"The ball, the ball, the ball."
The words are stated often by head coach Jason Garrett. He regularly preaches to his team the importance of not only creating turnovers, but making sure not to give gifts away to the enemy. It is priority No. 1.
Never did those words ring more true than on this night, the Dallas Cowboys having to overcome their earlier mistakes for a 27-26 victory over the New York Giants in front of a packed house of 93,579 fans and a prime-time television audience.
The Cowboys simply dominated New York on the stat sheet, leading in nearly every offensive category, except one – turnovers. Two costly mistakes right before the end of the first half turned a three-point Cowboys advantage into a seven-point deficit with a third turnover midway through the fourth quarter almost proving to be their undoing.
Dallas saw a fumble returned for a touchdown, a tipped pass lead to an eventual field goal and then finally another bouncing pass lead to an eventual score. Of the Giants' 26 points, 17 came as a result of turnovers, the Dallas defense only surrendering three field goals on its own.
Needless to say, the Cowboys were lucky to overcome their self-inflicted wounds. Then again, when you've got a quarterback like Tony Romo, there is always a chance.
Romo completed 36-of-45 passes for 356 yards and three touchdowns, saving his best for last when he completed 5-of-6 attempts on the team's final drive, the Cowboys marching 72 yards in just 1:27 for the game-winning score.
For the night, Dallas totaled 436 yards on offense to just 289 for the Giants. They also held a huge advantage in time of possession, 37:10 to 22:46.
And the way the game started, the night looked like it could be an easy one for the Cowboys. If offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was trying to set a certain tone for the 2015 season, he certainly seemed to do so on the team's opening drive. Starting at its own 18-yard line, Dallas went on a methodical 17-play drive – longer than any series the team totaled last year – that ate an incredible 10:27 off the clock.
With Joseph Randle carrying the ball six times for 28 yards, and Romo completing 8-of-10 passes to five different receivers for 51 yards, the team got as close as the Giants' 3-yard line, but were unable to punch it in. Instead, they had to settle for a chip-shot 21-yard field goal by Dan Bailey to give the Cowboys a 3-0 lead.
The first quarter would end in a tie, though, when the Giants countered with a 50-yard field goal. This came after the Cowboys tantalized fans with two apparent fumble recoveries. The first came when Anthony Hitchens stripped running back Rashad Jennings of the ball and recovered it himself. That play was overturned by a booth review when the runner was ruled down.
Then on the very next snap, safety J.J. Wilcox laid a thunderous hit on Odell Beckham Jr., the ball popping loose for what was hoped a Randy Gregory recovery. But officials ruled the receiver never had possession and upheld the decision after Garrett challenged the call.
The head coach was aggressive with his red flag as he was quick to toss it again on a third-and-6 play at the Giants' 20-yard line that at first saw Manning completing a 12-yard pass to his tight end, Larry Donnell. After review, the play was overturned, forcing a punt.
And while Garrett was left without a challenge for the rest of the night, having used his allotted two, the Cowboys used the ensuing possession to tack on three more points, Bailey good from 32 yards. This time it was Darren McFadden getting the work, and he notched 17 yards on four carries.
But like the previous scoring drive, the Cowboys were left unsatisfied. This time, on third-and-3 at the Giant's 14-yard line, Romo had Bryant wide open cutting across for an easy first down and more, but the star wideout dropped the pass.
That failure to reach the end zone would come back to bite the Cowboys just before the half, when those two turnovers completely flipped the game's momentum.
On the Cowboys' next possession, Cole Beasley made a nice cut after hauling in a Romo pass to pick up a 15-yard gain. But he was stripped of the ball on the tackle with cornerback Dominic Rogers-Cromartie then scooping up the prize and racing 57 yards untouched to give the visitors a 10-6 advantage.
Things then went from bad to worse. On the Cowboys' very next snap, Romo threw a pass behind Witten, who tipped it up and into the arms of linebacker Uani Unga at the Dallas 36-yard line with less than a minute left. That gave the Giants the opportunity to push their lead to 13-6 at the break, thanks to a 40-yard field goal.
And then getting the ball back to start the half, the Giants soon had their hosts in a 10-point hole. The Dallas defense bent, but did not break in the red zone, causing New York to settle for another field goal, this time a 30-yarder, giving them 13 points in a span of just 6:08 of game clock.
Despite that rough stretch, the Cowboys had already proven they could move the ball. They just had to hold onto it.
And much like last year, they didn't abandon the run. On Dallas' very next possession, Randle touched the ball six times, which included an impressive one-handed catch for a 25-yard pickup, his effort helping the Cowboys offense reach the end zone for the first time.
And although they were helped by a suspect pass interference call on the Giants that gave the home team first-and-goal, Romo took advantage. With plenty of time on the next snap, he found tight end Gavin Escobar in the back of the end zone for the touchdown, Dallas narrowing the deficit to 16-13.
But once again, the Cowboys were brought back down to earth with a thud. Facing a third-and-6 at his own 16-yard line, Romo tried to dump off a pass over the middle to Devin Street, who was in for Dez Bryant, who left the game with a foot injury.
Unfortunately, Street couldn't hold onto the ball, safety Brandon Meriweather popping it loose and into the arms of cornerback Trumaine McBride, who took it back to the Dallas 1-yard line. Jennings then powered up the middle, New York now holding a 23-13 lead with 8:01 remaining.
That was still seemingly plenty of time for Romo and the offense, as they had proven throughout the night that they could move down the field quickly … as long as they held onto the ball.
And they did on their next possession. With completions to Terrance Williams of 16 and 21 yards, as well as a nifty 16-yard catch and run by Cole Beasley, Dallas needed only six plays and 2:53 of clock to march 76 yards to the end zone. Witten got the honors of crossing the goal line, hauling in a quick 1-yard pass on the left side.
But now it was the Cowboys defense that couldn't come up with a stop, perhaps the unit finally tiring. The big blows came when Jennings broke loose for a 27-yard gain, which was followed two plays later by Dallas defensive end Jeremy Mincey getting hit with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty that gave New York a first down at the Dallas 16.
Once again, however, the team's defense held, forcing the Giants to kick a 19-yard field goal to give New York a 26-20 lead.
But the Giants made one crucial error in their clock management. On third-and-1, and with the Cowboys out of timeouts, Manning dropped back to pass instead of again running the ball. Then once pressured, he threw the ball away, stopping the clock. That gave the Cowboys back the ball with 1:29 remaining instead of less than a minute.
That was plenty of time for Romo, who picked apart the Giants defense, throwing passes of 20, 24, 16,13 and 8 yards before hitting Witten across the middle for the score with just seven seconds left. Bailey added the extra point, giving Dallas the 27-26 win.
It was by no means pretty, but teams with championship aspirations have to be able to overcome their mistakes to pull out a win. The Cowboys did so on this night. Now they'll get ready to face the rival Eagles at Philadelphia next Sunday in a 3:25 showdown.