delivered.
It took seven plays and converted three 1st downs.  It was simple in its execution and the same Giants defense which has dished out some rather humiliating lessons over the course of this Cowboys OL rebuild project, had very little to say on this night.  Romo had all day to throw and his receivers broke down the defense.  Then, the throws went where they needed to go with ease.  Romo was 6-for-6 on that drive and the only question after he hit Dez Bryant in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown was whether or not the Cowboys marched down the field too quickly and too easily.
Bryant, by the way, continued his assault on anything that challenges him, this time pulling into 2nd in the league in touchdowns (trailing only Julius Thomas with 12) with his 9th and 10th on another dominating evening of football that really wasn't set off until the 2nd half.
Before that Bryant show in the 2nd half, the 1st half was owned by Odell Beckham.  Beckham, who we wrote about in the Giants preview in Sunday's Paper, put on a show that will not soon be forgotten for the insane catch touchdown on the 1st play of the 2nd Quarter.  There is no question, regardless of how much coverage it receives, that catch was one of the most impossible snags you will ever witness.  It is fair to expect more of Brandon Carr last night in general, but on that particular play, the speed/strength combo to put himself in that position and then the singular "go-go-gadget" hand of Beckham is worth any hype.  It was sensational.
Beckham and Eli Manning were more than just that play, however, as we indicated earlier as the Giants converted their first seven 3rd Down conversions and put all 3 of their first drives into the end zone for 7 points each time in demoralizing fashion.  Manning was trying to bounce back from a brutal week against San Francisco where he threw 5 interceptions and given that a ball hardly missed a target in the 1st half, he did a pretty nice job of doing just that.  He had a 156 QB Rating at the half and in throws to Beckham was 8 for 8, 125 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
The defense had to respond and there is no question the hard-driving Rod Marinelli had steam coming out of his ears at the half.  He claims that there were no real tactical changes in the 2nd half, but we do know that somehow the Cowboys - who were unable to slow down the Giants at all in the 1st half - were able to get stops on 5 of the 6 New York drives after halftime.  Punt-Punt-Interception-Punt was the way the half began for the Giants, which allowed the Cowboys to turn a 21-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead before the 3rd Quarter ended.
From there, the Giants had to have a huge drive in the 4th - mostly without Beckham - to retake the lead thanks to a large dose of Rashad Jennings runs and short receptions, which put the onus back on the Cowboys with 3:00 to play.
But, the defense wasn't done there because Romo to Bryant occurred with 1:01 left in the game and all the Giants needed was a field goal to at least extend the game into overtime.  And that, on a 4th and 2 from the Giants 28, the Cowboys were able to snuff out the last signs of life of the Giants' season when the physical battering ram Rolando McClain kept Rashad Jennings short of the 30, and official review overturned the initial call where the referee had awarded a 1st down.  After several looks at it, they properly ruled that McClain had held his ground and ended the game right then and there.
In many respects, McClain has been one of the main reasons the Cowboys are where they are, which properly encapsulates the long-shot nature of a 8-3 start in 2014 as told by the facts that were available in July.  Rolando, a man with such promise, appeared to be a NFL castaway and had arrived in Dallas unlikely to even make the team, except by default.
Now, a few days short of Thanksgiving, he is on the scene as a focal point of a defense that must rely on determination, grit, and battle to suffice as their principle calling cards with players flying to the ball and fighting for every last inch.  They are a flawed defense that appeared to look rather feeble at times last night, but once momentum was reversed with a few sacks and a huge Barry Church interception (Eli will throw you one, can you catch it?) the defense stood tall when the game needed one more play.
Now, at 8-3, they have to recover quickly to stand up to the division champs from Philadelphia.  That team needs no advanced hype as the media has been handling that department with over-the-top adoration ever since Chip Kelly was hired.  It will be up to the Cowboys to protect their home turf with the entire football world locked in on Thanksgiving Day.
At 8-3, they have a chance to do something no other Jason Garrett team has done - they can push their way right into the playoffs and require no assistance or favors.  They can physically smash their way in with just a few more wins, provided Philadelphia is one of their victims.
Thursday requires no hype.  We haven't seen the Cowboys in this spot in quite a while.  This week, they can prove to any doubting observers their heavyweight contender status.
It is all right there in front of them.

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