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Cowboys @ Giants: The Day After, By The Numbers

A numerological look back at the Cowboys nail-biting but ultimately deeply satisfying victory over (and season sweep of) the smack-talking New York Football Giants.

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

As is often the case in today's NFL, yesterday afternoon's affair was a strikingly close contest. In several general categories, the teams' performances were nearly identical. To wit:

Cowboys Giants
First Downs 24 22
Third Down Efficiency 4-11 3-12
Total Plays 62 62
Total Drives 12 12
Penalties 11-85 11-81
Turnovers 1 1
Time of Possession 29:21 30:39

Such an even game can turn on a single play. Despite the Cowboys superbly-orchestrated final drive, the real game-changer was their first score, Jeff Heath's 50-yard fumble recovery. Which leads to...

6: The number of touchdown returns logged by the Cowboys defense on the year. All offseason, as we were writing about the organizational swap of Ryan for Kiffin, one of the most frequently recurring memes was that Kiff's scheme would generate more turnovers. Whatever other horrifying defensive numbers have been accumulated this season, the 2013 defense has done a terrific job delivering on the offseason promise of more takeaways. On the season, they have forced 23 turnovers, and boast a +12 TO margin.

.125: The Cowboys third down conversion percentage as they took the ball for what proved to be their final possession. Their lone pre-game-winning-drive conversion occurred on the Romo-to-Witten pass that made the score 21-6. Up to that point, the Twitterverse was rife with stats showing that they were 0 for their last 16, hadn't had a third-down conversion in 22 days, and other ignominious numbers.

One of the principal reasons for their poor third-down conversion rate is that they keep getting into long-yardage situations. Lets review the third downs they failed to convert through the game's first 55 minutes, and the reason they got into the situation they faced:

First Quarter:
*3-12: incomplete; Romo sack
3-6: incomplete, 4-yard run

Second Quarter:
*3-18: Romo sack; Romo gain of two on scramble
*3-11: Short pass (+4); Leary false start; incompletion

Third Quarter:
3-7: incomplete, 3-yard run

Fourth Quarter:
*3-30: Incomplete; loss of 20 on Dez Bryant fumble
3-10: Zero-yard run; incomplete

We have written a lot on these pages about drive killers - penalties and sacks - that lead to the third killer: failure to convert third downs. I have placed an asterisk on the above drives in which one of the first two leads to the third. On four of the seven failed third-down conversions, one drive killer lead to another.

And: on the Cowboys first scoring drive (and second touchdown) they faced no third downs, converting a second down and then three straight first downs, including the dagger, a 20-yard Romo-to-Witten TD pass. That's not an operational model that's likely to yield consistently successful results.

154: Giants passing yards, a season low for the Cowboys' much-maligned defense. As might be expected, this paltry total was joined by other indicators of the Giants passing inefficiency: 16 completions in 32 total passing plays; a low 5.1 yards-per-attempt figure (exactly half of week one's staggering 10.1 YPA), and a 31.9 QBR for Eli Manning.

This remind us of the radical YPA splits the team has enjoyed (or, depending on your perspective, suffered) against rival quarterbacks this season. Lets review:

Week 1: Eli Manning: 10.2
Week 2: Alex Smith: 5.5
Week 3: Sam Bradford: 4.0
Week 4: Phillip Rivers: 9.4
Week 5: Peyton Manning: 9.9
Week 6: RGIII: 5.6
Week 7: Nick Foles/ Matt Barkley: 4.0
Week 8: Matt Stafford: 10.0
Week 9: Christian Ponder: 6.1
Week 10: Drew Brees: 9.6
Week 12: Eli redux; 5.1

There is a fairly clear pattern here: other than week one, when a historic number of turnovers mitigated a dominant passing performance by the Giants, and week two, when the turnover whammy went against the Cowboys, when they hold rival QBs under 6.2 YPA, they win.

Another way to look at this is: when they face good to great quarterbacks and/ or top passing attacks, Dallas' try-hard rag-tag bunch gets overwhelmed. The good news is that, provided Aaron Rodgers isn't ready by the time the Cowboys face the Packers on December 15, Dallas isn't slated to face a top signal caller the rest of the way. Consequently, the likelihood of YPAs below 6.5 - and thus more wins - looks somewhat promising. Fingers crossed, y'all.

25.25: Giants starting field position on their drives. Although the Cowboys offense was anything but spectacular, they did enough to ensure that the Giants couldn't manage to "flip the field" on them. As a result, New York had to drive roughly 75 yards to score, a particularly challenging task for a team that is running the ball well but isn't passing efficiently. Sure, the Giants averaged 6.7 yards per rush. But its going to be very difficult to run the ball for 75 or more yards to a score.

Indeed, note the following plays on three of the Giants four scoring drives:

Field goal #1: Randle 21 pass; Randle 22 pass
Touchdown #1: Randle 21 pass; Myers 27 pass
Touchdown #2: Cruz 22 pass

This serves as a reminder that this is a passing league. A defense can give up gobs of rushing yards and a woeful yards-per-attempt on the ground, but it still takes explosive passing plays to generate scores. And, as we noted above, the Giants passing game was anything but consistently explosive. One major reason for this was...

32: Orlando Scandrick's number. Scandrick begged the coaches to let him cover Cowboys killer Victor Cruz all game. He rose to the challenge, blanketing Cruz and limiting him to two catches on four targets - only one of which was on Scandrick, as Cruz' 22-yarder occurred against a zone after Scandrick released him to the safety. The one grab Cruz had with Scandrick in man coverage? Well, I'll let him tell you all about it:

.500: The Cowboys' 2013 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. After the gutting loss to the Lions, they stood at 1-3 in such games, but with narrow victories over the Vikings and Giants in recent weeks, they have righted the close games ship. As I have oft written, teams tend to hover around .500 in close games, regardless of their quality or overall record. Still, there are aberrations and fluctuations from year to year (the Colts were a ridiculous 9-1 in 7-or-fewer tilts last season), and with all the other ill luck the team has had, the last thing they need is to end up in the vicinity of 2-5 in close games. By eking out a close win, they avoided that particular curse of the mercurial football gods.

Of course, one of the reasons they continue to win such games is because the player on the team in whom Jason Garrett may well have placed the most trust is Dan Bailey. To wit:

8: number of Bailey's game-winning kicks in the fourth quarter or overtime. Since he joined the team in 2011, the Cowboys have played in 27 such close games, sporting a 14-13 record. Bailey has won eight of those. Dude has ice in his veins.

Yesterday, the rest of the team was similarly cool. Tell Jerry to lower the thermostat in AT&T Stadium on Thursday, as they'll need to continue to demonstrate the cold-blooded nature they showed in calmly taking the game and shoving it down the Giants throat in crunch time yesterday.


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