The Dallas Cowboys went into Monday Night Football needing a win more than ever to keep their playoff hopes alive amidst the NFC with no clearcut dominating teams. The New York Giants, lead by Eli Manning needed a strong conference win to stay competitive with the Eagles and above a Redskin team that has been winning games lately. With the reputations of Tony Romo, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett plummeting amongst fair-weather fans, a win would have started the process of silencing the naysayers and getting a train-wreck of a season back on track.
The game started promising enough for Dallas fans. Eli Manning threw two interceptions on consecutive possessions that allowed Tony Romo to throw a quick 4 yard strike to Jason Witten for a touchdown and David Buehler to tack on three more on a fieldgoal from 26 yards out. It took Manning a full seven minutes later to rally his offense to the endzone by hitting Hakeem Nicks from seven yards out. Dallas started to put the game away with another fieldgoal early in the second and then a momentum changing 93 yard punt return by Dez Bryant to put Dallas up 20-7.
It looked early on that Dallas was firing on all cylinders. The special teams were tackling and blocking, the defense had started to create turnovers, the pass attack was stopping Eli from hitting receivers and the D-line had stopped Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs early allowing only negligable gains. All that came to a crashing halt when Tony Romo was hit by Giants linebacker Michael Boley and broke his left collarbone. With that injury, the Cowboys revealed that Romo would be out for eight weeks and possibly until the end of the season.
Post Funeral Highlights
What happened afterwards was nothing short of a comedy of errors and judgement. Mike Jenkins continued his streak of pass interference penalties by amassing his 5th in three games. Dallas' pass defense all but quit playing as Eli Manning racked up 17 unanswered points before the end of the half. Steve Smith caught fire and the Dallas defensive line became a complete non-factor allowing both Jacobs AND Bradshaw to rush for 201 combined yards.
To open the third quarter, Jon Kitna, touted by the Cowboys as the best backup quarterback in the league, followed a puritanically conservative offensive playbook. He was limited to dink-and-dunk passing even when the Cowboys needed significant yardage for third down conversions. The Cowboys receiving corps started dropping passes a la the Terrell Owens days, and when that wasn't happening, Jason Garrett was calling low percentage out routes to Kitna's left side. Kitna proved throughout the rest of the game that throwing to his left was a challenge he wasn't up to.
On defense, the line lead by Demarcus Ware was completely absent until it was too late in the fourth quarter. After the initial Giant's possessions in the first quarter, the line was unable to even contain the run. Wade Phillips' defensive unit also got schooled in man on man situations, especially in the open field. The Cowboy's secondary gave up huge chunks of yardage by allowing underneath routes AND THEN following it up with poor tackling. As Bradshaw and Jacobs exposed the gaps in the D-Line, the secondary was forced to move around in zone coverage in order to be better prepared for having to tackle New York's backs. The Giant's game plan of smashmouth running opened Eli's passing routes back up and Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks had a field day. To put icing on the cake, Manning's trip sets blew the doors off of Dallas' cover two package and forced the Cowboys into more of a disguised prevent defense. They still failed to contain large yardage plays.
What Seemed to be the Problem?
Despite the fact that the wind was taken out of the sails of Dallas' momentum right before halftime, there was more to bother fans than just the potential loss of Tony Romo for the season. The Cowboys were burnt on time of possession, only holding onto the ball for a total of 22:29. The running game split between Barber and Jones once again proved entirely ineffective behind a crumpling offensive line, and without the run Dallas once again became one-dimensional chasing points for the rest of the game. Dallas was a horrendous 0-10 on third down conversions. Then, late in the game they made some spectacularly awful game gambles to try to make up the difference. They started playing out of desperation instead of confidence.
We may never be sure what Garrett and Phillips were thinking going for a 4th and Goal from seven yards out when Kitna had proven unable to complete any effective passes outside 5 yards. They called for fade routes to Kitna's left. That combined with the pass rush that Dallas' rusty backup quarterback wasn't used to caused him to unload rockets that sailed out of the endzone past receivers who weren't even finished their routes. Later, towards the end, the coaching duo gambled on an unnecessary two point conversion that they only got due to a Giant's holding call that allowed a do-over.
Jon Kitna, who hadn't even touched a football in a regular game last season behind Romo was rusty and it showed. He spent too long in the pocket checking down receivers while the New York pass rush was able to badger him. The defensive unit all but quit playing until the very end of the game when Demarcus Ware suddenly clocked his 9th sack and forced a fumble. After Romo went down, the Cowboys seemed resigned to a losing season and got beaten to death.
Give Credit Where it's Due
Eli Manning, despite his turnovers was able to generate an offense that clobbered the Cowboys for nearly 500 yards. The Giants created pressure on Kitna forcing him to throw the ball away from intended receivers. New York also snuffed out Dallas' running game early forcing the Boys to gun from behind after the half and for the rest of the game. The Giant's offensive line was a stone wall that completely silenced the Cowboys and allowed Eli to sit for hours in the pocket waiting for plays to develop. When the secondary broke down, Manning was able to exploit their positioning and gun for over 300 yards.
On the Cowboys side, Dez Bryant showed all the heart in the world. Otherwise, the punter gave a stunning performance as Dallas' inability to convert third downs allowed him plenty of practice. The special teams corrected their poor performance from last week and the penalties were cut in half, but questionable coaching, out of position players and the loss of Tony Romo guaranteed defeat to a Giants team that played completely out of their league.
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