Football games usually turn on a handful of close plays. Today's Cowboys-Broncos game was tighter than most, and several key plays literally slid between Dallas' hands, as Denver made a huge pass-and-run in the final three minutes and made a defensive stop inside their own five in the final ten seconds to secure a 17-10 win over Dallas.
The Cowboys faced a Denver defense that, as anticipated, played a pass-first game. They kept both safeties back in deep halves, taking away deep routes to the wide receivers and deep seams to the tight ends. Mike Nolan mixed some blitzes into his coverage blend, and Jason Garrett's two big pass plays of the first quarter came when he anticipated Denver blitzes and called quick screens to Marion Barber and Tashard Choice. The first, to Barber, broke up the left sideline for 27 yards and got Dallas off to a 3-0 lead.
The second came on the subsquent Dallas drive where Choice broke a tackle and raced up Denver's left flank for 28 yards. That drive culminated in a Barber one yard drive which gave Dallas a 10-0 lead.
Denver got back into the game early in the second on a Cowboys third down pass. Dallas went to an empty set for one of the few times in the game, with no back or tight end to assist the line. Denver called a corner blitz off the left slot, sending Renaldo Hill from Tony Romo's back side. The game was who got to the ball first. Romo's initial target was covered and Hill stripped him while he searched in vain for a second. A Broncos lineman recovered the ball and Kyle Kosier's tackle kept the Broncos out of the end zone, but at the Dallas nine.
On the next play, Broncos QB Kyle Orton threw a flare in the right flat for Knowshon Moreno, who was well covered by Anthony Spencer. Spencer jumped the route and looked to have clear sailing down the Denver sideline -- had he caught the ball. Orton's pass went right though his hands and was caught by Moreno, who somersaulted over Terence Newman for a touchdown. What could have been a turnover volley on consecutive plays instead cut Dallas' lead to 10-7.
A second turning point came at the start of the second half. Demarcus Ware knocked the ball from Moreno's hands on Denver's opening play from scrimmage and the Cowboys recovered near the Denver 30. Four plays later, Dallas faced 3rd-and-11 from the Broncos 17.
Here, Jason Garrett called a play he had run successfully in the first half. On Dallas' touchdown drive, Romo had converted a 3rd-and-long inside the red zone with a deep comeback right to Roy Williams, who ran LCB Champ Bailey off, snagged Romo's dart, then tapped both feet in bounds at the Denver three.
The play call was again the same, a comeback to the right sideline at Bailey. This time, the target was Miles Austin. Romo took his drop and threw to the spot on the right sideline. Only Austin didn't make the break. He squatted at the top of his pattern. Bailey, who had again been run back, recovered to make a diving sideline pick at his six.
Dallas had muffed their first half chance to erase their turnover. Here, Austin's confused route let Denver wipe out theirs, and keep the score at 10-7.
The third key whiff occured just after the two minute warning. Orton stood in the face of a Dallas blitz and threw a fade up the right sideline to Brandon Marshall. The ball was underthrown and Newman broke back and underneath Marshall. For an instant he appeared to have the pass lined up for a pick, but the ball went just over his reach into Marshall's hand. Newman then knocked out a Dallas safety while trying to track Marshall down. Marshall zig-zagged through the secondary into the end zone for the game's final score.
There was still time for one more opportunity and disappointment. Romo made one of his Houdini plays, converting a 4th-and-4 where he scrambled left out of the pocket and floated a pass to Sam Hurd, who made a lunging catch and run to the Denver 20. Romo made one more first down, hitting Hurd on the same comeback in front of Bailey at the Denver 8 with 29 seconds left.
A short pass to Patrick Crayton moved the ball to the three but forced the time-out deprived Romo to spike the ball, giving him two more shots into the end zone. Both were clear out passes to Hurd on Bailey over the middle. Both were close, but both were knocked away. Close doesn't count in football and Denver took the win.
-- The value of Felix Jones was here for all to see, all afternoon. The Cowboys could grind with Barber and Choice, but their big gains were for 6, 7 and 11 yards. When the screens went to the edges, they were good for 27 and 28, but the lightning bolt was missing from the run arsenal. Denver was comfortable to keep its safeties deep and let the front seven handle the run, which it did with very well the final 40 minutes of the game.
The offense started to look like this last year after Felix went down in Arizona. Good thing he'll be back soon. Teams are going to play deep coverage until he returns, and the running game forces them closer to the line of scrimmage.
-- Sam Hurd was the right man on 4th-and-4, but the team really missed Roy Williams, whom Hurd replaced, down at the goal line. Williams was knocked from the game half way through the 4th when a deep dropping D.J. Williams popped Roy in the midsection. The initial view suggested the Dallas Williams had the wind knocked from him but he left the game after another catch over the middle, suggesting something more serious, like a rib injury.
The last two plays were jump ball situations, especially the 3rd-and-goal play, where Dallas' patterns created a huge void in the middle of the field where Hurd and Bailey went one-on-one. Dallas needed a big target to box out and snag the ball. He happened to be on the sideline, wincing.
-- The Marshall catch and run wiped out a big day by the secondary, which had recognized and denied every one of Denver's deep shots. Mike Jenkins in particular had a strong afternoon on the right corner. The defense needs to emphasize the positives from this game. The Dallas rush was the best of the year. It sacked Orton three times and pressured him into several other misfires. Denver's line is top notch, so there's hope the pass rush will continue to improve.
-- A tip of the hat to Mike Nolan's rush schemes, which broke down Dallas' protection several times.