After the way the season started for the Dallas Cowboys, there were people who were convinced it was already over. But after an imperfect but satisfying 20-13 win over the New York Giants, the Cowboys are 1-1, and now tied for first in the NFC East, and, as they say, in control of their own destiny.
OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. And there are certainly still some areas of concern for Dallas. But there were also some extremely positive signs, which were few and far between in the first game. There are things to build on, and most importantly, they avoided that dreaded 0-2 start.
With all the discontent and criticism after the loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys needed to do something to restore the flagging confidence of their fans (and the media, as well). The opening possession did just that, as the team opened with a nine yard pass to Allen Hurns, a two yard run by Ezekiel Elliott to move the sticks. And then something we desperately needed to see, a 64 yard bomb, delivered perfectly to a streaking Tavon Austin who took it into the end zone and gave the Cowboys a 7-0 lead with only 1:34 used off the clock. And that would be nearly all the Cowboys would need as a stifling defense gave up some yards, but seldom in significant chunks, and never a true big play to match that Austin touchdown. Most importantly, they held the Giants out of the end zone until a score with 1:27 left in the game (on the only real blown coverage of the night), kept Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley from really gashing them, and gave the offense time to find its stride in the fourth quarter after stalling out for much of the game. The special teams also failed after that touchdown, letting the Giants recover an onside kick and get down to kick a field goal, but with only :11 seconds left, it was too little, too late - for the other guys this time.
The first couple of series for the Cowboys offense looked like Scott Linehan drew up a checklist of things the O didn’t do last week, and ran down it, just checking things off. First down passes to get good down and distance or a first down - check. Deep bomb - check. Get Tavon Austin involved in the game - big check. Find a way to get Elliott going - check. Help Dak Prescott get his confidence back - check. Also get Dak into the running game - check. Even the failure to convert their first 3rd down of the game had a silver lining, as Brett Maher had his first successful field goal, a 37 yarder to give the Cowboys a 10-0 first quarter lead.
And the offense wasn’t the only thing that looked refreshingly different. The defense started throwing a variety of blitzes, and the sacks started coming. Taco Charlton got the first, Antwaun Woods got one, Kavon Frazier had the third, and DeMarcus Lawrence would join the party on the final Giants drive of the half to make sure they would be shut out going into intermission. Some good coverage downfield also helped.
Things were not perfect, however, as the Dallas offense started misfiring as the half proceeded. After scoring on their first two possessions, they stalled out the next three possessions (not counting the kneeldown with six seconds left to end the half). It looked like plays with Prescott under center were seldom successful, as well. And except for one pass that was probably meant to be a throwaway, the tight ends were not involved in the game at all. But that throw to get out of trouble almost was pulled in by Rico Gathers, and his failure to pull it in brought an audible groan of disappointment from the home crowd.
Back on the plus side, while Eli Manning was going down a lot, Prescott was not sacked in the game, which should greatly help his confidence in his O line.. A lot of rollouts and motion helped, and he also gained 45 yards on seven rushes.
Defensively, things were in the Cowboys’ favor as well, limiting the Giants to no plays of more than 13 yards in the first half, and just a handful of splash plays in the second. But repeatedly, Saquon Barkley would shrug off the initial contact and turn what should have been short gains or even losses into positive plays. Still, the defense seemed totally in control of things.
However, after the scintillating three play touchdown drive to open the game, things really began to stall for the Cowboys. They could not sustain drives, and even a short field set up by a strip sack of Manning by Damien Wilson (who had what looked like a very good game) and recovered by Taco on the Giants 27 yard line, the team stalled again in the red zone, bringing on Maher to make his second field goal of the game. And after a fairly clean first half, penalties reared their heads again, as the Cowboys had two consecutive third down conversions called back late in the third quarter, forcing the Cowboys to have to punt the ball when they elected to just go with a screen to Zeke on third and 21. The Giants had just gotten their first points of the game to shave the margin to 10, after a really jarring tackle of Manning by Jaylon Smith held them to the field goal. That inability to sustain a drive means there are still some concerns about Dak and the offense, although in this case, it was certainly not his fault.
It was also still not a huge game for Elliott, but he had a big run in the first half, and then added one in the crucial drive in the fourth quarter to burn clock and keep the Giants from making a real comeback. This was a big series, and it saw Prescott find some accuracy, and also depend again on his legs. And Elliott capped it off with his second touchdown of the year, getting the payoff on a 14 play, 82 yard drive that pretty much sealed the game, finishing the night with 78 yards rushing plus the TD. That late drive was perhaps even more important than the opening one, because it showed grit and the ability to grind it out when the opposing defense began to tire. While he also caught five passes, he only netted nine yards on them, so that aspect remains a work in progress.
It was the defense that kept the team in the game until the offense could salt it away, as Damien Wilson and Tyrone Crawford joined in the sack party during the second half, and despite giving up the one long completion, the D didn’t let much damage happen until they went into a bit of a prevent late in the game. While the sacks got most of the attention, the secondary was excellent, largely stifling the Giants’ passing game the entire way.
All in all, there was a lot to make you feel better about the Cowboys. Six sacks from six different players. Austin with 96 total yards, involved in both the running and passing game. And most importantly, Prescott found some much-needed confidence and while he was not perfect, he gave the team just enough. There are still some concerns, most notably what was still a rather paltry offensive output with just 298 total yards - but when you hold the opponent to even less, it is enough. It was a team effort from your NFC East co-leaders.