With a 6-1 record the Dallas Cowboys stand atop the league standings, the only team with six wins this season now on a six-game winning streak. The Cowboys' fight and toughness on display in their victory against the Seahawks in Seattle put the league on notice. This time the Cowboys had a chance to make a statement in their division and again responded to the challenge. Every game is important in the short NFL season, but divisional victories are a crucial step on the road to the post-season and Dallas is now 1-0 against the NFC East after defeating the New York Giants.
Once again, the team had a chance for a more dominant victory but had to overcome its own mistakes to win the game by "only" a ten-point margin. This is not to downplay the success of a double-digit differential in a divisional matchup, those are difficult to come by in the NFL. But this team continues to show a resilience and fortitude that should make every fan excited about the prospect of what the Dallas Cowboys can accomplish as they continue to improve. As Jason Garrett would say, the team maintains poise in the face of adversity. If the Dallas Cowboys play their best football - which I think is yet to come - they can beat any team in the league...on any stage.
We have seen the Cowboys overcome their own mistakes to win games this season. We have seen this opportunistic defense come up big with turnovers to change the course of a game and, for the second week in a row, force a turnover to ensure a win and bring out the ‘Tom Landry' victory formation. But in this game I was most impressed by how often the Dallas offense converted long third downs, making these game-changing moments seem routine.
The Dallas offense has the best third-down conversion rate in the league and a large part of that is due to their ability to overcome the most difficult third-down situations. Against the New York Giants, it was on full display. This Cowboys offense is dominant when everything is clicking, but they are dangerous even when their backs are against the wall facing a defense's dream (long third down attempts).
Tight End Twin Towers
After suffering a three-and-out on its opening drive, the offense got another shot early in the first quarter after the Dallas defense managed to force a three-and-out of its own. The offense responded with a six-minute, eleven-play, scoring drive to take the lead. It was exactly what the team needed and the offense had to overcome two long third-downs to get into the endzone. In what appeared to be a glimpse of destiny, the foretelling of one hero one day passing on the torch to his teammate (with the help of an inspired Tony Romo), Jason Witten kept the drive alive by converting a third-and-eight, and Gavin Escobar found the endzone on a third-and-ten touchdown catch. In fact, Escobar also had a 24-yard reception to convert a more manageable third-and-five during the drive.
Except for one big run, the Cowboys had a little difficulty getting the ground game going in the first quarter. However, when a team can overcome that with a dynamic aerial attack on long third downs, there won't be many defenses that will find a way to stop them. The Dallas Cowboys have shown they have a tough and balanced offense that can sustain long scoring drives, but having a dangerous passing attack when things aren't going well is how elite offenses are born. Of course, it could never happen without a strong performance by the offensive line, but Romo and company are showing they can beat defenses in just about any way possible. In fact, their third drive in the first quarter was bogged down by a holding penalty and eventually ended on a third-and-sixteen attempt. And yet, backed up deep in their own territory and simply "laying up" to get a few more yards before punting, a screen pass to Joseph Randle nearly resulted in a first down as he managed to gain fourteen yards.
With the score tied at 7-7 the Dallas Cowboys began their first drive in the second quarter. They converted a more manageable third-and-five when Romo managed to scramble for a first down, but mistakes cost them the drive and helped the Giants take the lead. An unnecessary holding penalty on Tyron Smith put the team in a bind, and things were made much worse when Dez Bryant fell on his route, which allowed an easy interception that was returned nearly forty yards. A one-play scoring drive gave the Giants their first lead in the game, so it was paramount that the offense found a way to overcome the adversity caused by their own mistakes and make sure the momentum didn't shift to their opponents.
Just like their long, sustained scoring-drive in the first quarter, the Cowboys offense again chewed up the clock for nearly six minutes on their ten-play drive. And once again, Jason Witten was instrumental in converting a long third down, this time picking up 15 yards on a third-and-nine get the drive past midfield. A more manageable third-and-six was converted by Dez Bryant's reception, but once again, it was converting another nightmare third-and-long that kept the Cowboys in the game. This time overcoming their mistakes to make sure they could head into halftime tied instead of trailing.
Putting the Game Out of Reach
It was certainly a game-changing moment when Barry Church forced a fumble on what appeared to be a converted third-and-long by the Giants in the fourth quarter. And Church's conscious attempt to strip the ballcarrier wasn't the only display of why Rod Marinelli teaching and focusing on fumbles is making this defense more opportunistic. Justin Durant wasn't the closest player to the ball, but his reaction was far quicker than the New York player that was closer.
On the ensuing drive, the Cowboys had great field position due to the turnover and a seven-point lead they wanted to increase to make a New York comeback far more difficult. Facing a third-and-eight, Romo decided to go to his big play receiver and Dez nearly rewarded him with a touchdown to go along with the first down. Once again the Cowboys kept a touchdown drive alive by converting a long third down, this time giving them a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys offense converted four third downs of eight yards or more. In fact, they converted four of their seven long third downs (phenomenal 57% conversion rate) and two of those failed attempts were nearly impossible third-and-sixteen and third-and-nineteen situations. The Dallas Cowboys offense has already shown how dominant they can be when they find a rhythm and avoid mental mistakes and difficult situations. But I was thoroughly impressed by how well the Cowboys offense responded when things weren't going as well. It's one thing to lead the league in third-down conversions when everything is going well and they are more manageable down-and-distances. But to maintain the same kind of conversion percentage when facing third-and-long situations is the difference between a dangerous offense and an elite group. Being able to routinely overcome difficult situations has become a calling card for this resilient team. And now, it is starting to become more apparent in how dynamic the Cowboys offense can be when they remain poised in the face of adversity and long third-downs. If the team and offense continue to respond this well to challenges, they will have a good chance to make it to the greatest challenge available to an NFL team.