Split Decision: Cowboys 16, Chargers 14

Boxing buffs will tell you that the best fights pit rivals with different styles.   Matchups of two heavy punchers frequently produce quick, bloody bouts.  Two boxers can shadow each other round after round, producing too few flurries.

Saturday's Chargers - Cowboys game presented two contrasting styles.  Norv Turner's offense worked the old '90s Cowboys playbook.  He ran the quick slants, the deep 18 yard in, the quick outs and a blizzard of quick screens to all his backs, all the time shuffling in off-tackle runs and tosses to new running back toy Ryan Mathews, who looks like a more than able replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson.  

Quarterback Philip Rivers was his accurate, quick self, frustrating a decent Dallas rush with last instant releases that converted 3rd down plays and kept his Chargers offense on the field.

The Cowboys were able to withstand the steady barrage of jabs because their defense landed two haymakers, which knocked out two long Chargers drives.  Terence Newman scored the first knockdown when he intercepted Rivers on the Dallas eleven.  Late in the half, Bradie James stopped a 13 play Chargers drive when he literally punched the ball from running back Darren Sproles' grasp.  Backup strong safety Barry Church picked up the fumble and meandered his way up the Cowboys sideline, before Rivers tackled him at the San Diego 8.

Here, Tony Romo connected with Miles Austin on a stop-fade in the short right corner of the end zone, beating Quentin Jammer and tying the game 7-7 with two minutes left in the half. 

The conversion gave the Dallas offense, which had just eight minutes of first-half possession, a successful end to a sputtering half.  The patchwork line did a decent job, with backup guard Montrae Holland and tackle Robert Brewster holding their lanes.  Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett devised a game plan which helped them, calling three-step drop passes for nearly all of Romo's first half passes.

The drives sputtered because Romo and his veteran receivers lacked sharpness and coordination.  Romo had Roy Williams open for an eleven yard out on Dallas opening drive and sailed the the pass out of Williams' reach.

Miles Austin and Romo mis-communicated on a 3rd down pass on the next drive.  The third drive lasted just three plays with two of them being an incompletion due to a Williams' slip and an Austin drop of a sprint-out pass on 3rd and one.  

Jason Witten added to the sloppy skill position night when he dropped a short Romo pass on the play prior to Austin's touchdown grab.  

The offensive line did contribute to Tony Romo's pick, which matched Rivers' miscue and put San Diego on a short field.  On a 3rd and 6 from the Dallas 26, the Chargers ran an overload blitz at the right side of Dallas' line.  The end and outside linebacker to Romo's right crashed down while inside linebacker Stephen Cooper looped into the B gap wide of left guard Leonard Davis.  Davis lost Cooper, who charged directly into Romo's face.  Romo threw for Austin while bailing out and his rushed toss was intercepted by safety Eric Weddle at the Dallas 40.  

The Chargers offense had been very efficient on its opening drive and this time it completed the project.  Keith Brooking broke up a 3rd down pass for Antonio Gates, but San Diego tried on 4th and 5 and converted when Gates gained seven against Church, who replaced the injured Gerald Sensabaugh two plays prior.  Sensabaugh dove for Mathews on a Chargers sweep and landed with his arm extended.  Sideline reports said Sensabaugh's shoulder popped out of joint.  The shoulder popped back into place and stadium x-rays were negative, but he will likely get an MRI to give a more precise assessment of the injury.

A Mathews quick screen gained 12 and three runs moved the Chargers to a first and goal at the Dallas one.  The defense stuffed the Chargers twice before Rivers broke the end-zone plane on a 3rd down sneak.

The second half saw the second units trading blows.  The Chargers scored first after Billy Volek found Seyi Ajirotutu behind Cletis Gordon and Danny McCray, who mixed up their coverage.  The bomb set up the Chargers inside the Cowboys five and they scored shortly after.

Jon Kitna led a 63 yard touchdown drive in the 4th quarter, relying on Martellus Bennett and Sam Hurd.  Bennett converted two third downs and then pinballed between two Chargers defenders on his way to the end zone.

Dallas grabbed the lead when Victor Butler stripped the ball from the Chargers QB Jonathan Crompton.  The ball rolled into the end zone, where a Chargers lineman recovered it, giving Dallas a safety. 

Notes:

-- Keith Brooking claimed his injury was a "mild AC sprain.  If this was the regular season I would put a pad on it and roll."

-- Norv turner gave Dallas plenty of screen practice.  He called four in the first half, by my count and at least six in the game. 

-- They make the exceptional ordinary.  Cletis Gordon made a one-handed interception in the 4th quarter.  As I mentioned several times in my San Antonio reports, the corners practiced this type of catch almost everyday.  

-- Martellus Bennett blocked everything put in front of him.  The big first half running play was a nine-yard toss left to Marion Barber.  Bennett shoved the San Diego DE inside, while Doug Free pulled wide and rolled a linebacker.  Bennett had other strong blocks and caught four passes, the last a game-tying 4th quarter snag.  

--  Sean Lee entered the game early after Keith Brooking hurt a shoulder.  Lee showed the ballyhooed instincts.  He made or assisted on the tackle on four of his first five plays.   When the Chargers were trying to come back late in the 4th quarter, Lee blew up the 3rd down play by flying in off the right end to trip the running back for no gain.  On 4th-and-1, Lee stuffed the fullback in the hole and stopped the runner cold.  

-- Barry Church looked fearless attacking runs in the box.  I'd like to see more of him in coverage.  

-- Robert Brewster got help with short drops but kept Tony Romo clean.  He again played the first half at right tackle and the second half at left tackle.  

-- Rough night at the office for Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, who had trouble hanging onto his early returns.  He had a long 4th quarter return nullified by a block in the back.  More of the latter, Mr. OA.

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