It was a bitter loss for the Dallas Cowboys. As our own rabblerousr detailed in his weekly by-the-numbers post, the Cowboys had a strong advantage in many statistical categories, but two of them, turnovers and special teams play, led to the eventual outcome. Arguably, the Cowboys lost the game on two plays in particular, the pick-six that may have been as much or more on Terrance Williams than Matt Cassel, and the breakdown in coverage when Dwayne Harris returned the late kickoff for a touchdown (and where Dan Bailey failed to kick it deep enough to force a touchback). Take away those two plays (and keep the first half near pick-six that the Giants failed to hang on to), and Dallas almost certainly would have won the game.
Two plays. That is all that the Cowboys needed to change to win. Change one of them, plus have Cole Beasley not muff the punt near the end, and they would likely have been playing to win the game on their last drive of the day. That is indeed hard to swallow.
The challenge is now much harder with the Seattle Seahawks coming to town for the next game. Dallas is facing more of a must-win situation than ever before, and they face the defending conference champions. That is going to be hard. But it is not beyond doing.
There are several things that the team can do to fix things. A couple of obvious changes have to happen but some of the most important steps to take involve keeping some obvious improvements from the Giants game going.
The offensive line has to continue to dominate. After the very disheartening dropoff in the first five games, the O line finally looked like it did for almost all of 2014. The running game was obviously back with a vengeance, Darren McFadden suddenly looked like a solid every down back with 152 yards rushing, and had Joseph Randle not gone out with back spasms, he may have done even better. What was also impressive was the pass blocking. Cassel was only sacked once, and that was right at the line of scrimmage. He frequently was able to roll away from the pass rush and get throws off, so he gets some credit for this with his mobility, where he has a clear advantage over Brandon Weeden. With the highly respected Seattle defense up next, the line will have to do at least as well. They may be able to dial it up another notch since La'el Collins is probably still in the steep part of his learning curve.
Dallas has to keep moving the chains. One huge change from the last game was that the Cowboys did not go three-and-out once in New York. This is probably the biggest change with Cassel at quarterback. The Giants came into the game with a top ten rushing defense, but they were unable to stop the Dallas ground came consistently at any time. As mentioned, the line gets a lot of the credit for this, but it also has to have been influenced by the fact that Cassel was able to complete throws more than ten yards down the field. Unfortunately, he did not always complete them to the guys in the white jerseys.
Keep getting more of the offense involved. Brice Butler had two important catches. Devin Street had a very good touchdown catch. And Scott Linehan even found a way to get Lucky Whitehead involved in the offense by using him on reverses, where he was surprisingly effective, averaging 8.8 yards on four carries. Still noticeably absent for the most part and that they could work on: Gavin Escobar and James Hanna.
The defense has to keep getting off the field. Dallas only gave up 13 points to the Giants' offense, and only three after halftime. They had one bad series that resulted in the lone offensive touchdown by New York. Mystery man Orleans Darkwa inexplicably gashed them repeatedly on that drive, but after that they seemed to have that solved for the most part. They still gave up some long plays at times, but stiffened well in the red zone. The rushmen were only able to sack Eli Manning twice, but Russell Wilson is not as good at getting the ball out quickly and the team can hope to get more sacks on him.
Take the ball away. This is the most difficult one, because there is no sure way to generate interceptions or fumble recoveries. All turnovers have a certain element of chance involved, and the lack of takeaways for Dallas is getting into an almost statistically unbelievable range. It is known that Rod Marinelli coaches his players to go after the ball, but it just has not worked out. At some point, this almost has to change, but there is a real fear that the change will not come soon enough to help.
Protect the ball. The other side of the turnover coin, and one that falls almost solely on the shoulders of Matt Cassel. While his willingness to throw the ball past the line needed to move the chains is extremely important, he cannot throw into high-risk situations or put up wobbling ducks like the interception he threw at the New York goal line. So far, fumbles have not been a problem for the Cowboys, and that will clearly also need to continue.
Special teams need to be much better. This deals with returns and coverage, because Dan Bailey has been pretty much his typical flawless self kicking field goals and the new, longer extra point. The Cowboys have not gotten much at all returning the ball, although Lucky Whitehead has not been terrible since he started returning kickoffs. But Cole Beasley has not done much at all returning punts, and had the muffed punt that killed that last faint hope against the Giants. And we don't need to talk about the disaster on Harris' touchdown. Dallas cannot give up plays like that.
With the exception of the takeaway issues, all these are things that the Cowboys have the power to control. Seattle is likely the second-best team the Cowboys have faced, with only the New England Patriots clearly superior. Dallas can beat them, but only if they bring their best game to the field. Fix a couple of things from the last game, and keep all the good ones going,and they can still start the climb out of the NFC East cellar.