For most of the game, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys had fallen into the trap against the New York Giants. Eli Manning looked crisp and composed as the Cowboys were unable to sack him, Damon Harrison seemed to be making plays all over the place, and some uncharacteristic mistakes by some of their own stars had the game tied at 10-10 until halfway through the fourth quarter. Then a flurry of big plays by the Cowboys, sandwiched around a timely interception, suddenly made it a blowout as Dallas came out of New York with a much-needed 30-10 win.
The surprise star for Dallas was running back Rod Smith, who didn’t even start. He was hugely effective in both the running and passing game. He caught all five of the passes thrown his way, including the biggest play of the game, an 81 yard catch and run that suddenly turned a thin lead into a pretty much insurmountable margin. And he added some insurance with a 15 yard scoring scamper to cap things off. His 160 total yards from scrimmage, including the two scores, were easily his best day wearing the Star.
More importantly, Dak Prescott had a much more effective game than he has had in over a month. He was 20 of 30 for 332 yards, three touchdowns, and a 137.1 passer rating. And he should have had more completions and yardage after some very catchable balls were mishandled by his receivers. This game should go a long way to quieting the worries about his worrisome performance the past few weeks, and that means so much going forward for the Cowboys.
One thing that came out in this game is how important emotion and attitude are in the NFL. After all the chaos in New York the past week, it looked like re-establishing Manning as the starter and the change to Steve Spagnuolo as the interim head coach gave the Giants’ players a real boost. They came out playing crisp, effective football. It certainly didn’t look like a 2-10 football team that had given up on the season. That may explain why Ben McAdoo just had to go. All evidence from this game showed that he had lost the team. It was a very different team than it had been all season. One major thing New York did that gave Dallas fits for much of the game was to go with a hurry-up offense, often catching the Cowboys trying to get personnel and assignments straight. It was another of those “failure to adjust” issues.
Another point that was reinforced was how you have to take advantage of opportunities, as well as that old saw about it being a game of inches. On two of their first three plays from scrimmage, the Giants put the ball on the ground, but in both cases the Cowboys could not get to it before New York recovered. Had Dallas come up with either of those fumbles, it would have greatly changed the course of the game.
Penalties were another big problem for the Cowboys. They had a 37 yard run by Alfred Morris snuffed out by a Jason Witten holding call. There were four offsides flags drawn by the defense before halftime. In the fourth quarter, when both teams were struggling to move the ball, a holding call put them in bad starting position, followed by a hands to the face call after Dallas took a lead to extend a Giants drive. Those were not all the calls, but just a sample of how the Cowboys didn’t help themselves on so many plays.
Drops were a problem for both sides. The Cowboys had a really good drive stall in the second quarter when Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley had back-to-back drops, leading to a missed field goal by Dan Bailey (one of two very uncharacteristic misses by him). But Roger Lewis dropped a first down in the fourth quarter himself. And Bryant and Beasley both redeemed themselves later in the game. Bryant had a 50 yard touchdown pass to tie the game late in the first half when the Cowboys really needed a boost. Then in the fourth quarter, after the Cowboys had not been able to muster anything besides that second Bailey miss over four possessions, Beasley had a 54 yard reception to set up a 20 yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Jason Witten. Both those long receptions were mostly due to yards after the catch, something that has been a missing element in recent weeks.
But the mostly-rookie secondary came up with a couple of big plays late in the fourth. First, Xavier Woods snuffed out a screen pass for a loss of two, then Jourdan Lewis had tight coverage to force a punt. That would lead to the 81 yard touchdown reception by Rod Smith (again, almost all after the catch) which would put the game away, despite Bailey missing the extra point. That gave Dallas a 13 point lead with only 4:08 left in the game. And the play was a great adjustment by Prescott, who saw the coverage and knew what to do to exploit it.
It took most of the game, but the Cowboys finally exerted themselves, and for once, it was the other defense that played well for most of a game, only to suffer crucial breakdowns. And Sean Lee would fittingly have the real nail in the coffin as he intercepted a pass deflected by Chidobe Awuzie, capping a game where he had 18 tackles to go along with the takeaway.
And you have to mention the patented Jeff Heath “right place, right time” interception to end the game. The pass rush never did get to Manning all game, but the two interceptions made up for that, and Manning was really under a lot of pressure for much of the game.
All that really matters in the end was that the Cowboys won a game they had to have in order to keep those slim playoff hopes alive. Despite some misfires through most of the game, they put it away in the end. They may not get the help they need to get to the playoffs, but the chance to win out the season is still alive.