It wasn't pretty by any means, but it certainly was thrilling at the end. The Cowboys, who gave up 17 points on three turnovers and scored one of their touchdowns after an excruciatingly bad pass interference call, pulled out a sloppy, 27-26 win over the Giants when Tony Romo hit tight end Jason Witten with an 11-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left in the game. The Cowboys were able to drive down the field because Eli Manning made the inexplicable decision to throw the ball out of Dallas' end zone with 1:43 remaining, leading to a Giants field goal and enough time for Dallas to assemble an offense that had rarely been seen through the rest of the game. The winning drive went 72 yards in 1:27, and it was as weird as anything else seen in the inaugural Sunday Night Football contest of the 2015 season.
“I had a lot of practice when I had Andre Gurode at center in 2007 and 2008,” Romo told NBC's MIchele Tafoya after the game, referring to the fact that he had to pick the ball up off the ground before the game-winning throw. “Cowboy fans will know that. But at that point, you really have no choice. It comes down to a play or two, and I felt comfortable with the play. Get calm, pick it up, trust the guys around you to do their job, and they did one hell of a job.”
One could argue that the Cowboys shouldn't have been in this position at all. Romo's two-yard pass to tight end Gavin Escobar with 4:08 left in the third quarter was set up by a ridiculous pass interference call on Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a Romo pass to Terrance Williams. DRC was playing the ball and the receiver cleanly, but it was a 16-yard gift for Dallas—a penalty that turned a third-and-four into a first-and-goal. It was one of many buffooneries by Bill Vinovich's crew (Vinovich's inability to coordinate with the game clock operator in the fourth quarter was the stuff of a Zucker Brothers movie), but it kept the Cowboys alive.
“We didn't play great in a lot of areas,” Romo said. “But ultimately, at the end of the day, it comes down to the final eight minutes every week. And either you're comfortable in those situations, or you're not. And our team strives to be very comfortable—we work at that a lot. You've gotta believe.”
It was hard to believe a lot of what we saw on Sunday night, but the Cowboys eked out a win, and the Giants will have to travel home knowing that this was a game that should have been theirs.
Three thoughts on why and how this crazy game turned out the way it did:
1. Tony Romo's stat sheet doesn't tell the whole story: Romo finished the night with 36 completions on 45 attempts for 356 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, but a lot of those completions were little dump-offs to running backs, tight ends and slot receivers. His two interceptions would have been killers in a game that wasn't as odd as this one. To be fair, Romo didn't have the full services of Dez Bryant, who was pulled from the game in the first quarter due to dehydration, and later broke a bone in his foot—an injury that, according to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, will have the team without hteir best receiver for four-to-six weeks. The key man in Dallas' uneven offense was running back Joseph Randle, who proved that he could be a consistent weapon, if not in the way that 2014 NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray was. Randle caught three balls for 42 yards, and running back Lance Dunbar tied Witten for the team lead in receptions with eight for 70 yards. Witten caught two of Romo's three scoring passes, with all three going to tight ends. Bryant caught five passes for 48 yards, and if this is the last we've seen of him for a while, Scott Linehan will really have to pull out all the stops to keep things moving
2. The Giants did a lot on their own to lose this game: “There's no one to blame but me,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said of the decision to throw the ball and give the Cowboys more time near the end of the game. “It was not a good decision, and it should have been a run, whether we scored or not. The clock would have at least given us an opportunity to take a few more seconds off. We wouldn't have had the points... That was a bad decision on my part. Nobody else to blame."
Say what you will about Coughlin's game management, or the officiating, but the real issue here was Eli Manning's inability to stay on the same page with his receivers. Odell Beckham, Jr. caught just five passes on eight targets for 44 yards. Like Romo, Manning didn't have his best guy on full-go— Beckham appeared to be concussed in the first quarter after a vicious hit from safety J.J. Wilcox, but he did not appear to participate in the league's allegedly bulletproof concussion protocol after the play. Outside of that, Manning was under pressure a great deal behind an offensive line with several players looking to establish themselves at new positions. Rookie left tackle Ereck Flowers was especially vulnerable to the moves and speed of Dallas first-year pass-rusher Randy Gregory, but more bad news came for the Cowboys in the second half when Gregory left the game with a high ankle sprain.
The good news for the Giants was that a secondary that was racked by injuries last season held up very well. The bad news? Just about everything else looked vulnerable. Manning completed 20 of 36 passes for 193 yards and no touchdowns, frequently sailing his passes off-target. Rashad Jennings led the team with 52 rushing yards, and a defensive line still trying to get past the loss of Jason Pierre-Paul gave Romo all the time in the world, with no sacks and just one quarterback hit.
3. There were some unsung stars: Many people panned the Cowboys for giving defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford a five-year, $45 million extension with 25.7 million guaranteed this week, and maybe the team outpriced itself to a degree, but Crawford was fairly dominant in this game, frequently crashing down on Giants blockers to disrupt plays. When Gregory returns to the field, and Greg Hardy is done serving his suspension, Crawford should have more opportunities to shine. Meanwhile, Giants linebacker Uani' Unga, an undrafted rookie from BYU, not only led all defenders on both sides with 12 tackles, but also showed impressive instincts in pass coverage at times, while second-year Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was often disruptive and showed a real nose for the ball. Finally, the aforementioned Dunbar could be a Reggie Bush-type player in the Cowboys' offense—he has the versatility to line up all along the formation.