EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Here is how good these Dallas Cowboys are, or at least can be.
Opening kickoff, short, and rookie Tony Pollard catches the ball on a bounce, with his momentum carrying him out of bounds at the 12-yard line.
Ensuing first play from scrimmage, Dak Prescott is intercepted, Giants ball at the Cowboys’ 8.
Next possession, Dak mishandles the shotgun snap, no gain.
Next play, holding call on offensive tackle Tyron Smith, wiping out yet another Prescott touchdown pass to Randall Cobb.
Then Pollard drops a screen pass that might have gone for a 17-yard touchdown.
Then on their third possession, Brett Maher misses a 54-yard field goal.
All that during the first quarter in Monday night’s nationally-televised game from here at MetLife Stadium, the Cowboys bumbling around against the New York Football Giants, playing their first game in two weeks.
Next series, Randall Cobb catches a pass for 5 yards and a first down at the Giants’ 32, only to get belted immediately and fumble the ball away.
Then Amari Cooper departs momentarily with a banged up knee. Then a defensive offsides turns a second-and-10 into a first-and-5 for the Giants.
The Cowboys would go on to commit 10 penalties for 104 yards. They would allow Giants receiver Cody Latimer to return six kickoffs for 181 yards, while Maher could only manage two touchbacks on seven kickoffs. They would get caught napping at the 24-yard line, allowing rookie quarterback Daniel Jones to complete a screen pass to Saquan Barkley that the elusive running back took 65 yards.
Yet … yet … despite all this, the Cowboys walked out of MetLife Stadium with a convincing 37-18 victory over the Giants, moving their record to 5-3 and maintaining their half-game lead over the 5-4 Philadelphia Eagles, with now, after turning that three-game losing streak into a two-game winning streak, only four teams in the NFC owning a better record, and only two of those one game better in the loss column.
“It’s a 60-minute game,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after that Cowboys false start, too, too, reminiscent of what took place during that three-game losing streak.
Good thing it’s an hour long, because as Dak would say, “So many self-inflicted mistakes. We’ve got to get out of our own way. We’re our biggest rivals.”
No kidding. We certainly could make an argument that fictional “rival” is mostly responsible for all three of those losses, the Cowboys inability to overcome themselves. And for the better part of a half Monday night, sure appeared as if the Cowboys hadn’t learned their lesson.
In fact, there was so much Cowboys litter on the field that with 5:53 left in the second quarter, evidently the black cat that came prancing onto the field, creating a brief delay, must have mistaken the MetLife artificial turf for his very own, uh, kitty litter. Because seven plays later the Giants held a 12-3 lead.
“That was a scary cat,” owner Jerry Jones would say the next morning, as scary as the Cowboys’ start to this game.
The Giants, those 2-7 Giants now, losers of five straight and currently six straight to the Cowboys, making an absolute mess out there.
“We just can’t afford to make those mistakes,” Ezekiel Elliott said.
Well, the lurking black cat that appeared to be a bad omen – “I stayed away from it, I’m allergic to cats,” Zeke admitted – turned out to jinx the homestanding Giants. Heck, maybe it was a Jets-owned cat stowed away somewhere in the bowels of MetLife.
Because after that, the Cowboys outscored the Giants 34-6 the rest of the way, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what changed. And it wasn’t any measure of black magic.
First, credit the defense. The Cowboys did to Jones what they should have done to Sam Darnold. They aggressively put pressure on the rookie quarterback. They started to get there with their four-man front. They started blitzing from the very first possession. They ended up sacking Jones five times, the fifth time by Dorance Armstrong, simultaneously forcing the fumble Jourdan Lewis picked up and returned 63 yards for a touchdown.
Free safety Xavier Woods played as if telling the Cowboys you don’t need no Jamal Adams out there, picking off Jones, his return basically setting up Maher’s half-ending 52-yard field goal to give the Cowboys that 13-12 halftime lead.
Woods would also force a Jones fumble in the second half, and the NFL’s sixth-ranked defense held the Giants to just 271 total yards, and Barkley to a humbling 28 yards, matching the fewest yards he’s ever gained in a game he’s finished, and that, too, was against the Cowboys in 2018.
Why, this defense, inspired by the 12-tackle performance from Sean Lee, starting for the injured Leighton Vander Esch, and the debut of defensive lineman Michael Bennett, his energy infectious, would hold the Giants to four field goals in five trips inside the 20-yard line. And one touchdown on two trips inside the 10.
Then, as Zeke would say over and over, credit the offensive line.
“The O-Line played their hearts out,” he said. “They just mauled those guys up front.”
Appropriate use of the word maul.
Zeke ran for a season-high 139 yards, averaging 6 yards per carry, with the Cowboys finishing with 172 rushing yards.
Dak was never sacked once, completing 22 of 35 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns, giving him now 11 touchdowns and 1,049 yards passing in his past three games against the Giants. His 101.7 passer rating is the 28th rating of at least 100 in his fist 56 starts. The three touchdowns also raises his 2019 total at the halfway mark to 15, putting him on pace for a career-high 30 touchdown passes.
And just maybe this game changed for good in the final 1 minute, 5 seconds of the second quarter. First, Giant killer Blake Jarwin took a Dak on-the-move short 9-yard pass 42 yards for a touchdown with 52 second left in the second quarter. Then, on top of that, with the Giants being a little too aggressive for their own good, on third-and-10 from their own 26 with just 39 seconds left in the half, Jones went deep for Darius Slayton, and there was X, playing deep centerfield, rotating over to the sideline for the interception he returned 29 yards to the Giants’ 39 with 25 seconds left in the half.
That became the impetus for Maher’s 52-yarder as time expired to somehow give the Cowboys a 13-12 halftime lead, surely leaving the Giants thinking, What in the world hit us?
Well, the good Cowboys hit ’em but good, driving away the bad Cowboys, those ornery ones they couldn’t quite overcome with mad dashes in the final minutes of all three of those losses.
Now the trick is, as it was for four quarters while whipping the Eagles, 37-10 – that’s back-to-back 37-pointers and five-of-eight 30-point outings in half a season, upping their average to 28.1 points per game after eight games – to play this consistently week to week.
And it’s high team with the likes of 6-3 Minnesota coming up on this short week at AT&T Stadium, then 3-4-1 Detroit and 8-1 New England on the road, followed by 6-2 Buffalo on Thanksgiving.
“And we have to beat those teams to control our destiny,” Dak said.
Jones knows the benefits of that, too.
“Because on this team, everybody knows we’ve got a very good team,” he said. “And we’ve got a chance to compete with the very best down at the end of this thing. A real chance.
“But won’t have a chance if we continue to make those mistakes.”
Can’t beat the likes of those teams if the Cowboys keep beating themselves, too.