In a game in which they scrapped and clawed to forge a 12-point fourth quarter lead, the Cowboys once again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, giving up 15 points in under six minutes and then, in a haunting repeat of last week's horrible denouement, made and then missed a last-second, difference-making field goal. Immediately after the game, NBC's smurf-on-patrol, Bob Costas, shared this sickening statistic: this season the Cowboys have squandered a lead of 12 or more points three times. In the first 50 years of the franchise's existence, the Cowboys had done that exactly twice. 2011 is certainly shaping up to be a season that will live in infamy.
Rather than pointing the blame at a single player, as is its wont, the media, strangely yet thankfully, appears to be leveling the blame across the board. Indeed, this epic collapse was a team loss in every conceivable way. To wit:
- The defense gives up two touchdowns and 15 points in the final six minutes
- The offense fails to eat up clock, with a meek three-and-out during the crucial possession between the two New York scores. The killer was an oh-so-close blitz-beating pass to Miles Austin on third down that would probably have sealed the deal.
- Two special teams gaffes help the Giants cause. The first of these was an uncharacteristically bad punt by Mat McBriar that travelled 33 yards when they needed 60; the second was the inability to block Jason Pierre-Paul on the game-tying field goal attempt.
I've said this before and I'll say it again: there are too many funny bounces in NFL games to succeed winning close contests week in and week out. In his tenure as head coach, Jason Garrett has overseen 14 games that have been decided by 4 or fewer points. The Cowboys record in such contests? 7-7. As long as they continue to play patty-cake with other teams, or their talent deficiencies prevent them from running up the score, the Cowboys will hover around .500, and we will draft with the Buffalos and Jacksonvilles of the world.
Lets take a closer look at how they edged closer to .500 after the jump...
41: Terence Newman's jersey number, one we have too often seen trailing opposing receivers at too great a distance in the past few weeks. Not only did the secondary's resident greybeard drop and early pick-six that might have changed the complexion of the game, he was the opposing offensive coordinator's target of choice for the second consecutive week. I head one Cowboys pundit opine that, due to his age, Newman (who is 33, old for a cornerback) declines late in seasons. Witnessing this is painful; number 41 had been a good to very good corner in his time in Dallas, but his age and accumulated injuries have put an end to that. In about a month, I expect the Cowboys to put him (and his hefty contract) out to pasture.
2: The safety on Romo. In the first quarter, after a nice, back-spinned boot by Giants punter Steve Weatherford put the ball on the Dallas eight, Romo faded back to pass. Feeling interior pressure, he stepped away from it, right into into New York DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who was actually being well blocked by Cowboys LT Doug Free. JPP get a paw on him and, in one of the most awkward scoring plays you'll ever see, Romo stumbled into the end zone, eventually falling down for a safety. The resulting two points ended up being a killer. Not only did the Giants take intermittent two-point leads throughout the game, but the final reckoning (there's no way the Giants would have gone for two after their final touchdown had they needed one to tie) was a direct result of the early two.
95: Sean Lissemore's number. Last week, one of our fellow BTBers wondered, in the comments section, whether Lissemore was becoming a newer version of Stephen Bowen: an unheralded guy who has worked his way into the lineup. Sure, he doesn't start, but he makes plays when he's in the game. I found this to be an apt comparison; when Jay Ratliff couldn't make it out for the start of the second half due to tightness in his back, it was Lissemore who manned the nose, and made some nice plays, with a couple of terrific stops in the backfield and a bit of pressure on the unsackable Manning.
88: Much has been made of the "real 88," a number to which both Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin can stake a claim. In this game, the best # 88 was the Giants' Hakeem Nicks, who is probably the best receiver in the division--he combines Dez Bryant's skillset with a much more disciplined approach to film study, route running, etc. After a first quarter in which Nicks caught four balls for a lofty 105 yards, Rob Ryan began to scheme to take him away--which opened up the floodgates for the likes of Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz to make hay against a mediocre and injury-depleted Dallas secondary.
141.3: Tony Romo's passer rating. For several years now, the standard media line has been that the Cowboys can't win in December because of Tony Romo. I've always thought of this as hogwash, and would like to point out his numbers from last night as exhibit A. Number nine was spectacular, and certainly played well enough to win. All night long, he moved adeptly in the pocket, avoided the rush and made plays downfield. In the final minute, he further elevated his game, twice hitting Austin on sweet crossing patterns for nice gains. Rather than Dallas not winning because of Tony Romo, how about this: Romo can't win in December because of the Cowboys.
7: The Cowboys first touchdown of the game. If you're gonna get on Jason Garrett for bad play-calling, then you gotta give him props for good calls. The Cowboys first touchdown was a terrific call. With the Giants eager to get a stop or negative play, he had Romo roll right, fake a short throw and then hit John Phillips on a tight end screen to the left. The few New York defenders on that side were each confronted by a very large, angry Dallas Cowboy and Phillips lumbered into the corner of the endzone with relative ease. Perfect call for the situation.
872: DeMarco Murray's rushing total for the season. On a second and nine play in the first quarter, Murray made a nice move to the outside and fought for first down yardage, when his ankles got caught under the Dave Tollefson's sizable backside. Later, the diagnosis came in that he had fractured his ankle, which all but guarantees that he's done for the season. A fortnight ago, it seemed that he would almost certainly do what his Hall of Fame predecessor, Emmitt Smith, was unable to accomplish (and what Tony Dorsett only just barely accomplished): rush for 1,000 yards in his rookie season
26: the yardage total on Felix Jones' first carry of the game. On the Cowboys second touchdown drive, with Murray out, Felix had three runs of ten or more yards.In an up-and-down game, he finished with a very respectable 106 yards on 16 carries, and showed wiggle and toughness all night. Its gonna be Jones' show for the rest of the season, which is a good news-bad news scenario. Good? He's more explosive than Murray, and might well do more given the same lanes Murray exploited in his better games. Bad? He's shown himself to be injury prone, so the Cowboys are one play away from the Chauncey Washington show. Definitely not must-see TV, that.
When healthy (and with a healthy Tony Fiammetta), the duo of Murray and Jones might prove formidable. Alas, there have been only a handful of plays, never complete games, in which all three were able to play. Something to look forward to in 2012, I suppose...
82: the number of Giants wideout Mario Manningham, who has been nicked up, and so was a game-time decision. Coming off the carpet, he made several big plays against the anemic Cowboys secondary. But its the play he didn't make that might have cost Dallas the game. With 1:33 left in the game, Manningham dusted (who else) Newman and, before safety Abram Elam could get over to help, Manning laid a perfect pass to him in the corner of the end zone. It landed right in Manningham's hands...and he dropped it. In retrospect, the Cowboys would have been much better off had he caught it. Consider: Dallas would have had the ball with two timeouts and 1:27 left to go.
0: the number of defenders on Mario Manningham and Dez Bryant on their respective long touchdown passes. We knew going into the game that neither team boasted a top-flight secondary, and little was done to dispel that notion. Eli Manning threw for a whopping 400 yards; Romo countered with 341 of his own. Manningham's TD spoke volumes: after a late switch, two Cowboys defenders blitzed. leaving him totally uncovered down the left sideline. More telling than the confusion that generated the easy score, however, was fact that Ryan felt he needed to blitz to generate pressure.
Recall the terrible final days of the Wade Phillips administration. Seeing that his guys weren't getting to the opposing QB, poor Wade began dialing up increasingly risky blitzes in the hope of somebody getting home (or, perhaps, inducing a mistake by the rival signal-caller). None of the blitzed got home, and he left his average secondary covering the other squad's receivers for far longer than they were capable. Fast forward a year, and we are seeing a similar mentality creep into Ryan's calls. He simple cannot generate pressure with his front four, so he's bringing the house all too often, with the devastating results you witnessed last night. Which brings us to...
0: Also the number of sacks the Cowboys amassed. Coming into the game, many prognosticators proclaimed that the team whose shaky offensive line played the best would emerge victorious. Strangely enough, both held up--although Romo was under considerably more pressure than Manning throughout. Certainly, Manning had to adjust and move in the pocket a few times, but when it counted, he had plenty of time to survey the field and make unencumbered throws. I have been saying for some time that the 2011 season would go as well as the Cowboys pass rush; my primary bone of contention was that, other than DeMarcus Ware, Dallas has no difference-makers up front. Last night, this was proved true; once Ware left the game with a recurrence of the stinger he suffered against Arizona, no other Cowboy was capable of making a play.
57, 50: Victor Butler and Sean Lee, respectively. With Ware sidelined and Giants threatening at the cusp of the red zone, Butler made a terrific play to tip an Eli Manning pass. It bounced off the intended receiver and into the hands of Sean Lee (yes, that's hands, plural; Lee no longer has his massive Q-tip cast on his left arm). Lee was engaged by New York OT David Diehl, but somehow, by some kind of absurd miracle for a reason that only the football gods comprehend, managed not only to hold onto the errant pass but to weave his way up the sideline, narrowly avoiding going out of bounds, finally taking the ball to midfield. Two plays later, the Cowboys delivered what appeared to be the dagger, with Romo finding Bryant uncovered for a 50-yard walk-in touchdown.
12:56: time left in the second quarter when Mike Jenkins hurt his arm. He did briefly re-enter the game after getting some kind of Medieval harness laced onto his shoulder, but he was reduced to nickle duty (and even that was spotty), so we soon saw the Giants picking on Orlando Scandrick ad Alan Ball out on the defense's right side. Before Jenkins' injury, Manning was 6-13 for 120 yards, so its not like he was getting shut down. But the Cowboys were playing (and Ryan was playcalling) with much more assurance. After Jenkins was dinged, Manning was 21 of 34 for 280. More importantly, there was nobody capable of shutting dow an opposing receiving threat, so Manning began to distribute the ball to all of his weapons, seemingly at will.
2:27, 1:26: The amount of time it took New York to march 80 yards (in eight plays) and 58 yards (in six plays) to take the lead after Dez Bryant's walk-in TD gave Dallas a commanding 34-22 lead with under six minutes left in the game.On those two drives, Manning was 8-11 for 123 yards. The killer? four of the passes went for 18, 21, 23 and 24 yards. Not much prevent in that defense, boys...
It was only two weeks ago that we were crowing about the Cowboys having taken control of the division race. Now, we're deep in the depths of despair. The lesson? This is a funny league, and teams fortunes change from week to week. So, we (and more importantly, the Cowboys, will have to put this in the rear view, and move on to Tampa Bay. Because two weeks form now, everything is likely to have changed again. A lot.
Let's just hope its for the better...!