I am more enthusiastic about the Cowboys chances after watching the tape. Some highlights that got lost in the shuffle.
-- Dallas, aside from those three teeth-gnashing plays at the goal line, ran the ball well all day. The opening drive had only two short completions. Dallas threw only two passes the entire fourth quarter.
-- The game was an early '90s Parcells special. Hog the ball early, get a lead, take the life out of the other team and shorten the game. The first drive was fourteen plays and 8:02 long. The second drive was stopped by a Julius Jones fumble. The third drive was 13 plays and 6:43 long.
-- The right side of the line was more effective running the ball than the left. Dallas made good work of a strange version of a power sweep right in which RG Marco Rivera and center Al Johnson pull. The more familiar version of this sweep has both guards pulling, but Johnson must be better at pulling wide than Allen at this point.
-- Dallas was quite good in running the ball in from the five and six. It was goal line plays -- and third and ones -- that give the o-line trouble. Sean Payton is calling Drew Bledsoe's number a lot in those situations and he's getting the job done.
-- Torrin Tucker got a lot less help on passes this past week than he did in the Cardinals and Eagles games. He handled his man effectively.
-- The defense recovered from some sloppy tackling on the opening drive to shut Detroit down. The Lions had only one sustained drive the afternoon, and made only two plays of any significance, both on that drive. Kevin Jones faked out Scott Fujita on a pass in the flat and escaped for 28 yards. Later, Roy Williams split the Cowboys' safeties and caught a 30 yard pass.
The run defense, with a few exceptions, was solid. Fujita and Demarcus Ware both got caught inside on early runs Jones broke wide. This should not have happened because Dallas was playing a 4-3 with the OLBs set wide on the line of scrimmage; it was in effect a 6-1, the type of 4-3 lineup NFL defenses used to play in the '50s and '60s. To their credit, both linebackers improved as the game progressed. Detroit did nothing on the ground in the second half. Kevin Burnett did sneak into a couple of series in the second half to spell Fujita. He didn't make any plays of note, but may get more time this week, especially if Fujita bites too hard on bootleg plays, something he did against Donovan McNabb two games ago.
-- The rush was not as bad as we panic mongers screamed in the gameday threads. I expected Dallas to blitz and Mike Zimmer held off for the most part. That accounts for my harsh words about the rush. LaRoi Glover had a strong game and got a consistent inside push. When Dallas did blitz, Roy Williams drew a couple of holding penalties.
It was not a perfect game, but if Dallas had gotten that last yard and gone up 14-0 there was the real chance of seeing a shutout. Detroit got eight possessions in the game and penetrated the Cowboys' 30 just once. The offense had its most conservative game plan of the year and still had grinding drives in all four quarters, finishing with over 36 minutes in possession time. When passes were called, Cowboys receivers got open.
So why did this game look so sleepy?
I think there were two reasons. The first was Bledsoe's lack of accuracy. He missed a wide open Witten on a throwback screen in the first quarter. Witten would have scored on the play. On Dallas' final first half drive Peerless Price snuck behind the Lions' secondary, but Bledsoe missed him. He also missed on a couple of stop fades to Keyshawn Johnson that have been automatic all year. The lack of a passing rhythm forced three punts in the middle of the game and broke the momentum Dallas built in the first 23 minutes of the game. I would be surprised if Bledsoe missed open receivers like this again this week. He's had some shorthop throws in every game, but his accuracy has been a strength.
Preening referee Ed Hochuli and his crew were the second and in my opinion the larger reason the game deteriorated. "Ed Hercules" and his boys went flag crazy. Detroit did commit a silly number of false starts but the zebras also called illegal contact to an insane extent. Consequently, the game was stopped a number of times for no reason. Dallas benefitted from a phantom roughing call on its second scoring drive. On the other hand, the Cowboys' third drive stalled when Torrin Tucker was called for holding on a play where he didn't touch anybody.
The signature play of this yawner came in the third quarter when the officials called offsetting personal fouls on a play when Roy Williams gave Joey Harrington a tepid shove. Lion Marcus Pollard drew the second flag when he tossed the ball to a sideline official. The official missed the ball and drew his handkerchief when the ball hit his face. Fox announcer Tony Saragusa rightly yelled, "you can't flag a guy because you can't catch." Neither player should have been penalized.
What's worse, Hockuli's crew had a habit of meeting and discussing every infraction for at least half a minute before making a call. As a result a game that should have ended in about 2:45 topped the three hour mark.
On the whole, however, the game plan offers encouragement for the short week. Thanksgiving Day games are sloppier than most because the teams have less time to prepare game plans and to let their bodies recover from Sunday's games. The team that has fewer moving parts on its offensive and defensive machines usually wins. A couple of weeks ago I would have said this fact favored Denver. Now that I've seen the stripped-down Cowboys control a game, admittedly against a mediocre team, I feel much better about their chances.