Dallas Cowboys, Giant-Killers, and Team-Defining Games

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Here it comes. Cowboys versus Giants. The first game of a rivalry likely to determine the Cowboys' 2011 playoff fate. There are games during the course of a season that inevitably define a team's character and significantly impact the season. The latter is certain for the Cowboys on Sunday night, the likelihood of a playoff berth severely altered by the outcome of the primetime game. But the former could ultimately be the most significant factor to the team's future.

Obviously, "You play to win the game."

But it is also said that "Win or lose, it's how you play the game."

In this case, win or lose, the Cowboys seem in desperate need of a team-defining game to inspire their play during the month of December. A schizophrenic team with shifts from dominant to desperate in the blink of a halftime, Dallas could really use a more consistent, self-aware mentality during (and after) the playoff hunt. An inspired battle for four quarters of solid performances versus a tough opponent that ultimately leads to defeat could mean more for this team than a last-minute victory with a night of sloppy play rewarded only by the Giants total dysfunction. Which team appears Sunday night could reveal more about the future of the 2011 season than even the resulting record and position in the standings.

If the Cowboys can win this vital contest at home versus a division rival, the team will have a higher likelihood of getting into the playoffs. But how they win (or lose) could define the fate of the team during the playoffs.

Let's take a closer look at a statistical comparison of the upcoming matchup and those aspects of the team that would be welcome additions in the defining of the 2011 Cowboys.

On paper, the Cowboys should be able to beat the Giants. While there are some striking areas of concern, there are many more promising advantages for Dallas.

OFF Points Total Yards Pass Yards Pass Avg Rush Yards Rush Avg Sacks 3rd Dn % INT Fum Lost
DAL 13th 7th 4th 8th 14th 8th 14th 15th 13th 15th
NYG 11th 9th 7th 3rd 32nd 32nd 5th 17th 13th 24th

DEF Points Total Yards Pass Yards Pass Avg Rush Yards Rush Avg Sacks 3rd Dn % INT Fum Rcvd
DAL 10th 11th 14th 16th 9th 15th 2nd 17th 11th 8th
NYG 28th 29th 27th 23rd 23rd 24th 5th 18th 9th 8th

Both teams have potent offenses which on average rank as tenth best in the league in total yards and points. However, while their passing rankings are comparable, their rushing offenses are not. Surprisingly, it's not the Cowboys found lacking when comparing ground games. It's actually the Giants that are uncharacteristically ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing yards and average, with the Cowboys maintaining respectable rushing rankings. And while the two teams are also comparable in third-down conversion percentage and interceptions, there are two other stark differences that could prove crucial.

Like their rushing attack, the Cowboys also appear to be significantly better than the Giants at minimizing changes of possession due to fumbles. In a division rivalry that promises tough contests and usually includes some hard-hitting, one lost fumble could make the difference. But the most catalytic difference between the two offenses could be their pass protection. While comparing only sacks allowed is not the most precise method of ranking offensive-lines, it is certainly an important statistic to note when the Giants and Cowboys clash...especially considering their 2011 defenses.

Defensively, the two teams are most impressive with their ability to pressure quarterbacks. Both teams rank in the top five in the league in total sacks. In what doesn't appear to be simple coincidence, they also rank similarly in stopping third-down conversions and forcing interceptions and recovering fumbles. But while both teams appear to rely on a potent pass-rush to spearhead their defense, the similarities end there.

Statistically, the Cowboys defense is much stronger. New York ranks near the bottom of the league in points and yards allowed, apparently as inadequate in stopping the run as they are in pass coverage. On the other hand, Dallas ranks as the tenth best defense in points and yards allowed. Most of the statistical cross-comparisons favor the Cowboys. Dallas has a defense apparently much more capable of stopping the Giants potent passing attack while New York seems ill-prepared to stop Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Laurent Robinson (not to mention the return of Miles Austin) if Tony Romo has time to hit his targets. The game could then get out of hand if DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones also have the success the stats suggest.

However, a nagging worry remains. With both defenses defined by their ability to rush the passer, can the Giants better ranked pass protection prove to be the upset maker?

There is good news. The sack difference is far less than the rankings indicate. The Giants have managed to allow only 21 sacks and the Cowboys young offensive-line has allowed 25. Both Eli Manning and Tony Romo are adept at escaping pressure, so perhaps the considerable difference on the rankings board really isn't as big a factor as it first appears. Still, it is one place where the game could be decided, and one place the Cowboys could use the rise of a few Giant-Killers this Sunday night.

Odin, Thor, and Asgard Attack The Frost Giants

The myths of Norse Gods include the famous war between the Gods and Heroes of Asgard and the Frost Giants. Odin and Thor had to protect their planet and people from the impending threat and thus took the battle to the Giants. Similarly, The Cowboys defense's best hope of stopping the Giants is to attack with their front-seven. New York has a dangerous passing game. Eli Manning is at his career best. Hakeem Nicks can fight for the ball as he jumps over defenders and Victor Cruz combines good route-running with speed; the two providing Eli a dangerous receiving duo. The Cowboys secondary has played admirably in many games, but too often the coverage fails at inopportune times. The best chance Dallas has to slow down the Giants potent passing attack will be to support their average coverage with a dynamic pass rush.

The Giants offensive-line is not the dominant force of the past. Though Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have both suffered injuries this season, both are back and the worst rushing offense in the league will likely be more dangerous than their current rankings. The big guys also seem to thrive on helping Eli stay clean in the pocket and average long completions through the air. If the Cowboys front-seven can both contain the backs while also harassing Eli with various zone-blitz packages and exotic schemes, they can force long third-downs with the cruel cycle of pressure only intensifying. If DeMarcus Ware plays the role of Odin alongside Sean Lee as Thor (cast in hand instead of a hammer), the rest of the Asgardians near the line should continue to step up as they have done all season.

The Spartans At Thermopylae

While not combating mythical Giants like the legends of the Norsemen, Greek history reveals a tale of the Spartans that took on a giant foe in form of the Persian Empire. The second Persian invasion of the Hellenic (Greek) States was led by the largest army and fleet ever assembled in ancient times, and was met at a constricting coastal pass by a few (by comparison) Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae, "The Hot Gates." The small force included an elite Spartan unit led by their King Leonidas.

The tragic tale is a fitting metaphor for the Cowboys offensive-line. Like the Spartans who heroically slowed the momentum of an unstoppable force, an o-line in the NFL will inevitably be beaten by pass rushers. It is how they hold until that breaking point that matters. And like the Spartans, the Cowboys young o-line could be the motivating factor that drives momentum and morale while setting the tone and paving the way for the remaining forces to win the war.

Like the Persians, New York has amassed a formidable vanguard for their defensive-front with a variety of personnel and exotic schemes reaping havoc and instilling fear. Yet like the Spartans that fought off giant beasts and elite squads, the Cowboys o-line has the opportunity to face off versus the worst the Giants have to throw at them and somehow manage to slow down the onslaught. The stats clearly show New York is susceptible to both the pass and the run, with their strength based on a dominant pass-rush masking the shortcomings of the rest of the defense. If the Cowboys can open running lanes, they will be better able to keep that rush off-balance, which in turn will give Romo more time to pick apart the Giants questionable secondary.

David and Goliath

Much has been said about the public demand and unforgiving scrutiny, not to mention the pressure, that comes with being the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. This single player often has to face most, if not all, of the blame when the inquisitions seek blood. Like the biblical tale, it sometimes seems this one young man is solely responsible for the momentous task of winning the war...and sometimes gets all the fame though he does not fight alone.

David slung a stone. Tony Romo will be slinging a football. David's aim was guided by a greater force of good (God). Romo's success will rely on the force of the greater good (his teammates). But while Tony Romo will not alone defeat the New York Giants, he can be as influential as David who slew Goliath. The Giants defense can be gashed by a good passing attack and the Cowboys offense can sustain a potent passing game, but Romo should not feel like he alone must win the game. He will have to take his shots, but he will have to trust in both his blocking and his receivers. He will have to utilize the power of a balanced offense to slow down a formidable pass-rush. He will have to adjust his audibles, check-downs, and hot-routes with the same precision he will have to throw the football.

Unlike David, it is clear Tony Romo has the weapons around him to be dangerous to any Giant or defense. So, ultimately, Romo will be blamed or praised for getting the team to and through the playoffs, and in all honesty, he is the biggest key to the success of the offense. As good as the Cowboys defense can be it would still be unlikely for the Giants offense to be shut out. It will inevitably be on Tony Romo to lead the offense with the efficiency and intensity it takes for the team to win.

Parallels Between Giant-Killers and Team-Defining Performances

As I concluded this list of performances that could prove to be Giant-Killers on Sunday night, it became clear they were also the aspects of the team I most wish would be imprinted onto the Cowboys' team character. While there are obviously a lot of players covered in these three groups, I feel they are the players on this team whose consistency would prove most vital to the Cowboys franchise. The Cowboys pass-rush is clearly one of the best in the league and is currently ranked second in total sacks, but there are times in games where it seemingly vanishes. Romo has been as inconsistent in games as the team's run and pass-blocking. When the three perform well, the Cowboys are usually dominating their opponent. Unfortunately, they are not consistently dominant throughout an entire game, much less across several. If the Cowboys are to become a threat in the playoffs they will need consistent and solid play by the following units throughout the month of December. I hope it would also become that identity the team can depend on when the going gets tough; something to believe in, or as they say in Texas, a place to hang their hats.

The War is Won and Lost in the Trenches:

In 2010, the Cowboys defense ranked 16th in the league with 35 sacks. After 12 games in 2011, Dallas ranks second in the league and has equaled their sack total from a year ago. And yet, the linebackers already have one more sack than last season's total and the defensive-line has nearly 50% more sacks so far in 2011 (9) than they did in 2010 (6.5). The Cowboys front-seven has managed to keep up the pressure while still freeing up defenders in the secondary, surprisingly having tallied only two sacks by defensive-backs to date (Perhaps also due to the injury bug on defense having concentrated in the secondary this season). But if the team manages to keep the pressure up throughout the entirety of the game, their average pass defense can not only be protected, but could even prosper.

The Yuglies are working through the growing pains of a newly constructed unit and providing the Cowboys offense with plenty of reasons to hope for a bright future. Specifically for the playoff run, the good news is that the Cowboys will face only 4-3 defenses for the remainder of the regular season and on average have allowed twice as many sacks against 3-4 defenses this season.

Murray and Felix have both seemed dangerous at times this year and Romo has certainly thrown the ball downfield far more than last year. There are already remarkable improvements from the offensive-line play that "graced" Dallas the past few Decembers. It is difficult to imagine an offense with skill players like Austin Dez, Witten, Murray, Felix, and Robinson can't win any game within reach. If the Cowboys offensive-line continues to improve and hold their own, then everything will be in place for the final piece to the puzzle.

The Elite Tony Romo:

A team's offense depends on many things. Everyone from the head coach, offensive coordinator, and even positional coaches, not to mention the players along the line and skill positions, are all involved and essential to the effectiveness of an offense. But any great beast can be slain if you take off its head, and in football that is the quarterback. Tony Romo will have to manage all the pressure, all the media scrutiny, all the fan pressure, and all the teammates' emotions, as he leads the offense during the playoff hunt. The receivers may be covered, but the quarterback should be able to throw it where only they can catch it. The o-line may get beat by a powerful pass-rush, but a quarterback should be able to evade long enough to complete a pass or throw the ball away. The coaches may call a "bad" play that the defense recognizes but the quarterback should be able to identify the fact and call an audible. The defense might blitz seven or eight defenders, but the quarterback should be able to recognize it pre-snap and check into a hot-route to beat the blitz.

Tony Romo has had his ups and downs this season, yet he is clearly playing better than most quarterbacks in the league. But as I have said before, the elite quarterback is a really good quarterback that is more consistent with his performances and believes he can always win when the game is on the line. If the Cowboys rally behind some team-defining games and begin to routinely win the battles in the trenches with a solid front-seven on defense and an unyielding o-line, then perhaps they can also get to the point where they always believe there is hope as long as Tony Romo has a chance for a game-winning drive. It would help lead Dallas to a victory over the hated Giants, and is also my dream vision for the 2011 Cowboys. A vicious front-seven known for harassing quarterbacks and running backs alike, and an offense with a bulldozer line that punishes defenses while led by a quarterback that can both gamble to win games and make smart decisions to seal them.

What are your ideas for potential Giant-Killers and aspects of the team you would like to define the 2011 Cowboys?

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