The defending Super Bowl champions had won all eight games on the NFL's new Opening Night gimmick, they said. Defending champions had won their last 11 games, they said. The division rivalry had turned into a one-sided affair in recent years, they said. Well, these 2012 Dallas Cowboys weren't listening, not even a little bit.
Led by heroes known and surprising, offensive and defensive, the Cowboys opened the new season with a huge win at Met Life Stadium; taking down the New York Giants 24-17. Streak busters. Dallas has started off each of the last two seasons at 0-1; not this year.
After starting off slow, the Jason Garrett offense engineered four consecutive scoring drives spanning the second through fourth quarters. 73 yards for a touchdown to end the half, 80 yards for a touchdown to start the second half, 65 yards for a field goal to re-establish a decent lead, 82 yards for a touchdown to seal the game. To do so while shooting themselves in the foot over and over again made things even more dramatic. A few years ago, when the Cowboys were actually making playoff appearances; they did so while overcoming penalties. It appears that they will once again be capable should the problem not correct itself.
Despite a palpation-inducing 13 mind-boggling penalties, the majority of the mental variety, the Cowboys found what they were looking for on key plays throughout the game. Tony Romo started off where he left off last season (pre-injury) with a great performance on the night. He passed for 307 yards and three touchdowns against a depleted Giants secondary that for some reason didn't receive much attention pre-game from the national media. His targets? Well, everybody; including new third receiver Kevin Ogletree who had the game of his career.
Ogletree hauled in eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs; including a game-clinching 13 yarder on 3rd and 10 after a holding penalty negated a game-clinching DeMarco Murray run. The concern all offseason by Cowboys writers, bloggers and critics near and far was how were the Dallas Cowboys going to replace Laurent Robinson. Ogletree was a maddening player his first three years in the league but this is the type of game that erases those kinds of memories.
The two touchdowns were classic Cowboys plays.The first was a short 10 yarder when Romo escaped pressure and drew the linebackers up as he moved towards the line of scrimmage. His second score came on a double move down the right sideline when overmatched cornerback Corey Webster was caught peaking at the QB when Ogletree flew by him. Romo ID'd the coverage, shouted out "Kill, kill, kill", then pumped and heaved.
The Tree wasn't alone. In the first half, he was joined in the passing game by Dez Bryant chipping in 69 of his 85 yards. Dez was Romo's new security blanket, catching slants when needed. Although Jason Witten toughed it out with his recovering spleen; Romo didn't look towards his BFF as he normally does when under pressure. He wasn't needed and will get 10 more days to continue healing after avoiding any big hits.
In the second half, Miles Austin joined the fun by hauling in four catches for 73 yards and a huge touchdown catch in the fourth. The Cowboys had just let the Giants close within seven when they engineered a great clock-killing drive starting near the 12 minute mark. The drive had appeared to be fizzling when two consecutive penalties put the Cowboys in 1st and 30.
However Romo worked his usual magic and found Austin on the left sideline where he went up to make a great snag and raced to the end zone. The clock-killing, seven-minute drive was primarily built on the shoulders of DeMarco Murray, who was the feature offensive player of the second half. Including three plays negated by Cowboys penalties, they had six on that drive alone, Murray ran the rock seven times. None of those runs included what might have been the play of the day, made by Murray himself.
Under the five minute remaining mark in the third quarter and leading 14-10, Murray broke off a run that will probably end up on his season highlight reel. Caught behind the line of scrimmage, Murray went head-on into the chest of Mathias Kiwanuka who outweighed him by 50 pounds. Murray won, sending Kiwi backwards and to the ground. He then spun away from Justin Tuck, sending him to the ground before getting to the right sideline and racing past chasing Giants linebackers. The run went for 48 yards before they would bring him down. The Cowboys would only score a field goal, but it stretched their lead back to a comfortable seven points.
The Cowboys would stretch the lead to 14 on the Austin touchdown; and thanks to a defensive effort unmentioned to this point; but an equal contributor to the feel-goodness.
Dallas started the game by forcing a three and out on Eli and Company. After giving the ball right back due to Mackenzie Bernadeau stage-fright, the Giants got to rolling. The run game was going nowhere; New York struggled in this regard in 2011 and the Cowboys defense was not letting them get going in 2012. The short passing game was working however and they managed to get inside the Cowboys 30. On second and eight from the Dallas 29 however, that all changed.
Chuck Norris Sean Lee caught Giants rookie runner David Wilson, jarring the ball loose and forcing a fumble recovered by Barry Church. It might have really been a Chuck Norris hit, as Wilson was seen apparently crying on the sideline after the turnover.
The Cowboys failed to convert a fourth down on the subsequent drive, giving the ball back to the Giants at their 37. The club appeared to get a bad spot on third down, and then couldn't get a yard when it needed. This was an emphasis of the team throughout the offseason, and apparently is still a work in progress. Jermey Parnell was brought in as a blocking tight end but couldn't secure safety Antrelle Rolle, who caught the leg up fullback Lawrence Vickers before he could make the first.
The struggle for the Cowboys line was made even worse early in the game, when Phil Costa's back tightened back up and he had to be relieved by Ryan Cook; signed four days ago. Cooks unfamiliarity contributed to at least two delay of game penalties, however he was hardly the line's lone offender on the evening.
No worries, the failed fourth just gave DeMarcus Ware the opportunity to notch his 100th sack of his career (actually 100.5) when Gerald Sensabaugh flushed Eli and Ware cleaned up for a 15 yard loss. Ware would later notch his second of the game and now sits atop the NFL in sacks for the season. :)
After forcing a punt, "bad" Tony Romo surfaced at an inopportune time.
Under duress for much of the first half thanks to an offensive line that would receive the only failing grade of the game, Romo made a bad mistake. He escaped from the initial pressure but instead of continuing left where his sightlines could be restored, he let one fly over the mdidle and was picked off by LB Michael Boley. Boley weaved through traffic and appeared to be ready to score a Pick Six when LT Tyron Smith horse-collared him out of bounds at the 2 yard line.
But here came Rob Ryan's defense again. They shut down the Giants running game once more; stuffing two consecutive runs and pushing them back to the five. A third-down questionable non-PI call on Scandrick forced the Giants into a field goal attempt and only a 3-0 lead; virtually killing the momentum from the pick. A uber-exited Rob Ryan was caught on the sideline jubilated; daring the Giants offensive coordinator to go for it on fourth down.
That would be the biggest stand of the game, but not the only one. A Jason Hatcher sack ended a Giants drive to start the fourth quarter. Anthony Spencer (seven tackles, one TFL) made several huge plays and got pressure on multiple occasions; but he didn't register a sack so we aren't allowed to give him any accolades whatsoever.
Sean Lee made play after play, notching 12 tackles and was joined by new inside linebacker Bruce Carter; a second-year player that quietly should be a huge boost to the D. Carter contributed five tackles of his own.
The defensive front was able to harass Eli Manning thanks to wonderful coverage by the "new" Dallas secondary. Brandon Carr was everything Cowboys fans wanted him to be save for one deep bomb where he badly mistimed his jump and allowed a big completion. Other than that, he was locking down receivers and breaking up passes. Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys first round rookie, was not intimated by the situation at all. The Cowboys secondary limited the vaunted Giants passing attack to just 187 yards in the air. I'd make a 187 joke here, but I might have killed the opportunity.
In general, the Cowboys capitalized on the keys of the game that only a few were talking about. The Giants defense line, harassing Romo throughout the first half of the game; gave way in the second half. While every show was focusing on the Cowboys injuries, they barely mentioned how much the Giants prowess was dependent on shuffling players in and out of their defensive line. Sidelined for the game were Chris Canty, Marvin Austin and Shaun Rogers, leaving the Giants extremely limited in moving guys around. Nascar lost a couple wheels.
The other focus that nobody wanted to talk about was the Giants secondary. Due to injuries to Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamura, the Giants were starting Michael Coe and Corey Webster. Here's what I wrote in my game preview:
The current Giants cornerbacks might be the worst in the league. Gone is Aaron Ross, who joined Laurent Robinson in Jacksonville, which wasn't that much of a loss. Injured is savior Terrell Thomas, who was put on IR this year. Last year's first round pick, CB Prince Amukamara is out. They were bad last year and are without their top two. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant versus Corey Webster and Michael Coe? The '11 Giants D struggled the most against 21 personnel, which we'll see a lot of with the addition of FB Lawrence Vickers. Dallas will be running plenty of max protect to keep the Giants DL group off of Romo, but both Cowboys wideouts can win one-on-one and double-teams enough to keep the points coming.
Things just got worse when Michael Coe pulled his hamstring in the second half and was replaced by Justin Tryon.
While the offensive line wasn't great, they did enough to defeat what was widely regarded as the best defensive line in the game. While they were short-handed, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyoira and Mathias Kiwanuka all played. None of them registered a sack in the game.
Even the special teams contributed. Coverage units played well, Chris Jones pinned the Giants inside their 20 on his punts and Dan "Split'Em" Bailey is still Dan "Split'Em" Bailey. Not much action in the return game, but you can't have everything, can you?
Of course, one would be silly to jump to conclusions after just one game. There is plenty of work to do but this is exactly how you get dressed and walk out the door in the morning. Speaking of mornings, I saw Steve Wyche predict the Cowboys to end up dead last in the NFC East this year on "NFL AM" on NFL Network. I wonder what he'll have to say tomorrow?
Here's what I tweeted an hour before the game.
Dallas in a solid position. So many expect them to lose, but a win catapults the expectations for their season. All there for the taking.— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) September 5, 2012