Friday, October 21, 2005

O Dallas You Shine With an Evil Light

A tough Texas showdown in the resurgent NFC East, pitting the offensive juggernaut masquerading as the New York Football Giants against the Dallas Cowboys, who served notice around the league last week with their 31-13 thrashing of Philadelphia. As we enter week 7, it is clear that the NFC East is, for the first time in years, both extremely strong and up for grabs. The Giants and the Redskins, the division’s doormats the past couple of years, seem sincere in their changed ways and sit atop the division at 3-1, while the Cowboys and Eagles are just a half game back at 3-2. If the Eagles are as vulnerable as they looked last week, this is anybody’s division, and will be decided in typical NFC East fashion: gritty, hard-fought, bitter games with controversial calls and hurt feelings, the kind of games that either make or ruin a Sunday.

Which brings us to 1:00 at Texas Stadium, the bizarre quasi-dome with those signature shadows. Nobody knows precisely how Texas Stadium came upon its unique architectural feature, this hole in the dome that exposes two-thirds of the field while covering the stands and sidelines. One legend has it that the stadium was constructed with Ed “Too Tall” Jones in mind, the 6-10 Defensive End who anchored the Dallas defense in the 1970s and 80s. Why does the hole only expose the middle two-thirds of the field? Because Jones was a defensive lineman, of course. Cowboy linebacker D.D. Lewis posited another theory: According to Lewis, who played for the Pokes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the hole exists “so that God can watch his team.” Whatever the reason, the partial covering keeps the wind out of the stadium, and on a day like today, 80 degrees at game time and getting hotter, cool breezes are precluded from offering any relief from the withering Texas heat.

But as the campy music ushers in the kickoff, currents of electricity flow through the stadium as Jose Cortez puts the foot to it, and we’re underway. Eli Manning leads the Giants offense onto the field, a unit that has surpassed the wildest of New York’s inflated expectations by ranking as the highest scoring offense in the league, averaging a whopping 34 points per game. Fans of Big Blue have no doubt been doing double-takes for the past two weeks, attempting in vain to get their minds around the fact that the normally staid and stolid Giants can now be described by such terms as dangerous and high-octane, a team that can light up the scoreboard. Year two of the Eli experiment has been a smashing success: the younger Manning ranks fifth in the league with a Quarterback rating of 97.8, ahead of brother Peyton by a considerable margin. He has been well protected by a healthy and effective offensive line, and has found his rhythm with newcomer Plaxico Burress and a healthy, re-energized Jeremy Shockey. With Tiki Barber keeping up his excellence, this is an offense that is clicking on all cylinders, a much-needed shot in the arm for a proud franchise that has looked moribund for the past couple of years.

But they face some strong competition in the Cowboys, who, in year three of the Bill Parcells administration, seem poised to make some serious noise. The surprising offense is led by an aged trio who are all having their best seasons since around 1997 in Quarterback Drew Bledsoe and Wideouts Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn. But it is Dallas’ quick, aggressive defense that really does the heavy lifting, coming off a dominant performance in which they limited Philadelphia’s potent offense to 129 yards.

And this speedy Dallas defense looks like it came to play today, flying around to hold the Giants offense three and out on the first series. Shortly after the ‘Boys take possession, however, Drew Bledsoe muffs the center snap, and with the ball bouncing unpredictably and unpossessed on the plastic grass, Michael Strahan opportunistically pounces on it, giving the Giants a golden opportunity at the Dallas 39.

But the Cowboy defense stiffens as the Giants cannot muster a first down. Jay Feely is brought on to attempt the 50-yard field goal, and the strong-legged free-agent acquisition rewards Coach Coughlin’s confidence by blasting it through the still, humid air, splitting the uprights for a 3-0 Giants lead.

Any lead, however small, has the important effect of tilting a game’s psychological balance, where one team feels a slight but palpable boost of confidence, while the other feels a tension of the same proportions. But with the scoring barrage that the prognosticators expect today, these three points might be merely a drop in the bucket. If the first four games have shown us anything, it is that just as the Giants offense will surely put up points, the Giants defense will surely give up yards. They have given up a somewhat disturbing average of 425 yards per game entering today, but have managed to get off the hook by being the recipient of 14 turnovers.

And so the first few Cowboy series’ are a familiar sight for Giants fans: Drew Bledsoe and his aging receivers Johnson and Glenn are victimizing the Giants ineffectual secondary, accumulating big chunks of yardage, only to squander scoring opportunities with turnovers. These Cowboy turnovers -- combined with two unsuccessful field goal attempts by embattled kicker Jose Cortez -- become gift-wrapped scoring opportunities for the Giants, but the lethargic Giants, perhaps not fully awake after their bye week, can muster only a measly Feely field goal. Midway through the second quarter, despite the Cowboys’ markedly superior play, it is the Giants who have a precarious 6-0 lead.

But furious with the scoreboard and determined not to shoot themselves in the foot, Dallas put together a grinding, methodical, 16-play march that is reminiscent of Bill Parcells’ days with the Giants. Dallas converts three third and shorts on the backpedaling Giants defense, and Drew Bledsoe goes 8 for 9, including an easy flip to Tight End Jason Whitten from the two-yard line for a touchdown. The extra point is tacked on, and Dallas leads 7-6 going into halftime, the scoreboard finally reflecting the fact that Dallas has been the better team today by far. A look at the halftime stats puts this into stark clarity:

First Downs: Dallas 13 - Giants 3
Total Yards: Dallas 207 – Giants 57
Time of Posession: Dallas 18:33 – Giants 11:27

But as the temperature continues to rise, and the Texans settle back in their seats, and the shadows continue their afternoon’s migration across the field, the slate is more or less wiped clean as Jay Feely’s kickoff ushers in the second half. The Giants defense takes the field, and a few plays into the series, a speed-rushing Osi Umenyiora swoops around the bend and knocks the ball from Bledsoe’s hand, getting all ball – if this were basketball, they wouldn’t have called a foul – and the Giants recover for another big break, taking possession at the Dallas 31.

The Giants offense trots out, determined to shuck the dull torpor that has characterized its day. Eli Manning hits the previously silent Jeremy Shockey for a 14 yard gain on first down. But two plays later, a miscommunication between Manning and prized free-agent wideout Plaxico Burress proves disastrous: With Burress running a route in front of two Dallas defenders, Manning expects him to turn back for a pass that will be tightly spiraled in, but Burress continues on his route, vacating the area where the ball was thrown and leaving Manning’s pass to falls into the hands of Dallas cornerback Anthony Henry for an easy interception. A big return brings the ball all the way to midfield, and the Giants’ offense, which has been so crisp for much of the season, continues today’s ineptitude.

But with Dallas ready to bury the Giants, a team that seems to have misplaced its intensity sometime during its bye week, the Cowboys would fall victim to the same malaise as their opponents. Much of the third quarter was characterized by turnovers and abundant penalties on both sides of the ball; it became an enervating, frustrating afternoon for both sides, and a game that was painful to watch for fans of either persuasion. The furious urging of Tom Coughlin and Bill Parcells, two of the sternest taskmasters in all of pro sports, proved no match for the withering heat.

It was Dallas who broke through first, compiling another impressive Parcells classic, another meat-grinder against a Giants defense that seemed just about ready to pack up, leave, and call it a bad day. Starting from their own 10 yard line, Dallas marched all the way down for a first and ten at the Giants 20. As the third quarter gave way to the forth, Dallas seemed poised to expand its lead to eight points, on a day where an eight point lead could be described as commanding. But the Giants defense stiffened in the nick of time, forcing Dallas into a field goal, and keeping this game -- which by some measures is extremely one-sided -- within reach on the scoreboard.

After the Cowboys Jose Cortez kicks off, Eli and his troops trot out, attempting to right the wrongs of the previous three plus quarters. But more misfortune befalls, as Eli is blindsided by LaRoi Glover and fumbles the ball. Dallas recovers at the Giant 30, and once again, America’s Team has a chance to notch a significant, and this time, potentially backbreaking score. But after a couple of first downs, the Giants defense reaches down and keeps Dallas out of the endzone once again. Jose Cortez drills a 28 yard chip shot, to give the frustrated Cowboys a 13-6 lead, a slim margin considering that they’ve thoroughly outplayed their opponents.

But then, finally, with 4:40 to go in the fourth quarter, the sleeping Giants awoke. Eli Manning, who had heretofore resembled the flummoxed and frightened rookie that he was last year, snapped out of his funk and started making plays. Jeremy Shockey, his emotional fire conspicuously absent for much of the day, started catching passes, including a huge one on 4th and 10 that took the Giants down to the Dallas twelve as two minute warning came. Tiki Barber darted down to the Dallas three on the next play, prompting Tom Coughlin to send in his goal line offense, substituting the scatty Tiki for Big Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs was drafted in the fourth round this year for this specific purpose of addressing the Giants short-yardage woes. He has been impressive so far, and has endeared himself to the Meadowlands faithful with his infectious love of contact and punishing runs. Coughlin calls Jacobs number, but after busting through the initial line of defenders, Dallas’ Roy Williams, a lethal hitting safety who doesn’t get outphysicalled by anybody, punches the ball from Jacobs, and we have another live ball on the carpet.

Chaos ensues, the usual chaos of the fumble scramble, except at a more intense pitch, given the situation. After an eternity – or was it five seconds? – of clawing, biting, scratching, and kicking, jubilant white jerseys at the pile’s perimeter exult as the good news is unearthed: Dallas ball, as Texas Stadium erupts.

With 1:18 remaining, Dallas needs only to run a few more plays and convert a first down or two to seal the victory, but the Giants defense, who have stepped up admirably in the second half, stops them three and out. After a Dallas punt, New York takes over at midfield with 52 seconds left. Despite everything, they are still alive.

Eli Manning goes right back to work, displaying the quiet but white-hot fire that Giant fans have become acquainted with this year. He deftly escapes pressure and squeezes in a 28-yard pass to Plaxico Burress before firing to a dragging Jeremy Shockey on the next play, who brings it in, squares his shoulders upfield, and rumbles to pay dirt and a miraculous tie score. Shockey lays on the ground, delirious with exhaustion and euphoria, and the giddy shouting of the visiting Giants bench is the only audible sound in the stunned stadium. Tie game, and we’re going to overtime.

Every football fan has heard that stat that the team that wins the coin toss has only a 52% chance of winning the game, while the team that loses the toss wins 44% of the time, with the remaining games being ties. This offers some comfort to Giants fans as Tiki Barber’s “Heads” call proves wrong, but on a day like today, with the teams exhausted and the momentum fickle… the Giants could’ve used the ball.

And Drew Bledsoe goes right to work, completing a ten yard pass to Patrick Crayton, a 13 yarder to Terry Glenn, and then, the big play, a 26 yard pass to quietly stellar Tight End Jason Whitten on a blown coverage by Giants safety Brett Alexander, moving the ball to the Giants 28. A few plays and two yards later, Jose Cortez comes in for a 45 yard field goal. This is no chip shot for Cortez, who has missed two field goals today and has been positively awful all season long, but this one, from the moment it came off his foot, was splitting the uprights. There is always the vain hope when a fan watches on TV that these types of kick which are obviously on-line will somehow be short, but Cortez’ has plenty of leg. A quick, efficient overtime that was the exact opposite of the long, slog of a mistake-filled game. Dallas wins, 16-13.


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