Sunday night provided an amazing game between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys that featured multiple lead changes, a heart-stopping finish, and a huge collapse by the Cowboys as the Giants prevailed, 37-34.
The two teams combined for over 950 yards of offense and 71 points, and each side gave up an embarrassing touchdown on completely blown pass coverage. What struck me, though, as I watched the last 5:41 of the game was how the Cowboys repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.
After an incredible interception and return by linebacker Sean Lee, Dallas took a 34-22 lead with 5:41 left when Tony Romo hit a wide open--and I mean wide open--Dez Bryant for a 50-yard touchdown strike on a play in which the nearest Giants defender was somewhere in Fort Worth. The Cowboys appeared to be on the verge of taking a two-game lead in the NFC East with three weeks to go.
But then something went terribly wrong. The Cowboys couldn't get out of their own way.
Lousy Pass Defense
Eli Manning kept hitting Victor Cruz for considerable chunks of yardage, including a 23-yard gain on 3rd and 1. When the Cowboys finally contained Cruz, Hakeem Nicks caught one over his head and tiptoed out of bounds at the 8-yard-line for a gain of 23 yards. With 3:14 left, Manning found Jake Ballard for the touchdown.
You could see it in the Cowboys' faces and body language. Having blown large leads twice previously this season, Dallas players and fans feared the worst, and it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the ensuing drive, Dallas ran a couple of clock-killing plays on the legs of Felix Jones, and then on 3rd down, Romo missed a wide open Miles Austin on a play that would likely have sealed the game. Austin had beaten his defender and had no one between him and the end zone, but Romo overthrew him. Not only did it become 4th down, but the incompletion also stopped the clock and saved the Giants a timeout.
After a less-than-impressive punt by Mat McBriar, the Giants set up on their own 42-yard-line with 2:12 left. Manning immediately found Ballard for a 21-yard gain, but on the next play, Manning was not on the same page as his center, and the snap came too early and too high. The ball bounced around the field before it was finally recovered by the Giants, but for a huge loss.
Except that there was a flag on the play. DeMarcus Ware had lined up in the neutral zone. Instead of a big loss, the Giants had the ball 1st-and-5 on the Cowboys' 32-yard-line.
After Mario Manningham dropped a perfectly placed throw by Manning in the end zone, the Cowboys forced an incompletion that set up a 3rd-and-10 for the Giants.
Except that there was another flag. Defensive holding. Automatic first down.
Another big pass to Ballard took the ball to the 1-yard-line where Brandon Jacobs pounded it in for a touchdown. D.J. Ware weaved his way through Dallas defenders for a two-point conversion, and the Giants had suddenly taken a three-point lead with :46 left to play.
Mind Games and Poor Blocking
When Dallas got the ball back, Romo found Austin on a couple of long passes and set rookie kicker Dan Bailey up for a 47-yard field goal attempt to send the game into overtime. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin played it perfectly, though, calling timeout a fraction of a second before Dallas snapped the ball.
Bailey's kick was true, but it didn't count. Just like in last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Bailey was iced--only this time, by the opposing coach instead of his own.
After the timeout, the Cowboys lined up to try the field goal again, but Jason Pierre-Paul burst through the center of the line, got his arm up, and blocked the kick. Game over. Cowboys choke again.
Don't Blame Romo
It may be tempting for Cowboys fans to blame Romo for another 4th quarter collapse, but this one isn't on him.
True, he missed a wide open Austin on one play. But he also got the Cowboys into field goal range to force overtime. Romo wasn't out there getting torched on defense, nor was he the one committing two back-breaking penalties at the worst possible time. It wasn't Romo who failed to block Pierre-Paul on the second field goal attempt. In fact, Romo went 21-of-31 for 321 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. That's normally a game-winning performance.
For the defensive wizard that Rob Ryan is supposed to be, that unit is not very good. The Giants had 510 yards of offense and scored 37 points, and at the worst possible time, the Dallas D imploded.
If fans want to direct their wrath at someone, aim it at the defense.
Also by this author:
10 random thoughts about NFL's Week 14