EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –Wednesday night was the first game of the NFL season, but for the Cowboys it was a second chance.
The 24-17 win didn't make up for 2011's Week 17 loss to the same Giants, which ended the Cowboys' season, or the Week 14 debacle versus New York at home, or even last year's season opener at the Meadowlands against the Jets. But it was an opportunity to prove to themselves they could win in such circumstances. Ultimately, they solved a problem that plagued them last year, holding a lead in the final minutes.
At long last, this is a new year.
"It's fresh on our memory," owner Jerry Jones said of last season's loss at New York that knocked the Cowboys out of playoff contention. "The areas that they, in addition to Philadelphia exposed for us, in our secondary, our coverage, our interior of our offensive line, we certainly went to that area and tried to address them. We had everything here, a test, for everything we had done (in the offseason)."
Now alone for three and a half days with the best record in football, the Cowboys can savor their victory over the Giants, a group that has seemed to have their number over the last half decade. The Cowboys become the only NFL team to have ever won a game on a Wednesday, and the first team to beat the defending Super Bowl winners in the league's Kickoff Game, which for eight years has been held before opening Sunday as a showcase for the champions.
"We talk a lot about demeanor," head coach Jason Garrett said. "You play the world champs at their place on opening night in the NFL season, there are going to be some things that go well for you, but there's going to be some adversity you're going to have to deal with, too … They didn't blink when things didn't go well for us, and when things did go well for us, we just kept going, knowing that team was going to come back."
The Cowboys' heart was apparent all night, beginning with Jason Witten's fight to get back from an internal injury in time to play in the game, to Kevin Ogletree stepping up as a solid No. 3 receiver. There was heart in DeMarco Murray's return for a big game against the team that ended his rookie season early, in the defense playing without one of its leaders, four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff and on the remade offensive line, which suffered an injury to Phil Costa mid-game and struggled with penalties, but kept making the blocks they had to make to allow for the plays that won the game.
"To come out here and overcome mistake after mistake, against a team that you can't make mistakes with, that's a character builder," Jones said. "It will help us have a better season to have this win."
The offense struggled for most of the first half, but took a 7-3 lead on a 10-yard Tony Romo pass to Ogletree with just over a minute to play in the second quarter. Romo found Ogletree again for a 40-yard score early in the third, starting to take advantage of a New York secondary that was ravaged by injury. Romo finished 22-of-29 for 307 yards and three scores, the final one coming to Miles Austin, back from a preseason-long hamstring injury, to put the Cowboys up by two touchdowns with just under six minutes to play.
Just as they had when facing a two-score deficit late in last year's first meeting, New York answered back quickly, Eli Manning driving for a touchdown to former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett that put pressure on the Cowboys' offense to convert a first down or give Manning a shot at tying the game.
This time the Cowboys moved the sticks, overcoming their 13th penalty of the game with a slant to Ogletree, giving him eight catches for 114 yards on the night.
"Certain things were different," Romo said of this season opener, as opposed to other losses, including Week 1 of last year, when he had crucial mistakes in a collapse against the Jets. "We executed on offense and defense when we needed to, and put them in a hole."
The Cowboys now have extra time to relax and heal up injuries to several of their key veterans before traveling to Seattle for Week 2. The first thing, though, is to revel in a fine start to 2012.
"This bunch persevered," Jones said. "It was a very significant win for our franchise."