Giants Take NFC East, Send Cowboys Home

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Firecrackers burst above and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" blared over the MetLife Stadium sound system. The Giants had just clinched the NFC East championship and a first-round home playoff game, poised to play on into January.

The Cowboys trudged off the field, headed back to Dallas for a long, quiet winter.

Again.

Sunday night's 31-14 loss to New York meant a feeble 8-8 finish and a second straight season with no postseason. Another third-place division finish. No chance to compete for the Lombardi Trophy that measures success in this storied franchise.

"It's absolutely disappointing, there's no question about that," head coach Jason Garrett said. "It's a competitive division, a competitive league and you have to go out every week and find ways to win football games. We didn't do that down the stretch."

The Cowboys entered December atop the NFC East at 7-4 but lost four of their last five, including two to New York (9-7). The Giants weren't exactly streaking into Sunday's regular-season finale, either; they had lost five of their last seven.

Together, these division rivals had played 17 games decided by a touchdown or less. Both had lived dangerously all year. The result for both was a one-game season, a playoff play-in game. Do or die.

The Cowboys made things interesting in the middle, but the Giants dominated the beginning and the end. They jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and closed the game with 10 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes after quarterback Tony Romo made the score 21-14 with a pair of touchdown passes to Laurent Robinson.

"The bottom line is, forget everything else – we've got to play better football. Across the board," an emotional tight end Jason Witten said afterward. "That's what has to happen if we want to be a championship type of team. That's what the expectations are from us and from everybody else."

Once again, Rob Ryan's struggling defense had no answer for Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw for 346 yards and three TDs. Or Manning's overnight star receiver Victor Cruz, who caught one TD and torched the secondary for 178 yards on six catches.

Anchored by the Manning-Cruz connection, the Giants piled up 947 total yards and 68 points in the teams' two meetings this season. The Cowboys' defense allowed an average of 362.6 total yards (and 23.5 points) over the final seven games.

"We tried to disguise things. We tried to have people over the top sometimes and we tried to put different people on him to try to lock him down," linebacker Sean Lee said of Cruz, whose 74-yard TD catch and run with five minutes left in the first quarter set the tone for a lopsided half. "I think in a lot of the plays we were there but he was just about to make a play. If you watch Cruz all year, he just makes plays. That's why he's the player he is."

The Cowboys' offense started moving in hurry-up mode in the third quarter. Romo, who played with a bruised and swollen throwing hand, directed a 94-yard scoring drive and then cut the deficit to seven with another TD pass to Robinson with 10:20 remaining.

The game finally had gotten competitive, even despite two other stalled drives in Giants territory: a Romo interception and a failed quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at the 10-yard line.

"We felt the momentum," Witten said. "Wasn't enough. It's hard, though, when you get yourself in a hole like that."

The Giants answered with a 28-yard field goal, set up by Manning's 44-yard pass to Cruz. Then after a Dallas three-and-out, which included a key third-down drop by running back Felix Jones, Manning hit Hakeem Nicks for a 4-yard TD for a commanding 17-point lead with 3:46 left.

The Giants will play the NFC's fifth seed, Atlanta, this Sunday in the Wild Card round.

"Give them credit, they did what needed to be done and we didn't," said Romo, who took a pain-killing injection for part of his injured hand in pre-game. "It's not going to sit well with me or I would suspect most of the guys on the team. It's going to fuel the fire to come back and be better. Right now it just really burns."

The Cowboys finished with one victory over a winning team (San Francisco in Week 2). They went 4-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Blown leads against the New York Jets in Week 1, Detroit in Week 4 and the Giants in Week 14 will haunt them.

Still, they controlled their fate in the final week and couldn't finish.

The focus now shifts to offseason personnel decisions. Six starters are free agents. So is Robinson, who caught a team-high 11 TD passes after signing as a training camp cut in early September. The future of veterans like linebacker Keith Brooking and cornerback Terence Newman is also a source of speculation.

Can the current core, which has a pair of Divisional round appearances (2007, 2009) and one playoff victory in '09, get back to the playoffs and legitimately contend for a title?

"I believe in this group, I really do," Witten said. "There's always change. That's the way this business works. But we've put in a lot of sweat and a lot of hard work together and I believe we can get it done.

". . . But this feeling's got to sink in, it really does."

They've got many, many months now.

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