Each NFL game is made up of about 125 to 135 plays, usually the ones that get all of the attention are the headline-grabbing touchdowns or game-deciding plays in the last few minutes, but what about all of the crucial plays that led up to those moments? What about the overlooked plays that had a significant bearing on the direction of the game but are usually forgotten in favor of flashy highlights? Here is a look at five plays that may get lost in the wash, but ultimately were critical in shaping the Cowboys 19-3 victory over the Giants.
Play: Ezekiel Elliott -7 Yard Rush
Situation: First and 10 from the Giants 19
Score: Cowboys lead 3-0
Time: 15:00 in the second quarter
Impact: After a big 3rd and 12 conversion on a screen to Terrance Williams the Cowboys were set up with a first down just inside the Giants 20. They ran it to the right with Elliott who was stuffed on a great play by Damon Harrison, losing seven yards in the process. On the very next play La’el Collins was called for a holding penalty which pushed them back all the way to the Giants 36, putting them in a 2nd and 27, effectively ending the drive. Despite dominating the time of possession and significantly out gaining the Giants yardage wise yet another red zone opportunity ended in a field goal. As anybody who watches the NFL knows this is a recipe for losing games, although luckily not on this night thanks to the defense.
Play: 21-Yard Pass Interference Penalty on Janoris Jenkins
Situation: Second and 4 from the Giants 36
Score: Cowboys lead 6-0
Time: 1:56 in the second quarter
Impact: Admittedly this was a questionable call, although Jenkins gets away with a good bit of hand-fighting and subtle contact downfield so you could argue that a call like this was only a matter of time. At any rate, this was a huge penalty as it took the Cowboys from what would have been a 3rd and 4 on the edge of field goal range to a first and 10 in the red zone. Two plays later the Cowboys offense finally converted their third red zone opportunity into their first touchdown, giving them a double-digit lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Over the first 20 or so minutes this game looked like a carbon copy of last year’s opener where the Cowboys offense went up and down the field but consistently settled for field goals, while the Giants didn’t move the ball much but scored a touchdown on every single one of their three red zone chances. This score, aided by the penalty, eased those concerns.
Play: Charles Tapper Sack
Situation: Second and goal from the Cowboys 4
Score: Cowboys lead 16-0
Time: 6:44 in the third quarter
Impact: On the opening drive of the second half the Giants finally put together something on offense, converting multiple third downs and getting into the red zone as they entered Cowboys territory for the first time all game. On second down inside the five Tapper didn’t do anything special, he simply beat left tackle Ereck Flowers with a quick inside move as Flowers overset to the outside, and with Eli Manning not getting much depth on his drop it was an easy play for Tapper to make as he closed on the quarterback in just a few steps. The sack forced the Giants into third down from the 13, which clearly makes a touchdown immeasurably more difficult than it would be from the four-yard line. On third down the Cowboys defense held and a 16 play, nearly 10 minute drive that ate up 1/3rd of the second half netted only three points. The Giants wouldn’t get back into Cowboys territory until garbage time on the final drive of the game.
Play: Orleans Darkwa -2 Yard Rush
Situation: First and 10 from the Giants 47
Score: Cowboys lead 16-3
Time: 13:37 in the fourth quarter
Impact: Following a potentially disastrous personal foul penalty from Maliek Collins that gave the Giants a first down near midfield, nullifying what would have been a big third down stop, Sean Lee immediately regained momentum for the defense. Lee knifed through the Giants offensive line and met Darkwa in the backfield for a loss, setting the Giants behind the sticks. For an offense that had been impotent all night getting behind the sticks usually served as a death knell for a drive. Three plays later they were punting back to the Cowboys.
Play: Ezekiel Elliott 6 Yard Rush
Situation: Third and 4 from the Giants 34
Score: Cowboys lead 16-3
Time: 4:44 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: This play effectively ended the game. Considering that Dan Bailey is the Cowboys kicker it’s likely that they would’ve pushed the lead to 19-3 whether or not they converted this first down, although it made it that much easier. More importantly it helped further drain the clock with the Giants not getting the ball back until after the two minute warning. It was a fantastic play from Elliott as he felt space to the edge with Jason Pierre-Paul crashing down inside and showed terrific lateral agility to get outside and plunge forward for the first.