Brett Favre played the sniper Sunday, and knocked out the Cowboys' season. Never one to avoid challenging a secondary, he took on the Dallas secondary, taking 50/50 shots and 50/50 chances to whichever team wanted the ball. He assumed his guys would get the better of the challenges.
Favre was right.
He threw his first tossup on Minnesota's second series, ignoring an Anthony Spencer rush in his face while arching a pass towards a well covered Sidney Rice up the right sideline. Gerald Sensabaugh never saw Favre's pass, but he almost certainly heard it. The ball almost grazed his left earhole as it dropped over his left shoulder. Had Sensabaugh turned around, he might have picked off the pass. Had he reached out when Rice reached for the ball, he might batted the ball incomplete. The Cowboy did neither. Rice snagged the ball right from under Sensabaugh's nose. This time, unfortunately, the saying was literally true.
Minnesota executed the tight play. They would all day. Favre, in particular, made the contested play. He pump faked an onrushing Marcus Spears to convert the Vikings second touchdown. The fake got Spears up and Favre under him. The old man again found Rice, who released very late after motioning inside and cutting a linebacker. The original call was a bootleg pass and Dallas had Favre's primary doubled. They left the prone Rice free and the creative Favre located him.
Minnesota's sharpness contrasted with a Dallas offense which again moved well in the first quarter but could not find points. This was the offensive theme of 2009, as Jason Garrett's guys finished 2nd in yards but just 14th in points scored. The furious Vikings rush offered a painful reminder of why this disparity occured. Minnesota's front four, most notably left end Ray Edwards, won their passing downs matchups with their Cowboys counterparts. Edwards made the returning Marc Colombo look sluggish, beating him on loops and edge rushes all day. Inside, coordinator Leslie Frazier kept the interior three off balance with twists.
Dallas still managed to get the faster start, on a game play which called for lots of three step drops and quick throws and runs to the edges. Romo drove the team to the Vikings pre-red zone on Dallas' first two possessions, but each time a sack or botched snap thwarted the drive. Edwards stripped Romo on the opening drive and Shaun Suisham, who appears to have been infected by the same alien which overtook Nick Folk, pulled a 47 yard attempt wide.
Dallas managed its best drive of the day after Favre's first bomb to Rice, driving to the Vikings 8. Here, another Edwards sack forced them to settle for three. At this point, Dallas has the option of replacing the overmatched Colombo with Doug Free, who displayed the feet necessary to push Edwards past the edge. That option evaporated when Flozell Adams injured a calf and had to leave the game. Free moved to the left tackle and Dallas had no more line options to play.
The defense continued to play hard in the middle quarters, twice stopping the Vikings after Cowboys turnovers inside the red zone. The game slowed at that point, as the offense could not sustain the protection to let Romo look down field and the Vikings were content to run heavily to drain the clock. Minnesota went back to deep ball in the final minutes, knowing Dallas was selling out against the run. Favre and Rice beat Mike Jenkins on another deep ball early in the fourth which strongly resembled the first. Favre's execution was superb, and it let him play the executioner to Dallas' playoff run.
-- If you felt like you've seen this movie before, you have. The '91 Cowboys raised the fan nation's mood by beating the Bears in the wild card round. It was Dallas first playoff win in eight years. The following week, they were throttled 38-6 by Detroit. Barry Sanders made a winding run in the 4th which capped off a humiliating afternoon. That team, like this one, had a vulnerable unit which was exposed at playoff time. In '91 the secondary was sub-par.
Today, the offensive line again came up short. Look at Dallas' losses this year and you see a motif -- the line was overmatched in some way. It gave up five sacks to the Broncos, on a day when Dallas scored just 10 points. It gave up another 5 sacks to Green Bay. Dallas scored just seven in that contest. The line could not generate a running game in Giants II: Dallas gained just 45 yards on 23 rushes in that game. Against the Chargers, it could not convert 2nd and goal from the one.
Today, the line created some running room to the edges but got Romo sacked six times and hit numerous other plays. When Dallas was in third and short, Jason Garrett made no pretense of trying to run. He called successful passes on Dallas first two 3rd-and-short situations. On the second, a 3rd-and-1, Dallas went straight to the shotgun and didn't even try a play action fake.
I think Garrett and Hudson Houck got the maximum out of this bunch, but their best wasn't good enough. Today, it wasn't close. The line will need youth and depth if the Cowboys want to build on this year.
-- 2009 was a lost year for kickoff returns. Kevin Ogletree didn't show any more than Felix Jones. On his second return, Ogletree ran away from his blocking, in a futile attempt to make a play. In fairness, neither returner had any room. This was always the case, against good coverage teams like the Eagles, and one which struggled, like Minnesota's.
-- The defensive game plan was not bad. Minnesota never generated a running game. Adrian Peterson averaged 2.4 yards a carry. They put the game on Favre's shoulders. But Favre, as I pointed out, got the 50/50 plays 100 percent of the time. When you do it that often, there's no luck involved. You're simply on.
-- I'll need to watch again, but Doug Free looked okay against Jared Allen in the 2nd half. Dallas needed to clone him and play him on both sides today.
-- Nice knowing you, Shaun Suisham. Good luck at your next stop. He proved just as bad as Nick Folk in the 40-49 range. The two combined to go 7 of 16 from that distance.
-- I've been very wrong before on coaching changes in Dallas, but I'll be surprised if any major changes are made. Jerry Jones let Wade Phillips make the changes he thought were necessary and almost every one bore fruit. The locker room cleanout improved the team. Adding DeCamillis to replace Bruce Read helped. The free agents, many of them Wade veterans -- Olshansky, Brooking -- worked splendidly.
This team has a chance for continuity and that seems the recipe it needs. More on this later in the week.