There were obvious concerns coming into the 2013 season. Areas that were problematic for the Cowboys last year.
Could they create turnovers? Could the offensive line keep Tony Romo upright? Could special teams prove and advantage? Could they put together any kind of ground attack? Could they actually close out a game?
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
In front of a crowd of 85,348, as well as a nationally televised audience in prime time, the Cowboys showed they just might have a little something this year, holding off the NFC East rival Giants for an exciting 36-31 win.
In doing so, Dallas extended its string of victories against New York in season openers to a perfect 7-0. They also broke a somewhat dubious mark, snapping the Giants' four-game winning streak at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys having never defeated the team in their new digs before tonight.
The reason? After ranking among the league's worst last year in takeaways, the Cowboys came up with six turnovers tonight – three interceptions and three fumble recoveries, including one courtesy of the punt coverage team – none of which was bigger than cornerback Brandon Carr's pick-six for a touchdown with just under two minutes remaining in the game.
And for the most part, the Dallas defense held up well against the Giants offense – at least through three quarters. The final frame kept fans on edge, as Eli Manning picked apart the secondary before Carr's heroics brought the closeout the team so desperately needed.
Offensively, the Cowboys dominated the time of possession, 37:10 to 22:50, although New York actually racked up more total yards than the home side, 478 to 331. Still, the offensive line, with rookie Travis Frederick at center, did what they needed to. Romo was able to pass for 263 yards with two touchdowns and more often than not had time to make the play. And while the Cowboys didn't top the century mark in rushing yards, they got enough from DeMarco Murray to keep the Giants defense honest. He finished with 86 yards on the ground off 20 carries for a 4.3-yard average.
The big weapon for the game on the offensive side of the ball was Jason Witten, who hauled in eight catches for 70 yards, scoring the two touchdowns. And, with Dez Bryant blanketed for most of the night, totaling 22 yards on four grabs, Miles Austin filled the void, earning a 72 yards on 10 catches, both team highs.
Admittedly, the offense seemed to take awhile before they found their rhythm. But, the Cowboys couldn't have asked for more from their defense in the first quarter. New York had the ball four times, the results being three turnovers and a goal-line stand that yielded only a field goal.
On the Giants' very first play from scrimmage, DeMarcus Ware, anticipating a dump-off from Manning to running back David Wilson, jumped up and grabbed the interception, his first since the 2006 season.
That was followed on New York's next series with a fumble recovery by defensive end George Selvie. The visitors had driven the length of the field and were facing a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, but on a dive off left tackle, Wilson had the ball stripped by safety Barry Church, Selvie there for the prize.
Then on the Giants next try, Manning tried to connect with receiver Rueben Randle, but overshot his target, safety Will Allen corralling the errant throw to give Dallas the ball at their own 48-yard line.
After ranking among the league's worst in takeaways last year and preaching turnovers all offseason, the Cowboys had three through the first half of the first quarter of the first game of the year.
Unfortunately, the problem was the offense could only use those advantages to put three points on the board, courtesy of a Dan Bailey 30-yard field goal after Ware's theft.
In fact, not only did they fail to reach the end zone, Romo and Co. almost allowed the Giants defense to score. Following Allen's interception, Romo and rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams seemed to have a miscommunication, which resulted in New York cornerback Prince Amukamara hauling in the pick and rambling 91 yards to the Dallas 1-yard line.
Thanks to a hustling DeMarco Murray, who saved the touchdown with his tackle, the Dallas defense was able to push back the Giants a yard, New York settling for a chip-shot field goal to tie the score, 3-3.
Despite dominating in the time of possession, 10:00 to 5:00, the Dallas offense didn't really get going until the second quarter. Working primarily with short passes, Romo moved his team 60 yards in 14 plays before they had to settle on a 38-yard field goal from Bailey.
Then with the Giants going three-and-out, Dallas worked at a hurried pace against a tiring New York defense, starting at their own 29-yard line and going the distance. Three of the last five plays of the drive were passes to Witten, who caught a 21-yarder when he was left wide open, then finished it up with a 15-yard jump ball in the back of the end zone that gave Dallas a 13-3 lead with just under three minutes to play in the half.
But reminiscent of last year, the Cowboys just couldn't shut down the opposition, and thus provided a momentum change going into the break. The Giants were on their own 30-yard line when receiver Victor Cruz got behind cornerback Morris Claiborne and the safety Allen to break loose for a 70-yard touchdown, Dallas going into the half with a less-than-comfortable 13-10 lead.
Also leaving the team less than comfortable was the big blow that Romo took with only 46 seconds left in the quarter. After releasing the ball on a deep pattern to Williams that fell incomplete, the quarterback was rudely sandwiched by two Giants rushers. He lied still on the field before eventually walking off under his own power.
Thankfully, Romo apparently just had the wind knocked out of him and when Dallas took possession to get the second half under way, he was back behind center.
Regardless, the Cowboys defense was going to make sure the pendulum of momentum swung back in their direction. After the offense went three-and-out, and Dwayne Harris made another nice tackle on special teams, Dallas linebacker Bruce Carter then came out and sacked Manning for a 5-yard loss, pushing the visitors to their own 24-yard line.
That's when Wilson, the Giants' running back, coughed up the ball again, this time defensive tackle Nick Hayden relieving him of the burden. Fittingly, Church was there to scoop up the fumble and darted into the end zone untouched for a 27-yard return and the score, the Cowboys back on top, 20-10.
And then it was the special teams' turn to provide some fireworks. The punt by Chris Jones wasn't exactly pretty, but the bounce went off the shoulder of a Giants blocker. The ensuing scramble, where Harris was there again to knock the ball away from a New Yorker, eventually saw rookie DeVonte Holloman come up with the ball.
Given field position at the Giants 16-yard line, Romo needed only two plays to reach paydirt. After dropping one off to Harris for a 12-yard pickup, he then had plenty of time in the pocket before zipping a ball into Witten cutting across the middle for the score and a 27-10 lead with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Which is far too much time for Manning and his crew. First the quarterback went 80 yards in just 3:11, capping off the eight-play drive with an 18-yard pass to Cruz. Then after Bailey hit a 45-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Giants responded with a seven-play, 90-yard drive that took only 3:23 off the clock. Again Cruz was the spoiler, hauling in a 10-yard pass from Manning to narrow the score to just 30-24 with still over eight minutes left in the game.
The momentum was clearly in the visitors' favor.
And it appeared as if Dallas might fall victim to the same circumstances of 2009, when in the first regular-season game ever played in AT&T Stadium, the Giants came back with a final drive and last-second field goal to win the game, 33-31. [embedded_ad]
But after the two-minute warning, Manning dropped back to pass on first-and-10 at his own 48-yard line and tried to dump off a pass to running back Da'Rel Scott. But the pass bounced off his target's hands and into the waiting arms of Carr, who then took off down the left sideline for a 49-yard return to the end zone. Dallas failed on their 2-point conversion, but the damage was done, the lead up to 36-24.
Not that the Giants wouldn't make it interesting. With the Dallas defense still having trouble coming up with the stop they so desperately needed, Manning drove the field, going 80 yards in nine plays with tight end Brandon Myers making the 4-yard touchdown catch to bring the score to 36-31 with 11 seconds remaining.
That brought it all down to an onside kick, and Dallas sent the fans home happy, as Sean Lee came up with the bouncing ball, the Cowboys securing the win.
Dallas now prepares for their first road game of the young season, traveling to Kansas City next week to take on the 1-0 Chiefs.