Similar story, different ending as Cowboys hold off Giants' comeback attempt
Imagine you watch the Star Wars trilogy for the 100th time, only on this viewing Darth Vader lets Luke Skywalker die. Or at the end of Shawshank Redemption, they catch Andy and throw him back in prison.
That's the type of script flip that occurred late in Sunday night's 36-31 Dallas win over the visiting Giants.
The game opened with Eli Manning throwing an interception on the game's first play. The Giants' second possession ended on a David Wilson fumble, and their third when Manning fired another interception. A second Wilson fumble -- this one scooped up by Dallas' Barry Church and returned for a score -- and a miscue on a punt return pushed the Giants' turnover total to five and helped the Cowboys push their lead to 27-10.
And yet, all it took was one Giants drive and a Manning-to-Victor Cruz TD pass to trim that lead to 10 and set Dallas fans on edge. Manning was, after all, 4-0 at Cowboys (aka AT&T) Stadium, including a 29-24 victory there last season.
With each passing moment late Sunday, that record appeared to inch closer to 5-0. Twice in the fourth quarter the Giants got the ball back, down by six and with a chance to take the lead. The completion of their latest rally -- which would have been the 15th fourth-quarter regular season comeback of Manning's career -- felt inevitable.
Then, in one quick second, the Cowboys exorcised their demons.
On a 1st-and-10 from the Giants' 48, Manning tried to fire a quick pass out to running back Da'Rel Scott -- in because of Wilson's two turnovers -- only to see the ball ricochet off Scott's hand and into the waiting arms of Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr, who raced home for a game-clinching touchdown.
"It's 30-24, ball's at midfield," an agitated Coughlin said afterward, "you've got to go win the game. Got to go win the game."
Normally, the Giants would have done just that. The sloppy finish was one too often reserved for Tony Romo. We've come to expect the opposite from Manning, especially in this rivalry and in this building.
Instead, at least for one night, the Cowboys found a way to get it done.
"The defense wanted to keep them in front of us, find a way to get the ball out," linebacker Sean Lee told NBC's Michelle Tafoya of Dallas' defensive approach late. "And that's what we did."
It took everything Manning had just to get the Giants into that position in the first place. In spite of six total turnovers, he finished with 450 yards passing, with three receivers (Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle) topping the century mark. Cruz found the end zone thrice, once on a 70-yard bomb late in the first half and two more times after the break.
The Cowboys had no answers for him or the Giants' passing attack in the second half.
At least, that is, until the Dallas defensive line stemmed the tide. New York's first possession with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter lasted all of three plays and 42 seconds. Dallas generated pressure up front on every snap, all Manning dropbacks, with Jason Hatcher burying Manning on third down.
Manning picked up a first down once he got the ball back, firing one in to Randle for 26 yards. Carr's pick-six came one play later.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about how well our defense played, that was special," Romo told Tafoya. "More than anything, we haven't created as many turnovers as we would like. That's been our No. 1 mantra in training camp. They've been getting the ball since Day 1 and haven't stopped, so it's exciting."
The 2012 season started in similar fashion for both teams. Three hundred and sixty-eight days ago, the Cowboys waltzed out of the Meadowlands with a hard-fought 24-17 win over New York, only to stumble en route to an 8-8 record.
So Dallas' Sunday night win this time around hardly sets anything in stone for the next 16 weeks of the regular season. When you get right down to it, the outcome may be nothing more than a team holding serve at home against a mistake-prone foe. It felt a little more momentous than that, though, at least for the Cowboys. Maybe because the rest of the story felt so familiar.